Michelle Carter


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In response to our posts, Is The Funeral Consumer’s Alliance More “Predatory” Than the Funeral Industry Itself? and FCA’s Slocum and I (Hopefully) Have a Civilized Debate, New York State funeral director Michelle Carter writes:

Mr. Slocum wrote: “You may not like FCA’s message of consumer education and empowerment, but that does not give you the right to make untrue statements about how we operate.”

As a funeral director, I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing that our client families in general were better-educated about the funeral process and what their options are. A significant portion of every dealing with every family involves explaining all the options available to them so they can make the most informed decision possible.

Unfortunately, the number of families we deal with who have been misinformed and are confused about their options and costs seems to be growing, not shrinking. I blame part of this on the numerous websites and organizations like the FCA that make broad statements like, “Well, in most places you can do X, Y and Z…” but make no effort to provide information about specific statues. Every state has different laws and options vary significantly depending on where you are.

Like Tim, I also take exception with the FCA’s apparent belief that “low-cost” and “good” go hand in hand when it comes to funeral service. While that is sometimes true, it’s also true (as in every other industry) that you often get what you pay for.

If cost were the only thing people were concerned with, we’d probably all be driving around in Geo Metros. However, every individual and every family has different tastes, desires, and needs, and all of those things will influence how much they spend, and what they spend it on.

And I wonder why there is no mention in the FCA literature I’ve seen that the increases in funeral prices over the last 25 years have not kept pace with inflation. 25 years ago, funeral homes made around 11.5% profit on each funeral, according to American Funeral Director Magazine, compared to the roughly 6.12% in 2007. Expenses have grown 23% more than income has. By comparison, the average new home price has increased over 264% during that same period.

Mr. Slocum wrote, “If the worst elements of funeral service don’t reflect your business practices, why are you personally offended? Don’t you agree those elements should be exposed so honest businesspeople can separate themselves from scoundrels? You could do a lot more to help that cause by working with us than by snarking at a consumer charity.”

I agree with Tim on this point: in our capitalist society, the funeral homes or directors that take advantage of families, charge exorbitantly high prices or are otherwise bad will not stay in business that way for long. Word of mouth travels fast. However, when you’re part of an industry that gets slammed, of course you’re going to take offense. It’s the same as when good police officers, good mechanics, and good doctors are offended by those who paint them with the same brush as they paint the bad apples. It puts you in the position of being guilty until proven innocent.

But I’m also skeptical of the assertion that there are funeral directors who are giving extra discounts to members of the FCA. The funeral home’s expenses will remain the same, regardless of how much of a discount they offer. So are they making that up in overall higher prices? Are they charging non-member families more to make up for it? Is that fair?

I knew of a funeral director (no longer in business) whose GPL showed outlandishly high prices. However, he offered families a discount of 15-20% if they paid their bills before the day of the funeral. Personally, I’d rather work with someone whose pricing is straightforward and not so gimmicky.

As someone who sits on the board of a local charity, I also have issues with any organization that calls itself a charity, but spends so much of its income on overhead. The Red Cross has gotten flack for spending just $0.10 of every dollar on administrative costs, but it appears that for the FCA, that amount is significantly higher.

I think we can all agree that we want our consumer families to make the best, most well-informed decisions possible. The question is whether or not they are hearing all sides of the story.

michellecarter.jpgMichelle Carter is the former owner of the Center For Transition, a grief counseling and funeral consulting company.  A licensed funeral director, Michelle is now the Assistant Manager of the E.O. Curry Funeral Home in Peekskill, NY.

A recent article, “Is the Future Really So Grim?” by Michelle Carter elicited a reasoned response from Dale Clock of the Life Story Network of funeral homes.  Here’s how Michelle responded to his remarks:

I agree with what you’ve said- it is going to be a challenge. I am a bit familiar with the Life Story network, and it seems as though our philosophies and the services we offer are quite similar.

As for the impact all of this work and innovation is having on funeral directors, I think we’re going to have to find a balance between what we’re willing and able to do on our own, what we can farm out, and what we’re simply not able to do.

Here in NY, it’s both a blessing and a curse that we’re not legally allowed to serve food or drinks in the funeral home. Organizing a reception for me usually just involves a few phone calls.

I served my residency at an independent firm that handled nearly 600 calls the year I was there. I was on call 6 days/week. I lost count of the number of 12+ hour days I put in, got called out in the middle of the night, only to get little sleep and do it all over again.

We were fortuante enough to have a phenomenal office staff who did a lot of the more time-consuming clerical work, like scanning photos for tributes, ordering supplies, etc.

