Morgan Daffer, Abigale McDermott, Corey Martinez, Broc Richardson, and Reason Hall
Earthly Funerals : An Analysis of Funeral Practices and Green Burials
Funerals are expensive and can take quite a bit of time to plan, but they don’t have to be. This study will use data provided by funeral services in Omaha, Nebraska, as well as regulators of the industry as a whole, to determine how the price of a particular method of burial, correlates with the adoption of that method. The goal is to make information about low cost and eco-friendly funerals, readily available to those of the community who will undoubtedly be faced with such decisions in their lifetime. The material goes on to compare data gathered from green burial providers in other areas, to give the citizens of Omaha a clear idea of how green burials could be a more logical and cost effective option for their own funeral, rather than traditional burial.
The study collected data from the websites of sixteen funeral homes in the Omaha Metro. Important aspects of these websites were collected through screenshots, including published prices (or the lack thereof), offered services, products available, and availability of ‘keepsakes’ and souvenir-like trinkets. This data was then collected in two tables, which were analyzed to create three themes, under which, all subsequent data could be organized. Those themes include: the cost or price of the funeral service, services different funeral homes offer and the souvenirs they market to help you remember your loved ones. Finally, this data was collected and summarized into the various findings, which form the basis of this project’s secondary research.
Many funeral homes do not display prices, and when they are displayed, it is usually in a generalized format, often in the form of packages with extra services/products available as add-ons. Of the sixteen homes studied in Omaha, only four published price information on their website. Of these four, two homes, the Kremer funeral home and the Chapel of Memories funeral home, offered prices in a package format, starting at about $800 and $995 for cremations, respectively. Kremer also offers traditional burial starting at $4000, but the Chapel of Memories does not. In contrast, the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Omaha offered only traditional funeral services, although they would also allow the interment of cremated remains. They only published prices for the final resting places, starting at around $3000 for two graves. The fourth home, Good Shepherd, instead opted for a buffet-style listing of various aspects of the business. They also employed several package deals, but broke down the individual costs of the items included more thoroughly than other homes did. Charts summarizing all price information found, as well as comparisons with areas outside Omaha, will be available at the end of this section.
Other businesses make it a point not to offer any prices up front, but instead require some form of registration or meeting before prices will be made available. This practice, coupled with the ambiguous price breakdown by homes which offer prices at all, is characteristic of predatory industries in general, such as car and insurance salesmen. Funeral homes often try to exploit the emotional state of the bereaved, using language which emphasizes the emotional aspects of the funeral arrangement process, and not the financial ones (Korai 2017). For example, Braman Mortuary often uses language like ‘healing power’ and ‘honoring your loved one.’ They also repeatedly state how difficult a time the customer must be having, and how Braman could ‘lighten your burden.’ Finally, they take great care to address the customer in the second person throughout to give the impression that they will focus their efforts solely on that customer.
Another tactic funeral homes employ is to give vague impressions of price by making comparisons. For example, the Arbor Cremation Society, in addition to using the tactics described above, stated that their prices were ‘40 percent to 75 percent less than local funeral homes’. However, since they used only the generic term ‘local funeral homes,’ the comparison means very little. In addition, Arbor Cremation Society offers only cremation services, so it is unclear whether these supposed savings are relative to the costs of cremation or traditional burials.
Putting the lack of transparency in such predatory business practices aside, the astronomical prices found in many homes is common not only in Omaha, but across the United States. In 2002, it was estimated that people in the US were spending more than $13 billion every year on funerals (Harrington and Krynski 2002). In 2009, the average funeral cost was reportedly estimated to be about $6,500 (Jessie 2005). Now, that doesn’t sound terribly expensive in the context of most funeral homes, but take the example of Good Shepherd Funeral Home in Omaha, Nebraska. A basic service package, which includes a coffin, funeral services, transport, and body preparation, costs $2,535 (Good Shepherd 2019). That’s almost a $4,000 difference. Compare that with the costs of a typical ‘green’ cemetery like Greensprings in New York, which has an average cost of $1,000 or less, and the differences seem much more stark (Scharnberg 2009).
One interesting trend the data specific to Omaha presented, was the role religion played in burial practices, or more accurately, the lack thereof. Out of the 16 homes consulted in the study, only two directly mentioned religion, those being Jewish Funeral Home Inc. and the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Omaha, and even then, only the CCAO actively discriminate based on the religious affiliation of their clients. Now and days, most religious practices and ceremonies happen bide side of the dying prior to the actual death (Dimond 2004).
