The Funeral Industry & Creating Disgruntled Outsiders

     This post comes from my experience trying to study the funeral industry, how many companies actively keep people out, creating 'outsiders'.  Which explains why most studies of the industry are negative and done without input or involvement from the industry.

    When first looking into the industry I was surprised by the lack of information on the funeral industry itself.  So far I have only found one journal article about the funeral industry itself and the concepts within it.  When i tell people about this lack of stuff on the industry they often dispute it.  Replying that there is plenty out there.  Unfortunately almost none of this stuff is on exploring the funeral industry but on something else completely.  These things are about death, mourning, funeral ceremonies, autobiographies of personal stories, business, historic in perspective, and so on.  Not about the funeral industry itself as it is today, which is something I will get into another time.

    Essentially the few things on the industry itself are 'expose' or 'uncovering' in nature.  They look at the negatives of the industry, focusing on high costs, impersonal service and so on.  The book 'Funeral Rights' (2007) by Larkins is a perfect example of this.  It is the only book about the Australian funeral industry for the most part.  And yes, I know Jalland has some very good books and articles, but they are about mourning and from a history perspective.  For all intensive purposes the only book I know of about the modern Australian funeral industry is 'Funeral Rights'.

    Much like the infamous 'American Way of Death' this book is rather critical of the industry.  Focused on how things cost so much and how corporations coldly push sales while ignoring the personal element.  The only book on the Australian funeral industry and the most famous book on the American funeral industry are both similar in how they are critical exposes of the industry.

    There are two interrelated key issues with this style of publication in this context, which I will explain by focusing on Larkins 'Funeral Rights'.  Firstly, this book was written from an outsiders perspective completely for outsiders.  This is not bad in or of itself, but it gives a bias and sometimes untrue account of the industry.  There are a lot of assumptions and misconceptions which someone from the industry would notice.

    Secondly, this book was clearly written without any input from the industry.  Not only are there mistakes someone with actual experience would pick up on.  But it also has nothing from the industry, such as an explanation for what it condemns as high prices.  With only slight engagement with funeral staff I have found that things cost a lot, but profits are low.  Generally the item might be marked up several times, maybe 400%.  Yet the funeral home only makes a small profit from each thing.

    There is almost nothing which engages with the funeral industry or companies within it.  A rather concerning thing when you think about it.  As currently public discussion and studies are written by outsiders and bias against the funeral industry.  The industry has little to no public voice so far.  But my experiences in approaching the industry over the year gave me a big clue as to why this was the case.  And why most studies were negative to a personal level.

    As part of the blog and in preparation for honours next year I have contacted a lot of funeral homes in Sydney.  Over 20 funeral homes, plus several other funeral related companies such as crematoriums or transfer companies.  So far only two funeral homes have actually worked with me, under 10% of places I contacted have engaged with me.  A rather low number when you think about it.

    Many companies are doing more than simply not working with me.  They are distancing themselves, and rudely in some cases, here's an example of a company I phoned.  I spoke with a receptionist, who sounded positive and said the boss was free so she would put me through.  I waited for a bit, then the receptionist came back and said the boss was bosy.  She continued to say how the company was too busy to work with me at all.  So I explained that I could wait a month or more, that there was no rush and it involved little to no work on their end.  This was followed by an awkward pause before she said how they were only getting busier as time went on.  That the company would not be able to work with me in anyway due to being too busy.

    Rather than just say no they made up an excuse and the boss did not even talk to me directly.  In about 70% of cases the person I spoke with sounded very positive, took my details and said they would call me back.  A few months later there is no call back one way or the other.  Another funeral home kept saying to call back "next Monday" as they were too busy to consider my request right then.  After about five weeks of this I gave up.

    Only about 20% of the time was the company polite.  One funeral home was incredibly nice, saying how they supported the idea but due to insurance issues and being too small they were not comfortable with working with me.  The fact that companies said 'no' is not the issue at all, if anything I expected it. But the way most places have been completely dismissive or rude is not a nice impression of the industry.

    For the record, the places who have been nice, respectful and positively considering my working with them are: Lady Anne Funerals, Walter Carter Funerals, InvoCare, Divinity Funerals and Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park.  While only two of these companies have worked with me (that is Lady Anne and Walter Carter) the rest have been spectacular.  Encouraging, positive and above all respectful.  Even if they say 'no' I will still be incredibly happy with how they have treated me.

    For the most part I have been treated like an outsider, and a threat at that.  Many places react quite negatively with what I am up to, even the simple idea of studying the industry.  If it were not for the five companies above, and having worked in the industry I would have a negative impression of the industry.  From my interactions so far the vast majority of places have not just rejected me, but treated me like a threatening outsider.  Looking over these notes I realised how it was not unreasonable for people to do negative expose style studies of the industry.  After all, if they had approached funeral companies they would have been refused 90% of the time and treated rudely about 70% of the time.  From this one with limited experience could quite easily and justifiably think the industry had something to hide.  As well as be personally insulted by the industry.

    I began to realise why the studies are so critical of the industry.  Why people (wrongly) assume the funeral industry is a deceptive and dirty thing out to make money off the grieving.  Because the funeral industry is actively creating and encouraging this perception.  The industry is distancing people, treating them as threatening outsiders.  These people are then limited by the industry, only able to see a secretive and paranoid side.  So far I have collected a lot of negative information about the industry.  Such as things companies have done wrong or should not have done.  Collecting this information is rather easy and simple.  But getting the other side, talking to the companies and engaging with them has been rather difficult.

    The funeral industry complains of these bias and unfair studies, but it made them.  Here I have become critical of the industry in a way.  Because the industry is in a sense the main culprit in creating and reinforcing the negative misconceptions of the industry.  Something which should be corrected,  but will only change by the industry making its own changes.  It is not unreasonable or unexpected to have people think negatively when treated negatively.  Essentially the industry creates disgruntled outsiders then complains of the studies they produce.  Which is more unreasonable than the bias studies.


On a side note: I will not be negative towards companies who treat me rudely or do not work with me.  That simply is not how I roll or what I am trying to do.  Instead I will not involve those companies in my research or the blog.  Which should be in keeping with their wishes, even though I feel it is somewhat short sighted.  After all, I am becoming part of the academic system, writing one of the first social sciences papers on the industry, active in the funeral industry and now have more traffic to this blog daily than many companies get monthly.  If they do not wish to have a say in that then I will not force it upon them, as to do so would be rather inconsiderate and unfair.  Nor will their lack of involvement swing me towards an unfair study as I know the funeral industry is not a bad industry.

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