Now I don’t have that luxury, and I think most of us are in the same boat. We really are going to have to weigh what services we’re willing to offer, can handle offering, and whether the return is worth it. While I may choose to promote certain offerings over others, my families are aware that we can accomodate most requests, or offer a reasonable or even better substiution.

Having to do more with less is a trend that isn’t unique to our industry. After all, we no longer get meals on airline flights, we check out our own items at the grocery store, and fewer social workers are handling a more extensive caseload, etc., etc.

There’s no reason funeral directors have to do more than we’re able or willing to do. If you can’t stand video tributes or hate making memorial candles, then don’t.

But if you don’t offer it, someone else will.

I attended visitation at another funeral home not long ago for a family friend. The deceased’s daughter-in-law had recently lost one of her parents, and she had a DVD tribute made at the funeral home local to her family.

When my family friend died, his family used that other funeral home to create a DVD for this man. Sure, it was less work for the funeral home handling the funeral, but it also meant less revenue. Even worse, when impressed mourners told the family they enjoyed watching the tribute (on a TV the family brought from home), the family members often replied, “Yes, we got it from XYZ Funeral Home, isn’t it great?”

I agree that we’re moving from a merchandise-based industry to an experience-based one but it’s not going to happen overnight. The only way to do it, however, is to do it, and let people see it and appreciate it.

After all, we didn’t move from home-based funerals to funeral home-based funerals overnight either. There were a few families who gave the funeral home a shot, and it was only from others seeing it done, that they concept began to spread.

So yes Dale, I’d say we’re in for quite a ride.

Dale Clock, of Clock Life Story Funeral Home in Michigan responds to Michelle Carter’s latest article “Is the Future Really So Grim?” 

Michelle:

You make some valid points.  The future isn’t that grim. But the future is going to be tough.  You are an independent funeral planner.  I’m guessing you don’t have much overhead but your car and a phone.  You take as much work as you can get but could always use more.  It’s easy to say “just do it’. Plan the fancy event, do the golf course, bring the favorite chair.  But the reality is it takes a lot of time and effort to do all of that.  It takes manpower, creativity and a whole different bunch of skill sets that most funeral directors don’t have.  It’s also a major challenge to do it day in and day out for firms of our size because “doing it” has to depend on a system and not just one person with a creative mind.  I agree that those kind of things need to be done but the hard part is transitioning to where we need to be from where we have been for so long a time.

I have 3 funeral homes in a Midwestern blue collar town, do 400 + calls a year, 7 vehicles, over 50,000 square feet of buildings ranging in age from 100 years old to 10, a staff of 20 plus people.  I have done receptions for 20 years (it’s good to do those but it’s not going to make you a ton of money).  Tried every casket show room setup there is.  I am now part of the Life Story Network which I really believe can transform funeral service.  And everyday is a struggle.  I have gone from 25% cremation to 50% cremation in 10 years.  I have trimmed my staff down to the bear minimum just to make ends meet while still trying to offer the latest and greatest that funeral service has to dish out.

My funeral directors are the best in the world.  They all have 20+ years experience and try their hardest to adapt to all the new stuff that I’m throwing at them.  The families absolutely gush over our Life Story experience and we all can see how meaningful it is to them.  But after days of typing in Life Story notes, scanning photo’s, burning DVD’s, printing color Life Story folders, downloading new music, setting up for receptions, cleaning up after the family spends a comfortable 2 hours in the reception center, putting cremains in jewelry, taking fingerprints for Thumbies, ordering customized urns from the 1000 choices in the catalogue…… in addititon to still doing all the other stuff we have always done like embalm bodies, dress and casket, meet with families, set up flowers, run visitations, conduct services , processions to the cemetery…. all most of us can do is collapse at home with an adult beverage and fall asleep in front of the TV.

It’s no wonder so many FD’s long for the old days when things were more routine and there weren’t so many options.  It’s not that we don’t want to do the new stuff.  It’s that we still have to do the old stuff in addition to the new stuff because we all serve such a broad range of people.  To do things right we almost need to split into two businesses; one that does things the old way and one that embraces the new stuff.  But at this time it seems impossible to separate things because there just isn’t enough volume or income.  It’s Catch 22…We need to do the new stuff to make money but we need more money to do the new stuff.

So the best we can do is hang in there while the funeral industry changes from a materialistic based income (casket, vaults and markers) to an emotional based income.  One where we get paid for helping preserve memories and creating experiences. And the sooner we can get the public to learn that there is value in those emotions. The sooner this will all happen.