Traditional funerals consistently cost more than cremations, and both usually market their services as ‘bundles.’
Despite any preconceived notions of death and funerals, they are a business, just like anything else in our society. These businesses spend money to market all they have to offer a family that has just lost a loved one, so in kind, they have to charge for these services to turn a profit. One of the ways funeral homes turn a profit is by offering package deals. The “bigger” the package you get, the more bang you get for your buck. Educated and experienced funeral homes market their services to not only get more customers, but to get the customers to spend more money by adding a variety of services to their package. Some may say that these deals are real heart stoppers, once in a lifetime, or will stop you dead in your tracks, figuratively speaking of course.
Let’s get down to the numbers. The longer a funeral is, or the more resources and people it requires to hold the service, the more expensive it will be. In Omaha, the average burial ground service costs roughly $9,000. While the cremation is only a portion of the funeral costs at the Good Shepherd Funeral Home and Crematory is $795 alone. Once the family decides how their loved one will be remembered, they have more decisions to make. The brochures for funerals and cremation services are presented to the family as an A-la-carte menu. Everything from the type of urn to additional grief counseling, hearse escorting, obituaries, a priest/pastor blessing the body, venue rental, and the infinite options of flower arrangements . Ultimately, hand picking every single add-on, commemorative service, and everlasting funeral experience adds up quickly, when in reality most people never knew they wanted a gold tufted casket for grandma until it was presented as an option. This is how the funeral industry has become a multibillion dollar industry. A new term has surfaced in the united states as many political leaders work toward making funeral welfare an established program available to those who qualify (Christine 2013).
Further research of funeral homes in the Greater Omaha area revealed many homes’ only allow full website access upon membership. Signing up at a monthly cost grates access to funeral packages with limited pricing but also provided discounted pre planned services. Ironically, the membership fees outweigh the discount. Not only, are membership accounts becoming more prevalent for those who are actually planning funeral arrangements but many funeral homes are now requiring account sign in just to access currently scheduled funeral information, to send flowers, or even make a contribution to the memorial donation. After a lifetime of being bombarded with weekly emails of funeral homes it is likely that the customer will use a funeral home they know the name of.
As Omaha continues to grow, so does its funeral industry. Although the vast majority of the homes in this study promoted expensive and elaborate traditional funerals, some homes offered significantly lower price point options. Cremation preferred methods are up 40% since 2010, suggesting that traditional burial is on its way out (Hall 2011). One of these ‘on trend’ funeral homes is the Arbor Cremation Society. As the name implies, it only provides cremation services. Cremations, unlike traditional burials, are a much friendlier, environmentally-conscious choice. Luckily, most traditional funeral homes do offer cremations, but not all perform them in the manner expected. Roeder Mortuary is a traditionally run funeral home and offers both the traditional burial and cremation services to its customs, but Roeder takes a particularly different approach to their cremations by specifying on its website that cremations, including any type of service or visual, require the body to be embalmed, despite it ultimately being cremated. It is not a common practice for bodies designated to be cremated to need additional preservations unless otherwise indicated on a case to case basis. This should be a red flag to those shopping the funeral industry. “A lot off the public are completely confused about what is or isn’t allowed when it comes to burial and [cremation]. They believe embalming is required, when in fact that is almost never the case in any state in the nation” says Mark Harris a green burial advocate. This is a common thread amongst most of the population. John A. Gentleman Mortuaries & Crematory specifically states on their website that they provide immediate burials, yet it is left ambiguous what their stance on embalming is. Cremations remain the most ecological and money conscious options to date in the Omaha area according to our data but, green burial continues to gain traction throughout the country. Green burials are being implemented as close to home as Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The most important thing to keep in mind when the time comes to purchase such funeral plans is that embalming is not required by law prior to burial or cremation and any funeral home that makes such claims does not have the environment, you wishes, or your wallet in mind (Kelly 2012).
