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Is Nantucket a bellwether for the funeral industry?

Update 8/6/14 — Despite lobbying efforts by funeral home and cemetery industry groups, a bill passed by the Massachusetts legislature will allow Nantucket residents to form a non-profit funeral service on the island. The bill exempts Nantucket from certain laws that would impede their plans, such as requiring a chapel in all funeral establishments. Read about the bill here

The New York Times ran a fascinating story July 13 about the closure of Nantucket Island’s only funeral home. This is causing residents logistical problems, as bodies have to be shipped off the island by ferry to a mainland funeral home.

But on Feb. 14, the day of Ms. Davis’s funeral, New England was digging out from a huge snowstorm and bracing for the next. Foul weather forced the cancellation of the ferry that was to bring Ms. Davis home. Her body spent almost a month on the mainland at the funeral home, but suspended in what her daughter called a heartbreaking limbo.

What’s interesting to us, though, is how the story highlights two foundational problems in the American funeral industry:

1. The vast oversupply of funeral home relative to the population
2. Anti-competitive hearse-circling from the organized funeral industry

Most people don’t realize that the US has almost twice as many funeral homes as it would need to adequately serve the population while providing a good living for the funeral home and staff. In some states there are four to five times as many as needed.

Unlike in other sectors, like restaurants, more rooftops doesn’t lead to price competition. It’s just the opposite. A restaurant can find ways to keep you coming back for meal after meal. But a funeral home can only sell you one funeral, no matter how good their marketing. There’s a fixed, absolute number of deaths per capita. The more funeral homes there are, the fewer calls there are to go around. So prices go up. Or, as Nantucket’s experience shows, some are finally going out of business.

The Times notes Nantucket’s loss of its only funeral home “inspired some to redouble their efforts to establish a nonprofit funeral service here.” Of course, there’s a but:

But they are being opposed by powerful organizations representing Massachusetts’ cemeteries and funeral directors. Those groups say Nantucket’s efforts could open the door for other towns to set up their own funeral homes, which, they say, would undermine state regulations and even threaten public health. Local officials say those arguments are specious and that the organizations are simply worried about losing business.

“Public health.” “State regulations.” These are the funeral trade groups’ favorite excuses for opposing any and all potential competition. The local officials are right; these arguments are specious. Funeral homes are not part of the public health infrastructure despite the industry’s century-long campaign to elevate itself to the prestige-level of physicians. Contrary to popular belief, dead people are not a public health menace (those of us still top-side are the ones who spread disease, not the inert dead). It should embarrass the industry that its trade associations are still peddling this unscientific nonsense. And it’s not plausible that they simply don’t know any better. They do, but they are willing to pretend otherwise because they know that connecting “dead bodies” with “health” provokes an emotional fear response from the public. So much the better for a retail sector that wants to own everything we do with our dead.

Nantucket citizens deserve praise for ingenuity and compassion. Launching a nonprofit funeral service to take care of their own is in the best traditions of rural self-sufficiency and neighborly care. Undertakers’ trade groups should be ashamed of standing in the way. Especially when it’s their creaking, antique business model that got Nantucket where it finds itself today.

Interested in how the funeral industry uses the lawmaking process to make your funeral more costly? Read “Circling the Hearses,” the first chapter from Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death.


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