Dale Clock
Clock Life Story Funeral Home

EDITOR’S NOTE:  When he submitted this letter, Dale was unaware that Michelle had recently taken a position as Assistant Manager of the E.O. Curry Funeral Home in Peekskill, NY.  She’s also sold her grief counseling center to focus on her work at the funeral home.

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 It’s very easy to fall into the depressing mindset that the future of funeral service is grim, with more and more families choosing less expensive options, or forgoing funeral services all together. We see it in our own experiences, and it seems like its mentioned regularly in the trade publications. Sometimes we even overlook how many ‘traditional’ families we still serve, because of this preoccupation.
 
That’s why I was surprised when I watched part of a 3-part series on CBS’s Early Show called, “Funerals to Die For”. (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/02/25/earlyshow/series/main3872511.shtml)
 
The series profiles the many elaborate, unique, and often expensive ways individuals are choosing to honor their loved ones- and more often- themselves. It mentioned that the elusive Baby Boomer generation grew up watching the elaborate funerals of Princess Grace, President John F. Kennedy and even Princess Diana on TV, and more and more want a similar send-off themselves. After all, aren’t their lives just as interesting and worthy of a tribute?
 
When I first started watching this, my first thought was, “Wow, we couldn’t write a better commercial for ourselves if we tried.” But as I continued watching I realized I was stuck in the bad mindset I mentioned earlier. Not all clients are focused on direct cremations with no or little services. There is a huge segment of the population out there of people who want funerals as unique, flashy and individual as they themselves were in life.
 
It seems as though these individuals are using independent contractors like The Funeral Concierge (http://www.everestfuneral.com/trialoffer/) or the Memorial Space Flights (http://www.memorialspaceflights.com) because they are under the impression they can’t get the service they’re looking for at their local funeral home.
 
Why?
 
Are we not able to handle the needs of someone who wants a service on the 18th hole of his favorite golf course? Aren’t we equally capable of hosting a visitation with the deceased’s favorite easy chair sitting in the corner, and their favorite music playing in the background?
 
And realistically, is it always so difficult? I’ve dealt with plenty of at-need families who wanted a procession of classic cars or motorcycles for instance, and there was almost always an eager friend or family member who wanted to help make it happen.
 
We’d all do well to think critically about how we’re addressing the needs of these families.
 
In the movie Pretty Woman, there’s a scene in which Julia Roberts, dressed scantily, walks into a store with the intention of spending a lot of money, but can’t get service because of the judgements passed by the sales clerks. Later on, she returns to the store dressed to the nines and loaded down with shopping bags, to tell the clerks what a big mistake they just made.
 
When someone walks through our doors and asks for a cremation, do we assume they mean a direct? When someone makes a request for something a bit outside of the norm, is our gut reaction to say no, or probably not, before giving real thought as to what the request would involve?
 
We’re funeral directors. There should be no one else out there better prepared to handle the needs of the families who wants something unique or outside of the norm. We’re the experts. So let’s not open the door for someone else to step in and fill that need.

michellecarter.jpgMichelle Carter is the former owner of the Center For Transition, a grief counseling and funeral consulting company.  A licensed funeral director, Michelle is now the Assistant Manager of the E.O. Curry Funeral Home in Peekskill, NY.

Michelle Carter discusses funeral home advertising and the ineffectiveness of running the same ads while expecting different results.

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There are a certain group of funeral directors out there. This group are set in their ways. They use industry lingo in front of families, without thinking twice about the impact it might have to refer to someone’s father as a “removal”.
 
These same people also don’t think there’s any need to educate the community about who they are and what they do, because they assume everyone already knows. After all, the funeral home has been around for years. It’s the only thing in the community that hasn’t changed, right?

This mindset is the reason we create websites, radio spots or yellow page ads that are just like every other ad. Like many other businesses, these ads please only the business owner, only impress competitors, and do little to help you stand out from the crowd.
 
Now go to Amazon.com. Run a magazine search for funeral director. There are seven results. Of those, only three come with product photos. The longest product description belongs to American Funeral Director, which gives two sentences about how long it has been in print, and pointing out that it provides information on the funeral industry.
 
Now search magazines for the word funeral. Now you get 14 results, but the basic premise remains the same. Three magazines have photos, plus the yellowbook directory.  American Funeral Director and Funeral Director magazines are tied for longest descriptions: two sentences.  Like several of its competitors, Funeral Director Magazine repeats those two sentences later in the profile, so they serve as both the title and description.
 
