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Before I became a funeral director, I was a journalist. The nature of the job was one in which I had to very quickly become an expert on a wide array of topics, so I could then write intelligently about them for the next day’s paper.

I worked for a small funeral home out in New England before I started school, and that’s when I first started to become indoctrinated into the way funeral directors think.

First and foremost, I learned that if you haven’t been in the industry for at least 20 years, you don’t know anything about funeral directing.

As I became more and more indoctrinated into the industry, I began to share that point of view. I made it my job to figure out exactly how each person I worked for ran their funerals, because they were the experts, not me. If I saw an area that needed an improvement, it was obviously naiveté on my part- if it could have been improved upon, it would have been done already.  Things were done the way they were, because that’s the way it had always been done, so that must be the way families wanted it. The basic process never wavered, and the ad in the yellow pages had been the same for the last 10 years because that’s the way we do it. End of story.

For a while, I followed that mindset. Even if I knew the answer to a specific question that a family posed to me, I quite often referred them to an elder employee. After all, they had been in the industry longer, so they would give a better answer than me.

Now I realize how silly that is. Don’t get me wrong- I’m not in any way implying that I somehow know more than those who have been in the industry longer. However, is there any other industry where things are so stagnant? If a car dealership opened in 1980, and in 2007 only sold model year 1980 cars, would they still be in business?

I’m amused at the reaction people have had to BT Hathaway’s blog post about Wilbert’s new marketing strategy at the NFDA convention. I’m certain there must have been funeral directors who were turned off to that display simply because it was different from the way it had been in the past. I wonder how many were turned off because they actually shared BT’s point of view that Wilbert had given up on their own product.

However, there’s an even bigger issue here than how Wilbert is marketing itself. The issue is that there is a funeral director who had the audacity to actually speak out against one of the big manufacturers. How often does that ever happen?

We all have families that want something different. They want caskets that are less expensive but are still of good quality. They want caskets that are better for the environment. Just because one of dad’s many interests was golf, does that mean they want him in a golf-bag urn?

As funeral directors, we want better prices. We want to be treated equally, even amongst bigger competitors.

But how often do we, like BT, stand up and demand what we want? When was the last time a funeral director stood up to Batesville and demanded the same discount that that SCI gets? Too often, we just roll over and say, “well, that’s just the way it’s done,” and deal with it. We may even switch distributors, and just hope that we get as close to the same level of discount as the slightly bigger guy up the street. We may say something to our local salesman, but we’ll give him the same sympathetic look he gave us, when he tells us its out of his control.

What other industry does business like that? Most manufacturers and suppliers do what they can to make a product that will keep the customer happy, rather than demanding the customer be happy with whatever they get. Products and prices are usually determined by what the customer desires- not by what the manufacturer decides they should be.

And by the way, when we see a funeral director who offers all sorts of discounts based on how quickly families pay or how much they spend, we usually say there’s something wrong with his pricing structure if he can afford to give discounts like that. But we see nothing wrong with casket/vault/fluid/etc. companies who do the same thing?

It makes me wonder. Is the public’s view of the funeral industry changing really changing that radically, or have we just been so slow to evolve, that now we can’t keep up with reality?

I couldn’t even tell you how many times a colleague has bemoaned how cremation is going to drive us all out of business, or talked about how different things were before Jessica Mitford’s book was published—16 years before I was even born. But you know what? There are still funeral directors in England turning a profit, even with a cremation rate of more than 70%. And not one of my contemporaries has a clue who Jessica Mitford is.

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A licensed funeral director, Michelle Carter is also a funeral consultant and grief counselor from Westchester County, New York.

Through her company, New York Center for Transition, she provides counseling for those who have recently been diagnosed with diseases, grief counseling for those who have experienced a death and funeral consulting to families in need.

Michelle is working toward opening her own funeral home.

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