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Bamboozles, Sacred and Secular

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When Clayton Smart removed tens of millions of dollars from the prepaid trust accounts of the cemeteries he owned in Michigan and Tennessee, he was indicted by authorities in both states and went to jail.

When, years before the Smart bamboozle, the erstwhile archbishop of Detroit removed tens of millions of dollars from the endowment care funds of diocesan cemeteries, he retired to his emeritus status in the good graces of his church and ecclesiastical up-line.

Both the cemetery mogul and the archbishop tampered with money set aside for one purpose to use it for another -- a kind of "robbing Peter to pay Paul" scheme -- one criminal, the other clerical, one governed by state regulation, the other outside the state's purview.

Of course, both the mogul and the churchman had their reasons. The former wanted to speculate in oil wells, the latter was building a museum in D.C. to honor the legacy of the late, great pope. But whether for selfish or selfless reasons, both "appropriations" undermined the financial viability of the cemetery properties. These funds generate income to pay for the "perpetual" upkeep of grounds and the delivery of future goods and services. Both left a mess for future management to sort out. And both took advantage of consumers whose funds, after all, were requisitioned.

The litany of prepaid cemetery and mortuary scandals is endless and everywhere, ever since the armies of junk-mailers, telemarketers, memorial "counselors" and commissioned sales hacks were deployed, decades ago, to coax ordinary folks into the "buy-now-die-later" deal by which mom and dad pay in advance for their "memorial estates" so as "not to be a burden to the children."

This is the "big-box" model of the mortuary marketplace common to "theme park" cemeteries and publicly traded funeral conglomerates who operate under the motto: take care of the sales and the services can take care of themselves. This is, not incidentally, the polar opposite of the "boutique" paradigm of mortuary care, the one taught to me by my father, to wit: take care of the service, and the sales will take care of themselves.

Both my late father's good counsel and my own forty years experience as a funeral director have convinced me that the "boutique" is better than the "big-box," operation, both for consumers and for professionals. And though the half-dozen funeral homes that bear our family name are happy to help our client families plan in advance, we have never required nor much encouraged them to pay in advance unless it suits their purposes. "No profit in preneed," has been the guiding principle. Turning a fair profit on funerals, well directed and delivered, has kept us in business for three generations, enjoying the trust of the families and communities we serve. Because all funerals are local, the locally owned, locally known, and locally accountable mortuary cannot hide under either corporate or ecclesiastical cover. Local scrutiny and oversight augur against consumer abuse. So does the family name on the sign. Where folks are known, it simply becomes bad business to take advantage of public trust.

That several of the "big-box" enterprises in our area and around the nation have become "take-the-money-and-run," scandals ought not to be very amazing.

The twenty-eight cemeteries in Michigan that Clayton Smart looted went into State receivership and have been shuffled off to new management which has installed a whole new set of fees and sales teams in hopes of ginning up much needed cash.

The diocesan cemeteries of Detroit, bereft of the interest on their endowment funds, have been turned over to a new management group called StoneMor Partners LP, a consortium of sales and marketing sorts from bankrupt or reconfigured merger and acquisition firms. StoneMor is but another iteration of the "big-box" model of preneed sales that is eager to wrap its cold-call and hard-sell in the unctuous idioms of holy mother church. His current Excellency, meanwhile, heavily laden with his own cash flow problems, the hemorrhage of lawyers fees and damages owing to the decade-long clergy abuse scandals not least among them, gets to wrap the church's cash hunger in StoneMor's corporate cover. If not exactly a holy alliance, it creates the kind of commemorative hybrid between commerce and captive audience that has been the dream of hucksters and holy men since the beginning of time.

A bill currently working its way through the US Congress, known as The Bereaved Consumer Bill of Rights (HR 3655) would bring all "vendors" of mortuary wares -- Amazon and Costco, archbishops and their factotums -- under the same consumer protections the Federal Trade Commission applied to funeral homes back in the mid-1980's. It was stalled in May by an amendment proposed to exempt church-owned cemeteries. It comes up for a Energy and Commerce Committee vote in the coming week.

That amendment should be rejected and the bill should become law. When archbishops partner with moguls, whether prayed over or preyed upon, consumers need all the protections they can get.

Thomas Lynch is a writer and a funeral director in Milford, Michigan.

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