Several titles have *no* description at all.
 
Now, I’d like to think I’m the target customer for many of these publications: a funeral professional who wants to keep up to date on what’s new in the industry, and who is looking to spend some money. What have any of these publications done to persuade me to purchase their product instead of another?
 
We can’t even promote a product to ourselves when there’s a built in market!
 
Now imagine yourself as a member of your community. You may be new to the area, or maybe you just haven’t kept close tabs on what’s what in the local funeral industry. Like most of the American public, you know little about the funeral industry, and even less about your local funeral home, because you don’t like to think about death. You like to think you’re immune to it.
 
 Now you suddenly find yourself in need of a funeral home. You open the yellow pages, or turn on the computer, in search of what to do next.
 
As a funeral professional, what are you doing to make yourself stand out?

michellecarter.jpgA 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.

In response to my post, Tim Responds to “A Monumental ‘Undertaking’?”, Michelle Carter writes:

Clearly, many people- myself included- are uncomfortable with the Lynch family making arrangements from behind a desk. However, if you ignore that one aspect, what is the difference between the old and new, or small town and big city funerals?

Is it simply a matter of how personal they are? I can see each person’s point so far, but I don’t think traditional, personal, meaningful, and valuable funerals have to be mutually exclusive of each other.

No, Michelle, they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  In fact, part of my comments were a warning to folks doing traditional funerals to find ways to stop the rush toward fast, cheap and dirty funerals by figuring out what people “really” want and giving it to them while they still see value in traditional funerals.

I think it’s too late for many parts of the country, including Central Florida, where I live.  Other areas are starting to see the rush toward direct cremation, since most folks don’t know that cremation can include viewing and services with the body present.

In fact, I should have made it more clear that Mr. Lynch speaks quite eloquently about the necessity of having the body present at any type of service that commemorates the deceased.  He asks whether a christening would work without the baby or a wedding without the betrothed.

So I guess my issue about “old-fashioned” funeral service is that it doesn’t anticipate the needs of today’s consumer.  And why do I think that?

Because I’ve talked with a lot of “old-fashioned” directors who are afraid – almost shaking-in-their-boots afraid – of the changing face of the industry.  They ask how they can keep their community from embracing cremation, because it means lower margins for them. 

Seldom do they ask WHY cremation equals lower margins.  If they did, I’d answer that the public knows cremation as “take grandma away and bring back an urn with her dust in it” and nothing else.

I should have pointed out that Mr. Lynch talks about cremation and how he directs his clients to view the disposition by fire. 

But do Mr. Lynch’s constituents predominantly choose burial because he’s so eloquent about the necessity for a body at the service, or because the community hasn’t yet begun “the change”?

It’s an interesting question and one I can’t answer with the information I have at my disposal.  I can say, however, that a funeral professional in Florida (2005 cremation rate:  48%) sees a different world than a funeral professional in Michigan (37%) or New York (24%).

Michelle Carter, one of our “Be Our Guest” contributors just responded to the article, Don Shell Shares “A Monumental ‘Undertaking’?” by another one of our contributors.  Here’s her response:

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With all due respect, Mr. Shell, I think you may have misunderstood Mr. Lynch.

Yes, he rails against personalization, but that’s because so many funeral directors sell personalization like a commodity instead of making something personal. For example, my dad is a golfer. I can personalize his funeral by getting a casket with golf-themed corners. Or, I can make it personal by having his golfing buddies act as pall bearers. Which is more meaningful?

And I have to say I agree with Mr. Lynch that there is great value in allowing families to have the comfort of a ritual they’re familiar with at a difficult time. And they did show at least one direct cremation, so obviously not everyone followed the ritual Mr. Lynch likes so much.

If you watched any of the additional footage, or read the viewer comments on the PBS website, you’ll see many of the families talked about how comforted they were seeing their loved ones looking so peaceful and beautiful. I doubt anyone could say that Mrs. Verrino’s eulogy wasn’t heartfelt, meaningful, or healing. And I don’t think anyone expressed displeasure at how things were handled.

The fact is, that documentary only showed short glimpses of the visitations and funerals, so we really don’t have any idea how much of a family’s story was or was not told.

I think the important thing, for us as funeral directors, is to make sure that we are able to do whatever the family wishes. A family’s story should be able to be told regardless of whether the family chooses a full-service burial, a direct cremation, or a reception at a local restaurant.

Yes, more and more people are choosing non-traditional services, and we need to meet those needs. But we’re only harming ourselves if we disregard or rail against those families that want the traditional services they’re accustomed to.

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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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