04/20/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Esprit de Mort: When Funeral Workers Behave Badly

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2010: A series of photos taken at Brooklyn morgue were published this week in the New York Post, revealing less than deferential treatment of the city’s dead.

Grinning mortuary technicians use corpses as props in dozens of disturbing Polaroids obtained by the Post.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is mortuary technician Kaihl Brassfield holding a severed head in a classic Heisman Trophy football pose.

"It was stupid," Brassfield, 35, told the Post. "It was just the culture there. Everyone was doing it."[...]

1996: When Jessica Mitford, author of the bestselling book The American Way of Death, died of lung cancer, her cremation cost four hundred and seventy-five dollars. A revised edition of her muckraking 1963 text exposing the practices of the funeral industry was published in 2000 and contained this letter from a bereaved daughter struggling to pay for her mother’s funeral:

In June 1942, my father purchased a funeral policy from Tharp-Sontheimer Life Insurance Company for my mother, Liberty Lemoine Feldheim, as well as one for himself. Later, in 1943 and 1945, he purchased one for each of his three daughters at a cost of approximately $218 per policy. Two hundred eighteen dollars does not seem like much, but in the 1940s, when your annual salary was approximately $3,000, it was quite a lot. As you can see, the policy included just about everything needed for a complete funeral. This policy was not purchased through a fast-talking salesman but from my grandfather, his father. I feel confident that my grandfather would not have sold these policies to family members and friends if he had known that it was a scam or fraudulent.

On April 15, 1996, my mother died. On April 16, 1996, my father and two sisters met with David Rogers with Tharp-Sontheimer, 1600 N. Causeway Boulevard, Metairie, La. In going over the arrangements they were shown one casket that he said was included in the policy. It looked as if it was covered in a felt material that resembled carpet padding (bits and pieces glued together) and that it might fall apart from the weight of a body. My father asked if he could pay extra for a better casket. They refused and said ANY changes in the casket voided the policy, but they would give a credit Of $300 toward the cost of a more expensive funeral. This seems like the old "Bait and Switch" scam so widely used to swindle people.

My father then said he would take the original casket with the services offered in the policy and donate the casket to someone's family who couldn't afford one and purchase an additional casket. Again they refused. They stated that under a Federal Trade Commission ruling they were not allowed to substitute or upgrade a casket or even separate a casket from the services. (In a recent conversation with the FTC, I have been told there is no such ruling.)

After several futile requests were made to have them allow us to pay for a better casket without voiding the rest of the services offered in the policy, my father and sisters, feeling both emotionally and physically drained, did what the funeral homes rely on them to do. They chose a different casket and the services they wished to have and in the end were given an invoice in the amount Of $7,916.84 after the $300 credit. The cost of the chosen casket alone was $3,595 plus tax. From there they went to see David Rogers' supervisor and Chairman of the Board, Stephen Sontheimer, at the 412.7 S. Claiborne Avenue, New Orleans office to plead their case. Having to deal with my mother's sudden death combined with five days of little to no sleep while at the hospital, we were all in emotional.

At a time when compassion and understanding were most definitely needed, they found Mr. Sontheimer to be very arrogant, disrespectful and degrading. Mr. Sontheimer refused their repeated request and led them to believe that there was absolutely nothing he could do. Why would the insurance company and/or funeral home not allow you to purchase a different casket without voiding the rest of the benefits of the policy if it were not meant to be a scam of "Bait & Switch" or "Insurance Fraud." What harm could it do? We are aware of at least one New Orleans funeral home that has allowed such changes.