Are Cemeteries the New Safe Investment?
Patrick Collinson, The Guardian (October 16, 2010)
With a shortage of space in cemeteries, private operators claim there are healthy returns to be had by buying burial plots
Here are a couple different angles on the economics of modern death. The top article examines the ever expanding world of debt collection from the dead. Postmortem debt typically falls on a spouse or family member, but a proposed policy revision will widen the pool to include other legal representatives.
The Death Reference Desk has been covering various aspects of the postmortem economy so these debt collection issues come as no surprise. An entirely different side of these economic concerns is the money that some investors are pouring into life-insurance policies. Meg wrote about that situation here. And everyone can read about the economic problems people face with death and dying under our insurance tag.
Some of the earliest death and the economy articles that I followed, involved unclaimed bodies filling morgues. These aren’t unidentified bodies, rather dead bodies where the next-of-kin know that the corpse is in the morgue but cannot afford to have the body sent to a funeral home.
And then there is the Cemetery-as-Investment side of these economic question. The Cemeteryscapes blog did an excellent post on this very topic. The Guardian article at the top also discusses how London cemeteries are becoming possible investment opportunities.
Yet again, Frontline (the documentary film unit of America’s Public Broadcasting Service) delivers an unbelievably moving and intellectually engaged program. Frontline has won every major and minor documentary film award on the planet so it should come as no surprise that this new program Facing Death is so good.
Everyone needs to watch to this documentary. Everyone. Take the 55 minutes it requires and then watch it again.
The documentary tackles one of the most pressing questions for any person with a terminal illness: when to stop heroic (potentially excessive) medical treatment and to then opt for palliative care in a hospice.
When Meg, Kim, and I started the Death Reference Desk we all agreed that End of Life issues would be fundamentally important to this entire project. I can honestly say that this Frontline documentary is one of the best programs that I have seen in a while on this very topic.
Critics of the American health care system (of which I am one) will lament the over medicalization of the patients in this film and I agree that the film really captures what aggressive, end of life medicalization becomes. The documentary also shows the medical staff and families involved in each case thinking through these bioethical quandaries.
What this film highlights, more than anything, is how impossibly difficult and heart wrenching all of these decisions become. None of this is ever simple or easy. My job is to think about death and dying all day, every day. I’m the son of a funeral director. I’ve watched my grandparents die.
These experiences are all valuable but they never fully prepare a person for that most difficult end of life decision: to die.
So watch this documentary and make your friends watch it. Then make sure that your end of life wishes are known to your next-of-kin and in writing.
The New York Times article at the top of the page is another side of the Frontline documentary, which is when people decide to stop the medical treatments and die at home. It’s a wonderful article about people choosing to die on their own terms in their own living spaces.
This is a really compelling article about a New York burial ground for unclaimed bodies. Adam Geller, from the Associated Press, wrote a lengthy piece about both Hart Island (the cemetery) and artist Melinda Hunt, who turned Hart Island into a fascinating artistic project.
It’s a great read. You will find similar kinds of articles in the Death + The Economy section of Death Ref. There is no shortage of unclaimed dead bodies these days.
At top is a short section from a documentary entitled Hart Island: An American Cemetery.
Last week I wrote about a California news item which involved the police finding a dead body in a car. A few days ago, the Los Angeles Times did a follow-up piece and as I suspected the emerging story is really sad. Death Ref has run several pieces on Death and the Economy and this most recent article fits the bill. The Times provides this addendum to last week’s story:
The two women met last year at Mile Square Regional Park in Fountain Valley and were unlikely acquaintances. One was a Costa Mesa real estate agent, the other a homeless woman [Signe Margit] who frequented the park. The real estate agent allowed the woman to sleep in her father’s old sedan. But sometime in the last 10 months, the homeless woman died in the car. And for reasons that Costa Mesa police are still trying to determine, the real estate agent decided not to report the woman’s death to authorities. Detectives said she drove the car with the mummifying corpse covered with clothing in the passenger’s seat. She used baking powder to reduce the smell.
I decided to post a follow-up piece since so many dead body stories function as macabre fantasy tales without an actual ending. It seemed only appropriate to end this particular story with a fuller acknowledgement of the hard economic times many people now face.
