The opening earlier this year of the first of nine Stewart Enterprises mortuaries on the grounds of the Los Angeles Archdiocese cemeteries consummates in brick and mortar one of those win-win deals that Big Church and Big Business moguls are famous for. His Eminence & Grace, the archbishop of Los Angeles, the regional director of the oldest conglomerate in the Western world, will get an undisclosed amount of rent--a kind of finder's fee--while Stewart, third largest among the mortuary merger-and-acquisition firms, headquartered in New Orleans, gets 4 million new contacts for its telemarketers and memorial "counselors." Synergy is what they call such happy and holy alliances. If Stewart does well with the cemeteries, maybe they'll take over personnel. Perhaps their sales teams can do temp work in pulpits.

Not invited to the bargaining table were the area's Catholic consumers, who will be staked out, stalked, junk-mailed, cold-called, and finally "counseled" into prepaying for future funerals with clerical imprimaturs.

Similar deals have been cut in Arizona and elsewhere between bishops and Service Corporation International (SCI), the McMortuary giant of Houston, Texas, which boasts--like Holy Mother Church, like Stewart Enterprises--branch operations all over the globe. It seems conglomeration is all the rage. Spreading the Word and sharing the wealth, like corporate and ecclesiastical "cover," have a long if oftentimes checkered history. The church already does banking and health care and religio-tourism. And if the traffic in souls is off, the traffic in bodies is reliably steady. The corruptible can put on incorruption and, needless to say, vice-versa.

Meanwhile, the Orlando Sentinel reports the efforts of Father David Scotchie and Sister Joyce Rohlik of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Winter Park, Fla., to steer consumers away from SCI- and Stewart-owned firms in that area because of "sticker shock." Apparently, the SCI and Stewart firms charge 40% more than the local independent ones.

And the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs has forced SCI to sell some of its properties there to break up their monopoly of Jewish funeral homes.

What, as St. Paul asked famously, are we to say to such things?

Caveat emptor! seems sensible. Or plan but don't pay, or shop but don't sign. Or Lord have mercy on us all!

The alliance by which big business provides corporate cover to churches while big churches provide moral and ethical cover for hard sell businesses is an especially unholy one.

The pre-arrangement of funerals has been around since the pyramids; the pre-funding of same, since money was stuffed in the mattress to pay for awake. But the hard-sell preselling of funeral merchandise and services is a late-20th-century invention, driven not by consumer demand but by the cash-hunger of the publicly traded multinational firms that believe money in the bank is a better guarantee of future market share than the public trust--something that is earned by diligent service over time. The pre-need sales transaction--the brainchild of the conglomerate death-care companies--fueled by commissions and quotas and scripted pitches--has separated the sale of funerals from the delivery of services. In doing so, it has diminished the face-to-face, name-on-the-sign accountability from which consumer protection and public trust proceed.

Pre-need funerals are sold on the odd logic that someone who will take advantage of your grief six hours after a death can be trusted with your money six months or six years before one. And on the cynical and more subtle notion that we "should not be a burden to our children," as if our children were not a burden to us--a blessed, God-given burden, the bearing of which makes life meaningful.

Death is not a retail event. It is an existential one. And a pre-paid funeral does not preempt grief. Nor can a casket or a crypt or perpetual care get you into heaven or keep you out--whomever is buying or selling the wares. And just because it costs about the same as a trip to Disneyland, doesn't mean it ought to be marketed like one.

Of course, the deal between the L.A. archdiocese and Stewart is probably "just business." When things go wrong, when consumers complain, each can hide under the other's corporate cover. The churchmen can blame it on Stewart; the salesmen can blame it on the church--win-win. And maybe this is why more and more Catholics have found their religious life at odds with their faith life--because the math and marketing and bottom line mentalities have replaced meaning and mystery in the church's ministry to its dead and bereaved. Either way, Catholic buyers ought to beware: The church wants you to return to what the bishop calls its "final embrace." The hug's not a cheap one. The price of plots and boxes in the churchyard just went up.

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