Most people have heard stories of unscrupulous funeral directors who employ shrewd sales techniques and outrageous markups to prey upon their clients' emotional vulnerability. What most people do not know is that their local family churches, knowingly or not, may be aiding the mortuaries in their rip-off schemes.

According to Father Henry Wasielewski, a board member of the Interfaith Funeral Information Committee, the jig goes something like this: The funeral director for a mortuary approaches your local pastor or priest and says words to the effect of, "We were going to give $5,000 to the Red Cross this year but you know, we decided, why not keep it in the neighborhood? I notice your parish doesn't have a bus. Now, I know the money won't buy a bus, but we thought it could help. I'll just write out this check to you and trust that you'll know the best way for it to help the church."

The pastor then naturally starts to figure, "I'd better send some bodies to that mortuary, or they might not donate to my church again."

In such a way, pastors across the country have become beholden to mortuaries, circulating their promotional calendars or, if the mortuary is really lucky, broadcasting an endorsement straight from the pulpit. Trusting the pastor's judgment, the flock surrender their loved ones to these mortuaries, never realizing that the funeral directors jack up their prices by thousands of dollars and, in the words of Father Henry, "screw these Christian families to the wall."

Father Henry says he has heard all variety of stories about morticians coaxing favors from pastors by offering free gifts, including beepers, funeral plots, sides of beef, country club memberships, and large sums of cash.

"It's a good deal for the mortuary," says Father Henry with a laugh. "I mean, here's a beeper that they pay about six dollars for, and the pastor is going to figure, 'I'd better send some bodies, or they'll take back my beeper.' So the mortuary rips off another family for five thousand dollars."

Many clergy are unaware of the cost to their parishioners of these cozy relationships with certain funeral homes. And other clergy have, in fact, been active in developing memorial societies and other consumer guides to help families get a better deal. But for ministers who have begun relationships with local mortuaries--even in good faith--the risks of inadvertently helping to gouge their own congregation are rising.

That risk has been nourished by a larger trend: the increasing domination of the $25 billion funeral industry by shrewd corporate chains. With mortuaries increasingly accountable to stockholders, as opposed to neighborhood families, profits have become the sole order of business. In the United States, for example, the average funerary cost at an independently owned mortuary is $4,700. "But we're seeing more like $10,000 at chain-owned funeral homes," says Lisa Carlson, author of the book "Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love."

Bringing to bear their considerable financial resources, these price-gouging chains have targeted churches across the country. The newest twist is for them to rent a chunk of church property and offer their own in-house services with implicit church endorsement. For example, the archdioceses of Montreal and Los Angeles recently contracted with two of the largest chains, Stewart's Enterprises and SCI, respectively, renting out their holy ground as though these mortuaries were some Starbuck's franchise. In return for a lucrative lease arrangement, the dioceses lend tacit endorsement and, in effect, channel their flocks directly into the overpriced mortuaries.

The growing alliance between churches and funeral companies is even more distressing when you consider the role churches could play in helping their members avoid the high costs of funerals. According to Carlson, "many churches could, in fact, offer a free funeral to their members, not counting cemetery or crematory expenses. A funeral committee could take care of body transport, supply a plain pine box, assist with hospitality to out-of-town relatives, just about everything that needs to be done. What more logical support group is there at a time of death?"

Parishes should demand that their pastors return the funeral ritual to their churches, which could open and operate small, fair-priced mortuaries on their premises. Doing so would not only help prevent the swindling of countless families, but would restore some measure of personal accountability to the church. The funeral services could be held at the church, reaffirming the union of family and God during the families' most desperate time of need. Such moments simply should not be considered purchasable by local mortuaries.

To fully serve their congregations in this most difficult of times--the death of a loved one--churches need to engage this vital question as part of their ministry, and remember what kind of "business" they're in.

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