—Gere Fulton, president, FCA of South Carolina
Last spring The State newspaper published an op-ed column that I wrote about the persecution of a local tradesman who was being threatened by two state government entities for building and selling wooden caskets. (Circling the Hearses, May 2, 2013) Mike White, a farrier by trade, had been issued Cease and Desist orders by both the Board of Funeral Service (BFS) and the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), and was being threatened with a fine of up to $10,000 by the latter if he didn’t stop selling his $300 simple wooden caskets to families who wanted to bury their dead on farmland in Swansea. In a step that some might regard as extortion, the DCA informed him that he could avoid going to trial by immediate payment of $750. In essence it was “Pay now and this will go away…or you could hire a lawyer and take your chances at trial.”
After that column was published, and letters were sent to the administrator at DCA, they decided to drop the complaint and acknowledged, in a tersely-written letter, that White hadn’t broken any laws. They stopped short of apologizing for any “inconvenience” or anxiety they might have caused by their baseless accusation.
The complaint about Mr. White’s caskets had been filed by an area funeral director who was doubtlessly motivated by a fear that cheap caskets were a threat to one of the biggest profit-makers in his business. Unfortunately, neither he nor the DCA seemed to understand that what Mr. White had been doing wasn’t a violation of the regulations on the “pre-need” sale of funerals, something that DCA would grudgingly admit several months later. Mr. White never obtained a license for a “retail casket sales outlet,” the control of which lies in the hands of the funeral director-controlled BFS, because they would have required him to “have on display at all times six adult caskets” and maintain “clean and accessible public restrooms.” The BFS has been fighting to keep the residents of the Midlands from purchasing inexpensive caskets since the first retail casket store was proposed in Columbia in 2000. At that time they wanted to impose a $100,000 bond on the retailer.
Mike White no longer sells $300 caskets to the public. Instead, he sells his caskets to Memorial Design, a monument store in Lexington, to which his friend Michael Bishop, the developer of South Carolina’s second green cemetery (Dust to Dust), refers families in search of a simple, yet dignified, burial to purchase them. And now the BFS has decided to turn their trocars on Michael Bishop. Although they have no evidence that he has been selling caskets—he hasn’t and they allege none in their Cease and Desist order—they demand that he stop doing so.
The BFS is composed of 11 members. Nine of the eleven are licensed funeral directors, the other two are “general public” members appointed by the Governor. Isn’t it time that our state employees and their funeral director bosses begin serving the people of South Carolina and not serving them with C & D orders?
Earlier this year Governor Haley created a Regulatory Review Task Force and directed all of the state agencies to review their regulations and identify those that might be eliminated to create a more business-friendly environment in the state. When the Task Force held a public hearing in Columbia, on July 12, the Funeral Consumers Alliance was there to urge them to remove the sale of caskets from the control of the BFS. The funeral industry has, until recently, had a monopoly on the sale of caskets and, because of that, purchasers are subjected to a “mark-up” that may be as high as 400-600 percent! The National Funeral Directors Association recently reported that the median cost of a casket was $2,395.
In South Carolina, as in most states, there are no regulations on the manufacture of caskets and caskets are not even required for burial. You may build your own casket, purchase one on the Internet, and they are even available at Walmart and Costco—but that won’t last much longer if the BFS is successful. They have been busy working to persuade those nationwide retailers from delivering a casket to anyone with a South Carolina mailing address. One is compelled to wonder whether this state agency, funded by the taxpayers, is working for us or if its sole purpose is the economic security of the funeral industry.
Dr. Fulton is the president of the Board of Directors of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Carolina (www.scfunerals.org). He can be reached at email@example.com.