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Final Arrangements: A time of reckoning for the region's funeral trade

First in a series

Sunday, May 23, 1999

By Gary Rotstein, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Some of their grandfathers toted embalming fluids, cutting tools and cosmetics into people's homes to restore lifelike appearance to the deceased, laid out in their living rooms for visitors.

  George Conroy, of Bethel Park, places flowers for his wife's aunt, Estelle J. Luebbert, at her mausoleum vault in Jefferson Memorial Park in Pleasant Hills. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

Some of their fathers returned from World War II and enrolled in mortuary school on the G.I. bill. They took up a trade that might have seemed too morbid a prospect a few years earlier, before they saw, touched and felt death a few feet away on the battlefield.

Now the men and women running the ubiquitous funeral homes of Western Pennsylvania represent perhaps the last generation of their families to fill that role, consoling bereaved survivors they've known for decades, selling them steel or wooden caskets, dressing their loved ones a last time, greeting their mourners, directing their pallbearers up and down church steps.

The children of these dark-suited souls, who are on 24-hour call to tend to our dead, don't have the same appetite as their parents for "the dismal trade," as it is sometimes called.

And it's not the same industry as it was a generation ago, anyway, either for funeral directors or consumers. There are more competitors for a family's death dollars, more choices in commemorating a loved one's passing, more confusion over when and how to plan death arrangements and whom to plan them with.

Funeral and burial decisions represent the most costly single expense for many families after a house, car and college education, but compared to those others, it's a purchase made with far less time, knowledge, experience and emotional detachment.

Even those who have handled arrangements recently might not recognize that the business and customs of death are much different today from yesterday, and that tomorrow's practices could be even more unrecognizable. Among the developments:

National chains increasingly acquire independent funeral homes and cemeteries across the country, using their greater resources to lure customers away from family-run operations.

Cemeteries work aggressively to sell final arrangements years in advance -- leapfrogging funeral directors for the first crack at customers' checkbooks -- and build their own funeral homes to market themselves as a one-stop shopping benefit to families.

Retail casket sellers operating from storefronts and the Internet siphon off profits of the single most lucrative item in the business.

The country's cremation rate keeps rising, reducing the traditions and profits long associated with death and leaving funeral homes, cemeteries and casket-sellers scrambling for ways to sell mourners on new cremation-related products.

The Catholic church, long involved in the burial business, is moving into the funeral side of death care with a plan that could steer some religious families away from their customary funeral home.

That's a lot of change for consumers to follow and morticians to swallow, considering this is an industry that's always been slow to embrace new ideas.

Fortunately, for Pittsburgh area funeral directors at least, the pace of change here is a lot slower than in other parts of the country, as is often the case culturally. But it doesn't keep the morticians from wondering if they'll be next to follow in the line of butchers, bakers, drugstores and other neighborhood, family-run establishments facing demise.

James D. Hahn, president of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, is one of three funeral home operators in Millvale, which has 4,000 residents. There used to be four homes. He doesn't expect all of the present operations to last a lot longer.

"In a community this size, one funeral home could handle the volume," Hahn said. "You're going to see more and more of that happening."

The death biz is different here. The topography, ethnicity and religious values of Western Pennsylvania created a demand long ago for undertakers serving many particular clienteles. It holds somewhat for their successors today, though less strongly every year as people move and intermarry among religious and ethnic groups.
  More from the series

Quiet! Morticians in training here

Owners change, but names remain

Ordering reprints of "FINAL ARRANGEMENTS"

Final Arrangements, Part II: For Mrs. McNair, tradition guides the journey home

Final Arrangements, Part III: Cemeteries must compete for customers

Final Arrangements, Part IV: Putting a personal stamp on the trip from here to after


It's common most places to find two fast-food restaurants across the street from one another, but Pittsburgh also has establishments like the William F. Conroy Funeral Home and Anthony Kaprive Speer Funeral Home facing each other on Chartiers Avenue in Sheraden.

On the same side of Munhall's Main Street, the Savolskis-Wasik-Glenn and George Irvin Green funeral homes have competed a few yards from one another for more than three decades, like two gas stations separated by just a small side street.

In Carnegie, within a mile stretch, there's still the Bagnato Funeral Home for Italians; Corba for Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox; Leo J. Henney for Irish; Szafranski-Eberlein for Polish; Bradwell & Nirella for Protestants; and Henry R. Henney, no relation to the other Henney home, for a smattering of all those and everyone else.

"I'm not going anywhere, and I'm sure they're going to say the same thing," said Michele Corba Kapeluck, 35, who three years ago took over the funeral home her late father had operated for nearly half a century.

"I didn't want to see the business sold to some Joe Schmo off the street," Corba Kapeluck said of her decision in 1995 to enter the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, primary spawning ground for most local funeral directors.

