The online way of death

Log on, click, buy a cremation -- hassle-free funerals are here, thanks to the Net.

Published April 28, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

When Karen Mitchell's grandfather had a stroke and began hospice services at home in February, she realized the family had to start thinking about arrangements for his impending death. "I thought, 'Jeez, what are we going to do with the body.'"

Mitchell, 32, who lived next door to her grandparents in Hooksett, N.H., knew her grandfather's wishes were to be cremated, but she didn't know where to begin.

The thought of going to a funeral home "creeped" her out even though she's no stranger to dead bodies, given she's a nurse in the intensive care unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "The whole environment at funeral homes with so much grief, not knowing whose grief I'm going to run into," she said. "To make matters worse, I'm the type when I'm nervous I start to laugh and crack jokes."

And then it hit her. A year earlier when she went online to find an urn for the ashes of her beloved dog, Sampson, she came across a Web site that sold not only pet urns online but an array of cremation services for people. At the time she thought it was strange that a firm would offer such services via the Internet but she was curious and ended up spending an hour and a half perusing the urns and reading through the site run by the Cremation Society of New Hampshire.

Mitchell returned to the site in February and ended up planning and buying her grandfather Cecil Kurz's entire cremation online.

Mitchell is the type of consumer who makes some funeral directors nervous. With their elaborate funeral homes and their propensity to glad-handing, it is not surprising that the entrenched funeral industry bristles at virtual shopping carts and faceless consumers. But experts who follow the industry say consumers who buy everything from books to insurance online are starting to think, "Why not funerals?"

A growing number of funeral home operators are posting their price lists on Web sites and offering services for sale online. The option is perfect for those who want to avoid funeral parlors lined with grieving people, heavyset undertakers in dark suits and cadavers.

The choice, however, is not yet a click away in every town. Funeral directors, in large part, are not rushing to add virtual retail to their funereal repertoires. Many aren't anxious to put their coveted price lists online for the entire world to see. Such a move would inevitably lead to online comparison shopping by consumers, opening up a new gateway into a notoriously secretive industry long seen, whether rightly or wrongly, as eager to take advantage of people at their most vulnerable. (The average cost of a funeral these days is well over $5,000, not including burial.)

There's also some pushback against the idea from a more philosophical standpoint. Undertakers and even some consumer advocates are worried that online funerals might trivialize the gravity of death. Mourners, they say, may benefit from interaction with a mortician or a visit to the crematorium so as to better accept death. Distancing oneself from the grim details, via the Internet, may not be psychologically healthy.

Bottom-line, though, consumers today are convenience and no-hassle oriented in every aspect of life. Why not death?

The Cremation Society of New Hampshire is not run by some upstart dot-com company. The society is owned by Manchester, N.H.-based Phaneuf Funeral Homes and Crematorium, an almost 100-year-old family-owned funeral company with three full-service funeral homes, two crematories, and two chapels.

Buddy Phaneuf, Phaneuf Funeral Homes' president and chief executive officer, said the firm has had a cremation Web site up since 1996 but has seen online planning go from 50 people in 1998 to 200 last year. Typically, he said, 15 people now plan a cremation online every month, with 70 to 100 signing up as members of the society with the expectation they may use the firm's services when the need arises.

Here's what you encounter when you decide to order a cremation at the Cremation Society of New Hampshire. You'll be prompted to fill out a membership form including the basics such as name, marital status, next of kin, and armed services affiliation. Then you select from four cremation packages: the Direct Cremation Charge, $790; Veterans Package, $1,090; Private Viewing Package, $1,290; and the Service of Remembrance Package $1,990. You can then choose to pick out an urn or order flowers if you wish. And then the system prompts you to choose whether you want someone specific to pick up the ashes, have them delivered to a certain location, or have them scattered. The final step is entering your credit card number.

After completing the form with her grandmother Eleanor, Mitchell received a confirmation in the mail instructing her to call the cremation firm when her grandfather died and the company would then handle the disposition of the body. "I didn't have to talk with a real person at the Cremation Society until we called to have them come get him when he died," she said. He passed away on March 2 at the age of 83.

The unusual shopping experience, she said, was almost akin to buying a book from The arrangements were made on her computer and also on a laptop at her grandparents' home, making it a more relaxed experience and as a result allowing her to make better choices. While she made some apologies for being matter-of-fact about the arrangements, she stressed that doing the planning online was more private. If she cried, it was in front of her family and friends and a computer screen -- not an unknown funeral director.

"I'm surprised at how easy it was," she said. "I hope I'm able to do this kind of planning for cremations or burials if I'm in the unfortunate position of handling such things in the future."

Mitchell's online awakening will force conservative funeral directors who are slow to change to give the people want they want, said Todd Van Beck, president of Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Services in Houston. But it's still unclear right now how prevalent online funeral planning is. The National Funeral Directors Association does not track how many of its 13,500 members have a Web presence.

Anecdotal evidence suggests demand is rising. Michael Turkiewicz, founder and president of Portland, Ore.-based FuneralNet, a funeral industry Web developer and Web site manager with 525 funeral-home clients nationwide, says he has seen interest in e-commerce among his customers take off in the last two years. In 2001, 3 percent of his clientele were selling some sort of funeral services online. Today, that figure is 10 percent.