I am a little surprised that only a few people sent me this recent decomposing-dead-body-in-the-news article. Like so many of the other dead body stories on Death Ref this particular California tale is both macabre and sad. Indeed, it looks as if the economic problems currently afflicting a great many Americans played a role here. We’ve got an entire Death Ref section devoted to just Death + the Economy items. This most recent story also reminds me, a little bit, of the Pennsylvania case from last July.
More than anything, the Orange County prosecutor will have to look at the California statutes which define how and when a corpse is mishandled.
I have a hunch that no legal action will be taken.
And in case anyone is wondering, the smell described by the Police is the result of the body’s decomposing fluids seeping into the car’s interior.
One of the lesser-known classic blunders is trying to prevent jovial Benedictine monks, living peacefully in their Louisiana monastery, from selling hand made wooden caskets to the general public. Not unlike starting a land war in Asia or a battle of wits with a Sicilian. Stated simply, the odds aren’t that good.
So it goes that the monks of the Saint Joseph Abbey of St. Benedict were ordered by the state to cease and desist selling their hand crafted caskets to the good people of Louisiana. Why is this you might ask? Well, Louisiana laws stipulates that only ‘funeral establishments’ can sell ‘funeral merchandise’ such as caskets.
And here is that law:
Louisiana Revised Statute 37:848
C. It shall be unlawful for anyone to engage in the business of funeral directing or embalming as defined in R.S. 37:831 unless such business is conducted by a duly licensed funeral establishment.
But what does that mean? Well, let us look at RS 37:831 for clarity:
Louisiana Revised Statute 37:831
(37) “Funeral directing” means the operation of a funeral home, or, by way of illustration and not limitation, any service whatsoever connected with the management of funerals, or the supervision of hearses or funeral cars, the purchase of caskets or other funeral merchandise, and retail sale and display thereof, the cleaning or dressing of dead human bodies for burial, and the performance or supervision of any service or act connected with the management of funerals from time of death until the body or bodies are delivered to the cemetery, crematory, or other agent for the purpose of disposition.
The problem with this law is that it seems to contradict the US Federal Trade Commission’s oversight of the funeral industry, usually just referred to as the Funeral Rule. The second article at the top of the page is the first one that I have seen which highlights this problem.
There is a lot of history as to how and why the Funeral Rule (which most people don’t know exists) came into being. In a nutshell, the Funeral Rule states what a consumer’s legal rights are when paying for a funeral. The FTC helpfully publishes Paying Final Respects: Your Rights When Buying Funeral Goods & Services which is the law, literally, for the American funeral industry.
This all brings me back to the Saint Joseph Abbey monks because FTC rules clearly state that any person can:
Provide the funeral home with a casket or urn you purchase elsewhere. The funeral provider cannot refuse to handle a casket or urn you bought online, at a local casket store, or somewhere else — or charge you a fee to do it. The funeral home cannot require you to be there when the casket or urn is delivered to them.
So unless I’m missing something (and I could be) it appears that Louisiana state law is trying to supersede federal law and that, generally, is frowned upon by the US Courts. Indeed, the general wisdom on ‘third-party casket sales’ is that consumers have every right to purchase these funeral goods without hindrance and that a funeral home cannot refuse to use said third-party casket. Coincidentally, the August-September issue of International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association Magazine (one of my favorites…) has a lengthy discussion on using third-party caskets, such as the ones made by the monks.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: AHA!!!! But these monks are not consumers they are producers of caskets and therefore not covered by the FTC Funeral Rule. This is correct but still a problem because the general public is being denied its federally backed right to purchase these caskets.
In my reading of the FTC Funeral Rule, the state of Louisiana cannot dictate whom the public buys caskets from and, as such, cannot control what constitutes a legitimate casket maker. Or, at least, can’t say that the St. Joseph Abbey monks have to be a ‘funeral home’ in order to sell their caskets.
All of this, then, brings me to the Institute for Justice, a Washington, DC based, capital ‘L’ for Libertarian, public interest law firm. The IJ is representing the monks in their court case against the state of Louisiana and presenting the case as a total violation of the monks’ Constitutional rights. What I’m not clear on is why the IJ isn’t just making the easier point about the FTC rules.
