I picked up my very first suicide a few months after I started in this business. I didn’t know he was a suicide until I unwrapped him and saw the electrical cord still around his neck. It made me cry. I was actually a sensitive person, long ago.
It was just he and his mother, a disabled woman who was in such shock she would not deal with the funeral home. She was immobile and had serious speech difficulties. I am guessing her son was her caretaker and she found him. When I went to her home, I saw she was clearly a hoarder. She sat in a wheelchair at a small table, watching TV amid huge piles of trash. She could barely dress herself.
Beyond giving me the information for the death certificate and telling me only a few specifications for the burial – a Jewish casket and plot – she didn’t say anything else. She didn’t want to discuss her son’s clothing, having a Rabbi present at the graveside, or the costs.
Because this was a suicide, I had to get special permission from a Rabbi to have him buried in the Jewish section of our cemetery. That was no problem. I understand a lot of religions are looking the other way on that issue. Maybe they’ve finally realized that living sucks sometimes. I also let them know that a woman in their community may need some caretaking.
But, since the woman refused to talk to us, she also refused to pay. I asked my supervisor what we were supposed to do; did we take the body back to the medical examiner? That was when I learned when a funeral home takes custody of human remains, they are to keep those remains until final disposition, regardless of payment. We can tell a family we will not serve them without being paid; we can even request that they pick up the body themselves and find another funeral home, but we cannot dump a body off.
The only exception is if we receive a body and are unable to locate any family, or if the family just flat out tells us they refuse to come in and refuse to pay and don’t care what happens. At that point, we can go through the proper channels and can usually get approval from the state to cremate the body within a few weeks. However, we are then required to store the cremated remains…forever. Every place I have worked has boxes and boxes of cremains dating back several decades.
Funeral homes are unlike other businesses in that we agree to serve you without first checking on your ability to pay. Once you call us, we don’t do a credit check before we come to your house. If you say you want the funeral in two days, we’ll do the embalming and order the casket as soon as possible after picking up the body. That’s a few thousand in services and merchandise we have provided to you up front, and we don’t even know if you have a job.
Personally, I am not that nice. I charge much less than other funeral homes, so I don’t surprise anyone with a $10,000 bill. I simply tell families before I schedule a service or other arrangements, or order merchandise, I need payment. We will absolutely take the body into our care and I’ll even start the embalming, but no casket orders, no flowers, no reserving the chapel or booking with the cemetery until the money is in my hand.
There are a few places, usually discount cremation outfits, who are even stricter and require a credit card number before coming out to pick up the body. I’m a little more lenient. I understand if you don’t have a credit card or if you need a few days to contact the rest of your family who can all help you with some of the finances. I will at least pick up the body and try to work with you.
But, attempting to dump a body off on someone else or refusing to release the body (such as if the family found a less expensive funeral home) due to payment issues is illegal. Protect yourself against losses as best as you can by requiring payment up front for as much as you can. I dealt with a situation recently where one funeral home was refusing to release a body into my care because the family had not paid for the services already provided, which included embalming, a casket, and flight arrangements. Not only had no money been collected, but no contract had been signed, meaning the other funeral home had no recourse against this family. I am hoping they choose to pay for the services they received, but if they don’t, the other funeral home will have to eat the loss.
Anyone who has experienced a loss for which they were financially unprepared should be aware of ways in which funeral homes or medical staff may threaten them into paying. Many hospitals threaten to charge morgue storage fees to families who do not choose a funeral home within hours of death. Some hospitals even flat-out lie to families and say they don’t have a morgue or the morgue is full. Never believe them; even if the morgue was full, it’s their responsibility to find another space with a cooler. I don’t know about the legality of morgue storage fees, but they are clearly not very enforceable.
If your funeral home threatens you with body dumping or immediate cremation if you don’t pay within a certain time period, report them to your state mortuary board. Side note: body donation is not an option for those who cannot pay. It is actually quite expensive to prepare a body for donation, so do not believe anyone who tells you Grandpa is on his way to become a med school cadaver if you don’t pay.
Some things that are legal: refusing to release cremated remains until payment. How they get around this: they don’t charge you for the cremains; they charge you for the opening of the vault holding the cremains, which happens to equal the cremation charges. It is also legal to remove merchandise such as a headstone or nameplate if your check should bounce, or to not set a headstone if you still owe a balance.
I believe most people are good-natured and honest, and that if they make funeral arrangements, they intend to pay for the services. A few people are true crooks. I had one very nice man cancel his check after the services were complete. I believe this situation is so rare that it’s not worth switching to a cash-only policy.
I also believe a funeral home should be careful not to alienate people who are having the worst day of their lives; AKA their entire customer base. Do not approach a grieving family with the attitude that they are going to rip you off or order a bunch of expensive things and then have the body moved in the middle of the night. Trust them, because they are trusting you with the person who meant everything to them. But you must be a good judge of who is truly out to take advantage of you and who is an honest person who just needs a few days to come up with the money.
I never cry anymore.