On May 29, 2013, an event that many in the funeral industry had been anticipating for years finally came to fruition: Service Corporation International (SCI), America’s largest provider of funeral, cremation and cemetery services, acquired the second largest, Stewart Enterprises. According to SCI’s press release announcing the acquisition, the deal “has an enterprise value of $1.4 billion.” The CEOs and shareholders were pleased; both companies saw a rise in stock price after the announcement.
SCI released that they were keen on this acquisition because not only would they obtain more funeral homes and cemeteries but also, they were attaining them at a time when they could bank on the baby boomers aging. According to Reuters:
Large-scale consolidation in the highly fragmented funeral business has long been on the cards, with the industry looking to sell more pre-planned funeral contracts to the 76 million baby boomers in the United States.
SCI believes it can profit from of these 76 million people—not only when they die, but also beforehand, by convincing them to pre-arrange their own funerals. (SCI anticipates that this will bring in about 9 billion dollars for the company.)
Of course, there are those who are not pleased with the acquisition. In this situation, it’s the independent funeral home owners. One, Tom Crean, made a short film in which he compared himself to Don Quixote. He fears that as SCI gains over ten times the revenue of its nearest competitor not only will he be put out of business, but also citizens will be penalized with higher corporate prices and less personal service.
I’m not going to take a stand on the acquisition and the growing of SCI. I will, however, agree with both SCI and the independents that everyone should pre-plan his or her funeral! This means that you take the initiative to go to the funeral home and work with a licensed funeral director to plan out what you’d like when your time comes. It means deciding whether you want to be buried or cremated (and where you want to go after that), picking your casket, and even choosing the flowers, and then (possibly) paying for the arrangements. You might think that sounds crazy. I want to tell you: it’s not!
Tom Crean appropriately quotes Don Quixote saying, “Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.” In “life as it is” we don’t think about or talk about our own funerals because we’re afraid. In “life as it should be” we know what we want for our funerals, we make decisions ahead of time, and we share our choices with our families, relieving them of the burden of last-minute, super-stressful decision-making. When we pre-plan, we don’t have to fear being taken advantage of by the mega conglomerates because we go into the funeral homes not when we are grieving, not when we are emotionally drained, and not when we’re primed to be taken advantage of. Instead, we will take the time to visit multiple locations and meet with different directors. We will decide not only whom we want to work with, but also what we want our send-offs to look like.
This might sound bizarre to some of you, but take a step back and ask yourself why. I cannot think of another significant event that we plan last minute. Imagine planning a wedding two days before the guests arrive! Would you be able to choose a venue under the pressure of an imminent deadline? Would you be able to pick exactly which flowers you wanted? Could you remember each song that you wanted played? The bride certainly would not be able to find her perfect dress...
You might protest, noting that you are not the one attending your funeral—and that’s a fair point. But let me tell you: even if you don’t care about what happens at your funeral, by planning in advance, you are giving your family an invaluable gift by not burdening them with the task. Let it be your final loving gesture to them; let them grieve and not plan.
I worked in the industry for multiple years. Every day, I saw families struggle to figure out exactly what their loved one would have wanted. “If only we knew….” was a sentence I heard too often. I unfortunately was able to empathize with these clients because I too had been in that painful situation. When my father passed away, not knowing what he wanted, I fell into the trap that many others do; I overspent. We cannot help but think that this is the final gesture we can make for our loved ones; it seems reasonable to break the bank for them. But it’s not necessary.
Empower yourself! Accept that you are not invincible. You, like every other person in the world, will have a funeral. So make it yours, and make it great.