Unless, of course, the Institute for Justice doesn’t really care for the Federal Trade Commission, which would make sense given its Libertarian ethos.
Don’t get me wrong– I love the Libertarians. As a group, the Libertarians equally antagonize most American political parties and that is always good to see.
I just wonder if the video that the IJ produced on behalf of the monks (please see below) is a little more, ummm, over-the-top than it needs to be? Rarely do I have trouble distinguishing between an old Saturday Night Live commercial and an actual advocacy ad but this one comes close.
Besides, the state of Louisiana is going to lose this case. A few weeks ago, Meg posted a piece on Casket Company Trust Busting currently going on in America and it is clear that unfair business practices are on the funeral industry radar.
Don’t pick on the monks Louisiana. You aren’t just messing with some jovial band of Benedictines. Oh no. You are staring into the steely, cold gaze of the Libertarians…
I have read many, many ridiculous death and dying stories over the years but this one is really amazing. The backstory itself isn’t ridiculous– it’s actually really sad and tragic.
On the one hand we’ve got an inspirational story about a guy with terminal cancer trying to make sure that his wife isn’t stuck with an expensive funeral bill. On the other hand, and this is the part of the story that you have to dig a little bit to find, Aaron Jamison is also using the money to cover his medical bills. The medical bills that he can’t afford to pay because his health insurance doesn’t cover the costs.
Think about this for a minute. A person with cancer needs to sell ad space on his urn to pay off his medical bills. This is what I meant by ridiculous. The whole situation is also slightly infuriating.
What Jamison is doing reminds me of a conceptual art piece by The Art Guys, entitled SUITS: The Clothes Make the Man, in which they wore identical suits covered in corporate logos for a year (1998-1999). The Art Guys’ point was how commodified everything, including fashion, had become and it was funny.
Selling ad space on your future urn is clever but it isn’t particularly funny. And now that it’s clear a portion of the money will cover medical costs, I think that the whole situation is terrible.
Aaron Jamison has a website which he uses to update his ad space plan. I suggest checking it out.
Finally, here is a short video piece by KVAL News about Jamison and his urn:
April showers bring May flowers and, apparently, a deluge of articles on home burials and backyard cemeteries. The New York Times article on backyard cemeteries was spotted by my dad (the funeral director) who dutifully sent it along. And then this Globe and Mail article popped up a few days later. The Globe and Mail article is about home burials but it’s also about a screening of the PBS film A Family Undertaking. The film, which was released in 2004, is a good one and I recommend trying to see it when possible. I wrote about A Family Undertaking and other home burial issues last July. This weekend, the Vancouver Mountain View Cemetery is hosting a daylong seminar entitled The Final Disposition: De-Mystifying Death, Funerals, Cemeteries & Ceremonies and it kicks off with A Family Undertaking.
The seminar looks extremely interesting and I give Mountain View Cemetery credit for sponsoring the event. Public interest in home funerals, green burials, and backyard cemeteries is clearly growing and this interest isn’t going to subside anytime soon.
Interest in backyard cemeteries brings me to the New York Times article. As it reports, home burial was once common but has fallen in practice because, among other things, the effect on real estate resale value.
Now I, for one, would be totally cool with a cemetery in my backyard ESPECIALLY if it meant the house price was a little lower. I’m not bothered by the concept in the least. I have a hunch, too, that more and more people will pursue home funerals and burials as a joint venture. It makes sense.
When the Death Reference Desk formally launched in the summer of 2009, it became clear that economic issues related to death and dying would continually pop up. Earlier this week, The Dallas Morning News ran an article on home funerals which echoes a July article on the same subject in the New York Times.
In a nutshell, all of the articles on home funerals explain that many people are interested in taking care of the dead body (without the assistance of a funeral director) because it is cheaper. While that’s true, and I am the first to say that funerals are too expensive, I’m not so sure that money is a huge force behind the interest in home funerals. From what I can gather, it seems as if the people exploring the idea of a home funeral are middle income earners and higher and that the interested parties want a more personal service. This all makes sense too. Indeed, the return of home funerals isn’t so much an innovation as a throwback to 19th century funeral practices. This is a historical point often missed by reporters working the home funeral beat.