Allegheny County has more than 500 licensed funeral directors. They're owners and employees of about 200 funeral homes in the county, or nearly the same number as in the entire state of Washington. Pennsylvania has at least twice as many funeral homes as California and nearly as many as New York, two states that dwarf it in population.

Each year, the average Pennsylvania funeral home handles 60 to 70 bodies -- or "calls" as they're known euphemistically in the industry -- compared to 159 for funeral homes nationally. Local funeral homes are smaller and more personally connected with generations of families than is generally true across the United States.

The black population has its own funeral homes, including a heavy concentration around East Liberty, Homewood and Wilkinsburg. The Ralph Schugar and Burton L. Hirsh funeral homes, located in Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, respectively, compete for the Jewish trade.

Most families go back to the same funeral home repeatedly, whatever their ethnic or religious background. In a 1995 national survey, nearly half the respondents said the most important reason for selecting a funeral home was previous service, with proximity the next factor. That would hold even more in a place where families have kept their longtime roots, and where physical barriers break off adjacent communities.

"It's community-oriented here," said third-generation funeral director Jim Stover. "I'm here in Crafton, but I don't get many funerals from Green Tree, which is just five minutes away."

Even if they don't know one another, an emotional bond often develops between a survivor handling arrangements and a caring funeral director, considering the quick work that must be done in the midst of grief or shock.

Christine Boulanger, of Stockdale, Washington County, hadn't met Charleroi funeral director Marguerite Melenyzer until Melenyzer handled arrangements for Boulanger's 23-year-old son, who died in a drowning accident in 1997. Boulanger and her ex-husband were unconcerned with costs, spending nearly $10,000 overall on funeral and burial expenses, and Melenyzer was a valuable guide and source of support.

  Jan B. Jefferson, supervising funeral director of Jefferson Memorial Funeral Home, stands in front of the chapel window in the 6-year-old home, the only one in Allegheny County that is on the grounds of a cemetery operation. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

"She was one of the most compassionate people I ever met, and paid attention to every detail," Boulanger said, recalling how Melenyzer herself cried over the death of the young man she never knew.

Such lavish appreciation for help getting through the death and grieving process is far more typical than complaints about funeral directors. A survey by the Center on Aging at the University of Kansas Medical Center found that 94 percent of those who recently handled funeral arrangements in the Kansas City area believed they were treated very well by the funeral home staff.

Mercedes Bern-Klug, research director for the survey, believes people's lack of background about funeral costs has a lot to do with their satisfaction.

"These [survey] respondents have dealt with someone who has responded very well emotionally, who is good at hearing people and letting them know they've been heard," she said. "The families who aren't sure what to expect feel they are treated very well -- what they don't understand is that they are paying for it."

The National Funeral Directors Association reports that the average cost of funeral services and a casket in 1997 was nearly $4,800. A burial plot, burial vault to contain the casket, grave opening fee and monument typically cost a family several thousand additional dollars.

Bern-Klug and others believe that consumers are at a huge disadvantage in dealing with funeral homes. Besides their unfamiliarity with the merchandise, services and regulations involved, they have little time to compare costs and must make decisions at an emotional time. The Kansas City survey found about half the people making arrangements had no idea in advance what kind of costs to anticipate for different parts of a funeral and burial.

"This whole business is based on the mortician having dealt with families day after day, week after week, knowing exactly what buttons to push" to manipulate consumers, said the Rev. Henry Wasielewski of Arizona, founder of the Interfaith Funeral Information Committee.

Wasielewski, who rails against funeral and casket prices on an Internet site and national television appearances, was the guest speaker last week at the Pittsburgh Memorial Society's annual meeting. The title of his speech: "You Can Help Stop the National Funeral Rip-Off!"

He's but one critic of an industry whose reputation has been under attack since the 1963 publication of Jessica Mitford's best-seller, "The American Way of Death." The book portrayed funeral directors as schemers interested in fleecing the bereaved at the same time they superficially soothed them.

The Federal Trade Commission spent a decade investigating alleged abuses in the field before imposing consumer-oriented regulations over the directors' objections in 1984. The Funeral Rule is supposed to assist comparison shopping by requiring that prices be provided over the phone and that written price lists be handed to anyone who comes in the door to discuss services.

The FTC has found about 90 percent of funeral homes in compliance with the requirements, but consumer advocates say the public is largely unaware it even has such rights. Fewer than half the adults over age 30 have ever made funeral arrangements, according to a 1995 industry survey. That inexperience contributes to public suspicion of industry practices, though statistics and surveys can sometimes reflect a more favorable view.

Some 128,000 deaths a year occur in Pennsylvania, and the State Board of Funeral Directors recorded 215 complaints from the public or peers about morticians in 1998. Unprofessional conduct, false advertising and unlicensed practice represented the biggest problems, and the board fined, suspended or reprimanded 35 funeral directors.

The attorney general's consumer protection bureau, which can investigate allegations of misconduct separately, logged 43 complaints from senior citizens about funeral homes last year. Fifteen other industries were the subject of more complaints from seniors. Among consumers overall, the volume of funeral-related complaints didn't make the top 20.