Still, the vast majority of funeral home Web sites are little more than marketing tools. Some sites say they offer online planning but typically serve only as a way for funeral homes to develop a database of potential customers. Consumers are asked to fill out questionnaires and then e-mail the information to the home.

The biggest funeral home conglomerates appear to be in no rush to go online. Corporate chains own about 12 percent of the 22,000 funeral homes throughout the country. The biggest, Houston-based Service Corporation International, has looked into selling funeral services online, said David Warren, director of communications for the company. However, he said, the company has no plans to go beyond selling flowers or providing online obituaries in the near term.

The Internet, Warren said, is perfect for buying a book but it's hard to demonstrate the benefit of buying funeral services online. "How do you differentiate between a wood and metal casket online?" he asked. "It's something you want to touch and see. Even with most car purchases -- you do get a lot of information online but you test drive it. You can't meet our funeral directors online."

He pointed to the firm's decision to offer funeral webcams to back up his claim that consumers are apprehensive about planning online. "Three years ago we installed the ability to watch a funeral online at a couple of our locations," he said. "To date, zero people have wanted that option."

Despite the $9.5 billion industry's ambivalence, the Commonwealth Institute's Vanbeck believes an increasing number of established funeral homes will be posting their prices online and offering some sort of funeral planning options on their sites. "People are going to always care for the dead in a consistent manner with how they live their lives," said Vanbeck. "You have people pay their bills on the Web, order medicine on the Web. That's eventually going to spill over into: 'Mother's dead, she lives in Philadelphia. We live in San Diego. Let's do this over the Internet.' There are going to be protests of course. People saying, 'My God. This is so impersonal.'" But the established funeral industry, he maintained, will have to get on board.

Some people are taking the online experience to extremes. One man who lived in Massachusetts was helping to plan his terminally ill mother's cremation and he insisted on doing everything via e-mail, said the Cremation Society's Phaneuf. He even ended up e-mailing Phaneuf when his mother passed away instead of picking up the telephone to inform the funeral home. "I'm lucky I checked my e-mail that day," he said.

While Phaneuf sees a lot of interest by consumers for online cremation planning, he hasn't seen as much activity on the typical funeral side.

"There's so much more involved with planning a traditional funeral with burial," Phaneuf said. "You have to determine the time for the wake, the color of the casket, bring a picture of the deceased in for the hairdresser, pick out the music, choose which of the three funeral homes you want, figure out if the chapel is large enough, etc."

Some consumer groups are leery about what a trend toward online funerals might signify.

"I think it's foolish to plan a funeral online without meeting someone face to face," said Joshua Slocum, transition director for the Funeral Consumers Alliance based in South Burlington, Vt. "You need to meet the director and the employees. We're not talking about a Barbie doll here. We're talking about a funeral. You can't take the emotion out of death."

Slocum also warned consumers about prepaying for funeral services well in advance of death with so-called "preneed" policies in the form of insurance or trusts. Depending on the state, he said, your money might not be protected and consumers could end up paying more than they bargained for.

However, Slocum maintained, the movement by some funeral homes to publish detailed information about their services and prices will encourage consumers to comparison shop, something that often falls by the wayside when a death occurs.

Not all funeral homes that have Web sites provide price lists online. Given the industry's past reluctance to clearly itemize funeral charges, their lack of eagerness to enhance customer price-shopping abilities is understandable.

The federal government had to step in nearly 20 years ago with regulations forcing funeral homes to provide consumers upfront with a detailed price list of all goods and services. The Federal Trade Commission's so called "funeral rule" was supposed to diminish deceptive business practices and hidden fees. But a 1999 AARP study found that 32 percent of those polled were not given a written price list up front, and another survey taken that year revealed only 8 percent of consumers even knew funeral homes were required to hand out a price list.

Peter Moloney of Moloney Family Funeral Homes in Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y., said the firm's Web site posted the price list at one time but decided to take it down. "People were arbitrarily coming online, looking at it and leaving. I had no data on them; therefore I didn't have a lead," he said. "We're here to help people. If they want the information bad enough they can simply make a phone call.

"It was no benefit to us to have it up there, and from a legal point of view we are not required to keep it online," Moloney added.

Indeed, the Internet was not taken into account when the funeral rule was adopted in 1984 or when the rule was amended in 1994, according to Carole Danielson, the funeral rule program coordinator for the FTC. But, she stressed, if a funeral home is offering consumers some sort of online planning or interactive functions, they will have to immediately send out a price list either via e-mail or regular mail if requested.

There is the possibility that funeral homes may some day be required to post the price list online whether they like it or not. The FTC, Danielson said, is now in the process of reviewing the funeral rule and considering whether it needs to be amended again to make it more "e-commerce friendly."

But for Mitchell, the key factors weren't price, or even convenience. It was her wariness of dealing with the economic details of death while mourning. Even though Mitchell of Manchester, N.H., lived close to the funeral home that handled her grandfather's cremation, she was happy not to have to make a trip there while she was mourning. "If we had gone into a funeral home at a time when we were emotionally vulnerable, I don't know what we would have ended up buying," she said. "At home, there was no pressure to buy anything. I know some people may benefit from the interaction with the funeral home, but we knew what we wanted so this worked out for us."

By Eve Tahmincioglu

Eve Tahmincioglu is a freelance writer based in Wilmington, Delaware.

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