The article sums up the Texas home burial workshop this way:
But why would someone want to take charge of his own funeral? The most obvious reason is price. Depending on how much of the preparation is done at home, the family could save thousands of dollars. But there are emotional reasons as well, Bates said.
His mother died in 2000 in Arlington. And while a funeral home dealt with much of the preparation, the family wanted her buried where she grew up, in Tulia. So they rented a van, put the coffin in the back and stopped at places along the way where she had visited.
“It was good for all of us,” Bates said.
So there you have it. A nice combination of funeral thrift and personalized memorialization. In the event that combination seems too poigant here is a predictably over-the-top CNN video about a graveyard offering a buy-one-get-the-second-grave-for-50%-off sale. The classy title sums it up.
Here’s a death and dirty money twofer for this lovely Saturday. Enjoy!
The Wall Street Journal reports on “life settlements” — investors buy elderly people’s insurance policies with the stipulation that they’ll cover the premiums while the person is still alive and then cash in upon death. As a result, the sooner death occurs, the greater the return on investment. Unfortunately (??) some people don’t go so easily…
Carol Tonzi, a court reporter in Palmyra, N.Y., sank $51,700 into partial ownership of a $5 million policy in 2003 … She says her tax preparer touted the investment as “safe and secure” and said her money in five years would grow to $82,720, a 60% increase.
But Ms. Tonzi, 52, is still waiting for the policyholder, now 89, to pass away. Over the past three years, she says she has shelled out an additional $15,000 in premium payments. She is suing the tax preparer … alleging negligent advice. “It’s a mess,” she says. “If I wanted to gamble, I would have left the money in the stock market.”
Ouch. In a similarly gruesome vein, Improbable Research (via BoingBoing) posted last month about estate taxes and timed deaths:
Our prize-winning research showed that when estate taxes are known in advance to be changing, some people time their deaths (or have their deaths timed for them) so as to save their heirs money. The evidence: in the U.S. history of estate taxes, when tax rates went up, there were less (than otherwise) deaths after the law change, and when tax rates went down, there were more deaths after the law change. …
Now the U.S. Congress has granted us a social scientist’s fondest dream — or worst nightmare — the perfect “natural experiment.” As of January 1 of this year, the U.S. estate tax has been abolished for the year 2010, and is scheduled to be reinstated in 2011 with rates as high as 55%. If our findings (and those of our colleagues in Australia and Sweden) are right, there some would be “moved” from the end of 2009 to the beginning of 2010, as some rich folks hold on to bequeath their assets tax-free. Of course, the really morbid stuff will happen at the end of this year, when dying in December of 2010 will incur no estate tax, but dying beginning in January 1, 2011 can trigger a tax liability equal to more than half the taxable estate. It’s being called the “Throw Momma from the Train” tax provision.
Weird, sad and huh? As one of them groundling proles who will inherit naught but gewgaws, good looks and bad circulation, I’ve never been compelled to imagine such things. Sounds like being super rich is unexpectedly macabre.
This is a story which persists in the news. County morgues all across America continue to deal with unclaimed dead bodies. I have been writing about these cases on Death Ref’s Death + the Economy section.
Minneapolis is the featured city this time (my home for many years) and the Hennepin County Morgue. As always, I will continue to track these stories for the Death Reference Desk.
This article is a few weeks old so it isn’t breaking news. That said, I just noticed the video and watched it. The images of all the unclaimed bodies stacked up in the morgue freezer is a tragedy. I’ve been covering the unclaimed body situation in Detroit (as well as across America) in the Death + the Economy section of Death Ref since the summer of 2009.
It is a telling moment for any nation at a crossroads with itself when a charity is started not to help the living in need but the dead. Of course the living still need to bury the dead (so this isn’t clearly a life vs. death issue) but the formation of the May We Rest in Peace charity to help bury the unclaimed dead bodies in Detroit is a sign of what is to come.
Watch the video. We’re in the middle of a tragedy. Soon enough, it will become a farce.