Ethics of Funerary Services — In Theory and In Reality

Every so often, a fear-mongering call of ethics violations finds its way into the business of the funeral home. This is my business. They find their way into our trade journals, and twice in my long career (47) I have seen it hit the mainstream. While ethicists do make valid and logical arguments about things that could go wrong, what lacks in these arguments are the blunt realities — the complexities and nuance — of the situation. I’m not saying every county, region, person, is perfect, but the theoretical dilemmas rarely surface. Let me explain.

Let’s start with funeral homes. I, like most of my colleagues, was born into this business. Funeral homes are very often multi-generational institutions that live and die with the community it serves, no pun intended. These days, four-year-colleges offer bachelor’s degrees in mortuary services, and many students often elect an additional two-years of embalming direction — equivalent in time to completing a Master’s. This, I know, because my children followed in my footsteps. We’ll come back to that investment made into our calling.

It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally an intrepid entrepreneur will come along and decide to build his own funeral home. Costs, in which I’m only counting the building and equipment, comes to an average of $300,000. Let’s forget about property, staffing, the aforementioned education, and heavy advertising needed in a thin market. Because then you’d be nearing twice that amount.

Next, let’s think about why that happens so infrequently. Imagine someone close to you has died. Is your first thought to call and price out or check out Yelp! for the top funeral home ratings in you area? Hardly. 99% of the time, you know who you are going to call. God forbid, If your loved ones didn’t get to express their wishes to you, you at least know who your friends are in the community. You go to them because you trust them, and you trust them because you and our families have established that relationship with each other already. Unless you are in the most urban of areas, you won’t see or hear invasive funeral home commercials like you do Honda commercials. Reputation is our sole advertising.

So, taking all of what I’ve said into consideration, we can now address the charge that it’s an ethical violation for funeral directors to be coroners, one of the most common arguments I see, specifically, because the charge has been thrown at me. I have been appointed as a coroner by my county legislature — many years after being a funeral director. And I serve that role with pride, because it’s important, and I continue to serve my role as funeral director, because it’s what I’ve built my life on, and no avenues to which I can turn to otherwise.

Let’s take a look at what my options are. I live in an area of about 14,000 people. Most are employed by two major factories, and the village is home to many great small establishments, and outside of town there are a few big box stores. Sounds like every town right? Well, I was appointed with a sense of urgency by the officials, because no other person was qualified to do this job. NPR made the argument some years ago, in one of those two mainstream pieces I mentioned, that we aren’t certified physicians. Well, detectives, even of the forensic variety, oftentimes need no more than a Bachelor’s degree. And it’s not as if the appointment or the election of a coroner is taken lightly. Just about every state requires training, and the aforementioned specialized degree in mortuary service — it is not about social graces. The field and study are heavily engrossed in medical science, with some business and law attached.

So when I was appointed, 30 years down the road, I did not feel conflicted because the alternatives are preposterous. I’d continued providing the service that my family had before me, and although one hates to think in these terms, it’s what amounts to a very valuable and esteemed business. It is hard work with no semblance of an advanced schedule. You don’t vacation — at least, the good ones don’t. I’m not giving it all up, this lifelong investment in time and money, for the theoretical ethicist calling for my resignation on the potential for conflict of interest. But let’s look at that.

A coroner, as I’ve mentioned, is generally an appointed position. It is not your standard political position in which there’s lobbying and back-room deals. It’s usually the most qualified person that is called upon. What a coroner does, mainly, is attempts to resolve, usually for purposes of filling out legal paperwork, what happened in the cases of death that are unusual in circumstance AND in which an attending physician was not present. The amount of times that this happens is rare. The coroner is not necessarily doing all the work himself either. The position is as a director who works closely with law enforcement in these rare, suspicious deaths, to determine if further investigation is needed.

One of the most ridiculous claims I’ve seen in writing is that coroners that are funeral directors use their positions to steer business to themselves. What I’ve tried to convey with this article is how often this happens — never. Loved ones do not communicate with the coroner’s office unless they come into the office. And funeral directors do not loiter around the hospital for “unusual deaths.”

Generally, in economic terms, these ethics charges are brought on by people looking to penetrate the market, so to speak. But, in an economic sense, what is the rational thing to do? It’s all relative. No one is breaking a law, and no one is getting hurt. As an owner, in the capitalist society in which I’m forced to live in, I am not going to cede my home because my competitor attempts to discredit me, or cede my position to someone less qualified, or worse, the person calling me out for ethics. It’s a risky hail-mary to blame someone else in this business for one’s own losses and disappointments. It’s risky because it makes that person look silly and desperate. What this business is really about is trust, compassion, and dedication. I enjoy it and it is my duty — my only duty, my only calling. And I’m not giving it up. Neither should you.