The Business of Death

Houston is widely known as a leader in the field of health care. But when there's nothing more doctors can do for a patient, that's when another business sector Houston leads comes into play. From the KUHF Business Desk, Andrew Schneider reports on what's increasingly being referred to as the death care industry.

The late George Carlin was famous for skewering euphemistic language. He had some choice words for the way Americans talk about death.

“Thanks to our fear of death in this country, I won’t have to die. I’ll pass away. Or I’ll expire, like a magazine subscription”

So it’s easy to imagine what Carlin would make of the term “death care.” For funeral service providers, though, death care has a different connotation.

“It’s caring for people at time of death, caring for the families at time of death. So I think that term has just become kind of a common nomenclature within the industry.”

Funeral vehicles
1916 Packard Funeral Bus and 1921 RockFalls Hearse

Phil Jacobs is a senior vice president with Service Corporation International. Headquartered off Allen Parkway, the multi-billion-dollar firm owns well over a thousand funeral homes and cemeteries across the U.S. and Canada. It’s a far cry from the traditional image of a funeral home.

“In the very beginning, all of the funeral homes were independently owned and usually stayed within the families for many generations.”

That’s Genevieve Keeney, a mortician and the president of the National Museum of Funeral History. Located just north of Beltway 8, the museum shares a deep history with SCI. Robert Waltrip, son of a Heights funeral home director, founded both. Again, Genevieve Keeney.

“Mr. Waltrip thought of a concept of consolidating resources. Instead of having five different funeral homes having all of the individual vehicles required to actually conduct a funeral for a large family, you could go to another funeral home who already had two or three cars and borrow those.”

In other words, economies of scale. SCI has become a dominant player in the death care business, but there are limits to its reach. A number of states — notably Pennsylvania — have strict regulations designed to make such clustering of funeral homes difficult.

Even in SCI’s backyard, though, there are still plenty of independent, family-run homes.

 “I bought some stock in SCI, just a little bit, so I could just see what they be doing.”

Skipper Lee Frazier owns the Eternal Rest Funeral Home in Southeast Houston.

“If you own some stock in a company, you get invited to the meetings, and you get a brochure, and you know what the salaries are and everything. But those guys make big bucks. And, of course, they have big overhead, so they’re trying to bury everybody in the world.”

Frazier opened Eternal Rest after a long, successful career as a music promoter to have something to leave to his sons, both of whom are funeral directors. His philosophy is simple.

“Our customers tell other people, and once we bury Aunt Susie, we bury Uncle John. Treat the people right, and you’ll stay in business, and you’ll grow.  Treat the people wrong, you go out of business, and you’ll go down.”

Presidential Hearse
Presidential Hearse used in the state funerals of both Presidents Ronald Reagan (2004) and Gerald Ford (2006-2007)

And to that extent, death care is like any other business.

From the KUHF Business Desk, I’m Andrew Schneider. 

 

The images are from the National Museum of Funeral History.

Bio photo of Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Business Reporter

Andrew Schneider joined KUHF in January 2011, after more than a decade as a print reporter for The Kiplinger Letter...