After Bette and Nick Zakula's grown son died in a car accident, the Wisconsin couple drove his body from the hospital to a crematorium, then held a simple church service.
In doing so, the Zakulas gave their son what more and more Americans would like but few will ever have: a plain and simple departure from life. They spent only $200 and, more importantly, gained an unexpected peace of mind.
"Being involved helped to make it a reality. . . . It was more personal," said Bette Zakula, who decided to arrange her son's funeral after failing to find a funeral home that would provide just a cremation.
For many, the American death ritual remains a different story. Hobbled by grief, mourners are coaxed by saccharine sales pitches into buying costly goods and services. From casket to cosmetics, the average funeral bill totals nearly $4,500. Burials typically cost $3,500 more, while cremations add another few hundred dollars.
There are signs of change. Although few people will ever care for their own dead as the Zakulas did, little by little, more people are shying away from at least some of the pomp of traditional funerals, and choosing cremation or simpler services.
Alarmed, funeral directors are searching for new ways to profit, from cremation-related products to advance payment plans.
"I think people never did want fancy services--they were foisted on them by the trade," said Jessica Mitford, author of the 1963 bestseller "The American Way of Death," which she's currently updating.
Simpler services are gaining popularity as a "rebellion against all that nonsense . . . and [because] people are becoming aware of the danger of being fleeced," Mitford said.
Funeral directors argue that while some of the nation's 22,500 funeral homes have been slow to answer consumers' needs, most are trying to be more responsive.
"This is not a cookie-cutter society. Funeral services have rallied to that, and have tried to give people choices," said John Carmon, a Connecticut funeral director and spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Assn.
The mortuary men at the Frank E. Campbell funeral home on New York City's well-heeled Upper East Side are proud of the choices their hushed quarters offer.
Families may view the deceased in any of 12 "staterooms," including a wood-paneled "library," complete with fireplace, funeral director Paul Horvath tells a visitor.
In another room is the queen of Campbell coffins, an $85,000 one-of-a-kind cast bronze with glass liner. On a simpler scale, a walnut casket sells for $10,700 (wholesale $1,800) and a plain corrugated box for cremations sells for $695 ($100 to $150 wholesale).
"The upkeep is tremendous on Madison Avenue," said Horvath, explaining the high prices at the establishment that handled the bodies of Judy Garland and John Lennon. In return, Campbell tries to "go the extra mile" in serving families.
A century ago, mourners sought little more than a plain box from the local furniture maker and a clergyman to say the right words. The rest was done at home by relatives.
In recent decades, new customs evolved, including embalming the body before viewing and fancy "protective" sealed caskets to keep out the elements. Gradually, the undertaker grew to become the unquestioned director of the funeral show.
Today, while funeral directors still portray themselves as sage professionals, most are trying to be more open and approachable, stressing their self-proclaimed roles as "death experts" and counselors.
"Before I graduated in 1974 [from mortuary school], we had psychology one hot summer afternoon, and a little bereavement study," recalls Jacquie Taylor, president of the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science. "Now our students take three semesters of psychology, a semester of sociology and other courses such as communications."
As part of this trend, funeral homes increasingly offer "after-care" services such as seminars on cooking for one, camps for grieving children and support groups.
Of course, meeting clients' needs also generates good public relations--perhaps more of a must in the funeral business than in any other. This point is especially revealed in the industry's trade press, one of the few arenas where profits and PR are openly discussed.
The NFDA's "P.R. Pointers" column recently cited the Hanes-Lineberry Funeral Service in Greensboro, N.C., for a pet-loss workshop, and the Shelley Funeral Chapel in Little Falls, Minn., for sending pink or blue carnations to newborns.
Whatever their efforts, when death strikes, the funeral director usually meets an undoubtedly weak consumer.
Upon entering a funeral home, most people are dazed, confused, ignorant of the process of arranging a funeral and unaware of laws that protect them. Furthermore, they must make a purchase; there's no coming back next year after saving up or looking around.
"It's a time of considerable grief and trauma," said Eileen Harrington, an associate director in the Federal Trade Commission's bureau of consumer protection. "People may not have the inclination and energy to shop around."
To arm consumers, the FTC in 1984 handed down the Funeral Rule, mandating that caskets aren't necessary for cremations without viewings, customers can choose whatever they want but must pay a service fee, and--the key provision--funeral homes must provide all visiting customers with a detailed price list that Harrington said brings "reality right back into the transaction."
Still, the FTC says compliance has been low with the price list requirement, prompting a recent nationwide crackdown on violators. Seven Nashville homes were the first to be nabbed, the commission said.
Consumer advocates call the Funeral Rule largely toothless. They are especially angry that funeral homes, which already make large profits on caskets, can lump any cost under the "non-declinable" service fee--potentially making up profit losses caused by cremation and other changes.
In a survey of Vermont funeral homes, Lisa Carlson, author of "Caring For Your Own Dead," found such fees jumped an average 28% in the last year to close to $1,000.
Advocates also say that in some regions a few large chains have been snapping up local homes and raising prices.
The NFDA acknowledges that funeral costs have risen an average of 3% a year in recent decades. But it says profit margins have fallen from 14% in 1974 to 9.25% last year due to rising costs "not passed on to the consumer."
Whatever their profit, funeral homes big and small worry about consumers' growing distaste for the traditional funeral, comprising embalming, viewing, service and burial.
Of the 2 million U.S. dead last year, 21% were cremated, compared with 5% in 1974, said the Cremation Assn. of North America, which attributes the change to a desire for simplicity, cost savings and easier shipment of remains in a mobile society.
As cremations have risen, other services have declined. Oregon funeral director Ellsworth D. Purdy found the number of embalmings at his home fell from 82% in 1978 to 30% in 1991. Only 16% of families held no service in 1978, compared with 35% in 1991.
To meet the demand for less ritual, Lloyd Mandel opened a "funeral store" in a Skokie, Ill., mall six years ago. Aimed at Jewish clients, the store offers lower prices by providing only graveside or temple services, avoiding the high overhead of a funeral home.
He's been so successful that the huge Service Corp. International chain recently bought his store, made him a regional vice president and asked him to research other markets for similar ventures.
In Memphis, Tenn., the Family Heritage Gallery store sells caskets only--for up to 50% less than funeral homes charge. The going hasn't been easy, however. Recently, owner Al Tacker sued six casket-makers, accusing them of conspiring to keep him out of the business. The case was settled out of court.
Such trends panic most funeral directors.
"The American consumer is apparently 'voting with his feet' and choosing to walk away from the services and products of the traditional funeral home," laments executive editor Ron Hast in Mortuary Management magazine.
Offering new products helps, he and others say. In another issue, Hast cites a Seattle funeral home that displays flower arrangements, memorial jewelry, even burial clothing in an environment "similar to a fine department store."
As well, funeral homes are aggressively selling "pre-need" trusts and insurance policies in which people pay for funerals in advance. More than $15 billion has been invested in such plans, the American Assn. of Retired Persons said.
But consumer advocates warn some plans are risky. They suggest instead planning without paying, with the help of memorial societies, nonprofit consumer groups that offer price comparisons and other services to help people obtain simple, low-cost funerals.
A memorial society recommended by a friend proved crucial to the Zakulas, alerting them to the option of avoiding the high cost and commercialization of a funeral home, said Bette Zakula, who has three surviving children ages 16, 12 and 5.
The process felt so right for them, she said, that when the unthinkable happened--a second grown child died in a car accident nine months later--the Zakulas themselves took care of her funeral, as they had done for their son.