In an American Association of Retired Persons survey that asked people 50 and older about their level of trust in 15 different industries, funeral homes ranked seventh best -- worse than drugstores and places selling hearing aids but better than phone companies, car dealers, telemarketers and others.

Many people probably have heard at least one acquaintance's complaints with a funeral home, even if their own served them well. In the case of Danell Pepson, of Chalk Hill, Fayette County, her own funeral director failed her.

She spent $4,500 on her grandmother's copper casket and funeral in 1983. Seven years later, she realized her grandmother's remains were seeping malodorously out of a mausoleum crypt in a Uniontown cemetery. Something had gone wrong with either the embalming or the casket, and the funeral director found out about it before Pepson and tried to cover it up without informing her. She sued, and reached a court settlement with him and the casket manufacturer, but is still bitter.

"I learned that what you're getting is a container, and you don't need to spend large sums of money to show someone you loved them," Pepson said. "I'm going to be cremated, quickly and simply, and that's totally different from what I would have thought before this happened. I don't want someone crying over me, trying to spend lots of money to show they loved me."

Funeral directors here say they rely on their reputation so much that they couldn't possibly mislead families about their options.

"If I take advantage of a family, it's going to be all over Crafton the next day," said Stover, who runs the Hershberger-Stover home there.

  James D. Hahn, president of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, prepares a casket for viewing at the Healy-Hahn Funeral Home in Millvale, one of three he operates in the area. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

He said public image is crucial to a funeral home's success, and that's part of the reason that the buildings in which we pay last respects are typically among the most impressive and well-maintained in any community.

Many of those in the field today grew up in those same homes, playing more quietly than most kids so as not to disturb their fathers and the grieving families below. Playtime might mean lining up their toy cars in the form of a funeral procession, and their fathers would put them to work eventually washing hearses or directing traffic outside the home on busy evenings of visitation.

"Being in a funeral service family, you're drawn into it," said Richard C. Beinhauer, whose four-location funeral business is one of Western Pennsylvania's biggest and oldest. "That's where my father lived and slept. My dad was a people guy -- he had more friends than anyone I know. I saw the reactions people had to him, and I guess that's what endeared me to what he did."

Funeral directors, whose salaries averaged $57,304 nationally in 1996 if they owned a funeral home and $33,355 as employees, generally say they're in the field because of satisfaction in helping families. They note that many take calls at all hours to pick up bodies and make funeral arrangements, whether interrupting Christmas dinners, postponing vacations or making intangible sacrifices.

Funeral directors help compensate for such intrusions with a professional service fee that is part of almost every billing, making up for their overhead and the time they and their staff put into serving a family. That charge averages $1,079 nationally, the second most expensive part of a funeral to the casket, which averages $2,176.

The Funeral and Memorial Societies of America, a consumer group that encourages direct cremation and low-cost simplicity in death arrangements, criticizes the professional service fees. Those fees developed after the 1984 Funeral Rule forced morticians to itemize their costs instead of lumping them all into a single casket charge, as was common previously.

"I know of no other industry permitted to charge a cover charge unrelated to the goods and services selected. ... They're charging the public waiting-around-until-you-die time. The consumer essentially gets nothing for that fee," contends Lisa Carlson, executive director of the national society.

Funeral directors say they'd have to recover their overhead and staff costs one way or another, whether with the service fee or by raising all of their other prices. Casket prices are already marked up two to three times over wholesale costs, as a general rule in the industry.

If consumers want to shop around, they can find variations in all of the costs, from the thousands of dollars spent on caskets on down to the $15 or so for a crucifix to go inside it. Some firms with lower professional service fees charge more than others for caskets or other options, and those with high service fees might charge less for the rest.

Price lists from a sample of 10 Pittsburgh area funeral homes found a range in professional service fees from $705 at Jefferson Memorial Funeral Home in Pleasant Hills to $1,615 at H.P. Brandt in Ross; a range in embalming fees from $225 at Jefferson to $550 at Schugar; a range for a day's charge for visitation from $125 at West Funeral Home in the Hill District to $589 at Beinhauer.

By shopping around, people can figure out what funeral home near them might offer the best price, depending on the type of funeral they want. As with most decisions in life -- or death -- prices aren't all that matter.

And people will invariably realize that it's not cheap to die, no matter how they go about it.

"I know why I charge what I do, but I can't justify the cost of a funeral to myself, let alone those I serve," acknowledged Clark Dearth, a third-generation funeral director in New Salem, Fayette County.

"I see the work I have to put in, and I probably make $2.25 an hour for all the time I put in, but the people who come in here, they can't understand that," Dearth said. "What can you say, regardless of your own feelings, when they've lost a loved one and all you've had is a little aggravation or stayed up all night."

Tomorrow: The funeral and burial of Jane McNair.

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