There are many different ways that funeral homes market “keepsakes” for sorrowing families. One example are fingerprint keepsakes. There’s a couple different types varying from a fingerprint keychain where you have a passed one’s fingerprint on a cross, heart, etc to a cemented handprint. The price for such fingerprint mementos can range from $20-$150 depending of the size and quantities required. Other “keepsakes” include memory glass ash pendants, and memorial rings coming in at any where from $200-$1,200. FUneral homes market these items as an everlasting piece of a loved one. Although, this might be true, mom’s finger print certainly did not cost upwards of a $1000 dollars. Cremation Urns on average cost $325, which is considerably less than most of the pendents. Funeral homes will make just about anything for a grieving family if they are willing to pay, from 3D printed images to a homemade BBQ sauce.
Funerals serve a necessary function in society (James 2002). Even outside of their religious context, funeral rituals help connect bereaved individuals to a community and provide them with a sense of structure and purpose (Giblin 2006). This is an essential part of human psychology, which manifests as early as the age of four (Kapitany 2018). The way in which a body is disposed of is an extremely important aspect of many religions and even those who do not believe in an after life may have decided views on the arrangements for how they want their body prepared after death (Dimond 2004). The depth of these emotional roots, however, make it that much easier for businesses to exploit them. The funeral industry of today is a result of this exploitation, where funeral directors sell coffins like cars and flowers like memories. In particular, they take advantage of the human tendency toward ambivalence when placed in stressful situations, such as that created by a sudden death (Szmigin 2015).
One of the clearest representations of these exploitative practices is the lack of transparency in the funeral industry at large. Such businesses often market their services in bundles, without publishing the prices of their components. This is often paired with aggressive marketing of souvenirs-like trinkets, which are also sold at exorbitant prices, and together these practices seek to fully monetize the essential services that funerals and related burial systems provide.
Despite its importance, they way in which a funeral fulfills its function can take many forms. Traditionally, casket-in-grave burials have been the norm, which is not terribly surprising, considering that the practice evolved from religious rituals of the past (Collector 2016). In recent years, however, the practice of cremation became an economical alternative to a full burial service, and even gained some support from the environmentally-conscious community because it generally resulted in less resource waste (Stewart 2017). The dead encourage respect, and the unreflective nature of that feeling can lead us to somewhat grotesque and maudlin ceremonies (Hall 2011). Since 2014, a new trend has emerged, one which puts more emphasis on nature and ecology than any before: green burials. This movement, which is still in its infancy, has moved away from the traditional burial approach, which focused on preservation of the dead for as long as possible. Instead, green burial glorifies the contribution the dead make to nature through decomposition, which returns rich nutrients to the surrounding ecosystem (Kelly 2012). In addition to its recovery of the prominence of bodies and earth in funeral rites, natural burial offers especially rich theological orientation for an age of ecological emergency (Stewart 2018). The main draw of green burials can be attributed to their low costs and their ecological contributions, especially when compared to traditional casket-and-grave burials.
The first green burial was established in 1993 and now there are over 270 green burials throughout the world (Yarwood 2014). Green burial is described as the process in which people are buried without the use of harsh and toxic embalming chemicals. The body just needs to remain refrigerated until burial or the viewing (Scharnberg 2009). It is reported that more than one million gallons of embalming fluid are buried and enough metal, in the form of caskets, every year to rebuild the golden gate bridge. Those are alarming statistics, and these practices pose a real threat to our drinking water in the future (Scharnberg 2009). No amount of formaldehyde or fancy airtight casket will eternally preserve a human body (Harker 2012). The original practice of embalming the body was a result of the civil war (Kelly 2012). It was a practical way to return soldiers’ bodies home from war. Embalming was a new and revolutionary practice that enabled families to have a proper burial days and weeks after their soldier had died, but has very little practicality in the typical burial today (Kelly 2012).
In conclusion, it appears that the funeral industry has developed some fairly exploitive tendencies, like price evasion and souvenir pushing, and that their resistance to the propagation of ‘green’ burial measures is not due to religion or tradition, as initially expected. Instead, it appears to be a result of the fact that such services are much harder to monetize and profit from, as they involve less specialized skills, like embalming or cremation, and less expensive storages, like coffins or urns. Contrary to common belief, religion has only a small impact on a given funeral home in the majority of cases. This can also be attributed to the industry’s predatory evolution, as adopting an ‘equal opportunity’ approach to religious affiliation would expand an individual home’s customer base. As such, the greatest barrier to green burial is the established businesses in the industry themselves, as such practices threaten their profits. Most ‘green’ burial services will have to continue to be operated by charities or small businesses, as they are not profitable enough to sustain a larger corporation, and as there are very few available in Omaha, it is unlikely that such services will become available in the near future.
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