The Business Of Providing A Low Cost Of Dying
Thursday, May 3, 2012
Aired 5/3/12 on KPBS News.
A new San Diego undertaker wants to corner the market on low-cost funerals.
SAN DIEGO Norma Runion-Threet, of Buffalo, Texas, got the news in February. Her 37-year-old son Jason, who had moved to San Diego, was dead after he jumped off the Balboa Park bridge over State Route 163. Jason’s suicide didn’t come as a shock. His mother says he’d attempted suicide before and he’d struggled with addiction.
“It was one of those things where on the outside his life looked great, but on the inside he was very unstable emotionally,” she said.
And aside from the emotional trauma, the family had to deal with the body. So Runnion-Threet sat down at her computer and searched the Internet.
“And I just put ‘basic funeral San Diego California’ in the search engine,” she said, “and they popped up.”
“They” were a company called Basic Funerals, a Canada-based mortuary that has just entered the San Diego market.
The high cost of dying is still a problem for survivors in San Diego. But the popularity of cremations and use of the Internet have given consumers more information and new ways to save money. Basic Funerals claims to be a new kind of undertaker that fits right in with these emerging trends. Their business model and sales pitch: Compete with lower costs and let people arrange their funerals online.
One of the two founders of Basic Funerals is Dominic Mazzone, who grew up in San Diego. The other, Eric Vandermeersch, said he was just a kid in Canada when he decided he wanted to be in the funeral business.
“The very first funeral I ever attended was my grandfather’s funeral,” he said. “And I just remember paying very close attention to the funeral director. He looked after my family. He looked after everything we needed, and I really thought that was something I wanted to do.”
Vandermeersch said Basic Funerals keeps its prices low by reducing overhead costs, doing without on-site chapels and visitation rooms. The idea is to provide low-cost services and allow consumers to opt for the minimum.
“To give people everything that they want, with no pressure and no sales tactics,” said Vandermeersch.
Speak with a person who has paid for funeral services, and they often assume an apologetic tone when they talk about not wanting to spend too much. People in the funeral business know this, and they exploit it by presenting the elaborate, expensive funeral as a show of respect for a lost loved one.
That’s the view of Barbara Thomson, director of a local industry watchdog group called the San Diego Memorial Society.
“As bad as I hate to say this, the majority of the funeral homes in San Diego County take tremendously unfair advantage of the people, at a time when they are extremely vulnerable,” said Thomson.
Thomson is 83 years old, and she’s helped run the memorial society for 50 years. She works out of her home, and jokes that her “office” is a bench outside of a Poway postal annex, near where she lives.
Her group negotiates deals with local funeral homes, allowing their members reductions in price. She says, for instance, members can save $400 on a basic cremation, compared to what non-members would pay at the same mortuary.
Thompson took a look at Basic Funerals’ prices, advertised on their website. She said they are reasonable, but the prices she negotiates with local funeral homes are better. In fact, a call to one of her contractors indicated their cost for a basic cremation, for memorial society members, was a hundred dollars less.
And while Basic Funerals touts their web presence, Thompson said you can’t depend on funeral consumers to be web savvy.
“You have to keep in mind; elderly people are still not that great on computers,” she said. “So they aren’t going to get a lot of elderly business, because so many of them don’t even own computers.”
Vic Savino, owner of Legacy Funeral and Cremation Care in La Mesa, is the former president of the California Funeral Directors' Association. He said all association members, who run funeral homes, offer basic services and low-priced options. The difference with Basic Funerals is that they actively market their low-prices.
And Basic Funerals has clearly hit a big target of customers with their low-cost message. Eric Corona, of San Diego, also found them through an Internet search, and also hired them in response to an unexpected death… that of his mother.
“I did call a local company,” said Corona, “and their price was about three times as much for exactly the same service.”
In the end, Corona paid $1,300 for a basic cremation.
Basic funerals exemplifies one definite trend in the funeral business. Ninety-five percent of their funerals involve cremations, saving customers the considerable cost of a cemetery plot. Norma Runion-Threet said her son, before he died, told her he would want to be cremated. She said that would also be fine with her when she dies.
“I truly believe in an afterlife. Whatever they do with this body, this is just a piece of clay that God used to house his spirit,” she said.
The ashes of Norma’s son now rest in her bedroom in an urn, which happens to be an Asian import. She said Jason had a good sense of humor, and would have appreciated being placed in a Grecian urn that was made in Pakistan.
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