Where is the dignity and integrity in the death and burial business?
By Starla Vaughns Cherin
(First in a Four Part Series)
While Carlton Dixon and his mom were being driven in a limo to bury his dad at Sunset Memorial Gardens, he was receiving phone calls from the cemetery’s salesmen to sell him the plot next to his father. The pressure didn’t stop there. A day after the funeral, a sales-woman phoned his grieving 80-year-old mother.
Dixon said, “When they called on the way to the funeral, I told them, ‘This is inappropriate. It’s not the time to force us to buy a plot (for my mother); that we are still grieving.’ And she told me, ‘Oh! I understand. I’ll call you when you get home because I just know you’ll want to take care of this.’
“It was too soon to approach my mother with something like this right after my father’s death. When she called when I wasn’t home, she went behind my back, pushing my elderly mother to do something against my will, when I had already spoken with her about it,” said Dixon.
The hard sell during mourning is a tactic used by corporations that own both funeral homes and cemeteries. Sunset Memorial Gardens is one of the five cemeteries owned by the City of Fort Lauderdale and managed by Carriage Services a publically traded company. The Cemetery System Board of Trustees is an advisory board of 10 appointed by the mayor and city commissioners, and oversees the maintenance and operations of the properties and its Perpetual Care Trust Fund, which it invests.
Carriage Services operates 163 funeral homes in 25 states and 32 cemeteries in 12 states. It is the fourth largest publically traded burial company and is a significant provider of pre-funded funeral and burial services and pre-planned purchase of interment rights, gravesites, mausoleums, and crypts. By the end of 2014, the company plans to increase its annual revenue by 43 percent.
It’s smart business and increases the City’s revenues. The City purchased the 30-acre Sunset Memorial Gardens in 1959. In 2012, the City Commission voted on a $100 price increase for all types of burials and a $100 increase to purchase a plot, which now starts at $2,195 to $3,795. Discounts for City residents and veterans still apply.
Once Dixon buried his father, he encountered another problem with the staff at Sunset Memorial Gardens. He wanted to erect a headstone that included a picture of his father with his favorite truck. He chose Angelic Monuments, a Black owned business, for the job.
“That’s when it became up-roarious,” Dixon says. “When I tried to discuss what I wanted, they tried to persuade me in what they wanted me to have. If you try to get too into the prices and saying you want to compare it was like, No! You want to do it this way.
“We looked at different areas in the cemetery,” he adds. “Different areas and plots have different prices. The area I wanted to put him in, she said was sold out. She showed me another area I believe because she was angling for me to purchase the double plot. To be honest with you. it doesn’t matter whether my mom and dad are side-by-side because they won’t know.
“They clearly didn’t want me to use Angelic Monuments, Dixon went on to say, “because they told me her product was inferior to theirs. They gave her a hard time. They removed the temporary marker that was sup-posed to mark the grave for 90 days. He was buried on the corner and I remembered the tree as a marker. I walked off the tree four steps. If you don’t make a visual for yourself, it is hard to find even with the grounds keepers’ help and numbers on the pavement. They got upset because they had to go back out there. If you stop them in the middle of doing something, they will make you wait.”
It took a year for Dixon to receive the monument he had originally requested.
“It was a little over a year when they were through with the red tape, going down there for every little thing and they didn’t really say what the problem was. I wanted a solid price for the headstone., They were higher and not at that time, but it was later on, that I came to find out they were over-priced. The size they were selling for a child was an adult price.
“It seems they didn’t want her to do what she needed to do. Afterwards, they didn’t apologize to me and I know they didn’t to her either,” Dixon says.
Angelic Monuments owner Gina Hankerson installed her picture monuments at Sunset Memorial Gardens before but began to encounter problems. Each cemetery has its specifications for monuments and by law, no cemetery may:
1. Charge a fee for the installation of a monument purchased or obtained from and to be installed by a firm other than the cemetery company or its agents.
2. Require any firm that installs, places, or sets a monument to obtain any form of insurance, bond, or surety or make any form of pledge, deposit, or monetary guarantee as a condition for entry on or access to cemetery property.
Hankerson says, ”They denied him the type of marker he wanted for his father for a year. I sent in the specifications for their approval prior to the transaction. I think because they were pretty and affordable they had a problem. I make them afford-able not deliberately trying to undersell. I didn’t know what their prices were.
“They gave me a hard time,” she adds, “about giving the information. They said I could only get information if I had someone buried there. The manager hung up on me. You notify them before and expect that area to be flagged for your installers but it never is. There was an hour wait before anyone came to set the place apart with a flag. They claimed no one was available. We gave them a week’s notice before we come to install.”
Josh Slocum, national president of Funeral Consumer Alliance says this is the trend. “If it is a national company and publically traded, you are not the real customer. The stock-holders are their real customers. The bottom line is different than if you are using a non-profit, independent, or family-owned company,” says Slocum.
Each state is different. Historically, city owned cemeteries were non-profit. They still are in New York, New Jersey, the New England states, and Wyoming. Though burial and plot purchases still apply, prices tend to be more reasonable. According to the state’s regulations, it’s done “for the protection of their citizens and to promote public welfare.”
“The cemeteries are owned by states, cities and towns for the public good,” says Slocum. “It is not considered a profit venture. By law, they have to remain non-profit. A company like Carriage Services can’t come in and start running it. It’s started out non-profit and citizens kept it that way.
“For profit is different and new and it troubles me potentially,” he adds. “Owned for the public good means there are much more moderate prices because they are not in the business of making a profit. They don’t want to lose money, but they are not trying to get rich. I can understand the maintenance being outsourced but it is taxpayer-funded land. To take a Wall Street firm and make money off it what does it do for the tax payer? I’d look at the terms of the contract between the city and the company and the prices before Carriage Services and after.”