Unethical and abusive practices by funeral homes were the subject of a major public scandal in the 1970s. News media were full of reports of price gouging, bait-and-switch tactics, overcharging for simple services by many in the funeral home industry across the United States.
The response of the American Jewish community was positive. In our community, too, what had been a service of the community to bereaved families largely utilizing the resources of the Orthodox, central community chevrot kadisha, had become multimillion dollar industries forcing costs of Jewish funerals higher and higher.
Part of the grassroots response to this public debate was the publishing of A Plain Pine Box, by Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minneapolis. Rabbi Goodman’s book described both the essence of a simple Jewish funeral and the activities of his congregation in providing all essential bereavement services to members. The book and the value placed on simple Jewish funerals became the basis for a sea change in many parts of the American Jewish community.
In our community, many congregations established chevrot kadisha to serve the needs of their members. And on a communitywide basis, the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington was established. Washington Star reporter Phil Shandler, also a leader in Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington, was a prime mover in giving public exposure to abusive practices and pricing by area Jewish funeral homes. The efforts by those activists resulted in a new and very welcome change in our community. Through the efforts of the JFPCGW, representing a growing list of member congregations, a contract was signed providing a simple Jewish funeral for a fixed price. It was less than a third of what was typical pricing in more well-known funeral homes in the Jewish community.
That pattern has continued up until this year. The fixed price contract price with Hines Rinaldi, the current contracting funeral home, is about $1,800 for all services for which other funeral homes charge between $6,000 and $10,000. Under the contract terms, these services are done without pressure because all aspects of the funeral package are automatic – there is no negotiation and no pressure. That is not a trivial difference at the time of need.
More than 200 families each year – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and unaffiliated – have benefitted from the community contract.
As Washington Jewish Week reported, this situation may change in the future, and probably change for the worse. The recent FTC ruling allowing SCI to take over Hines Rinaldi will permit Hines Rinaldi to fulfill current contract agreements for up to two more years. At that point it will most likely end and there does not appear to be any other funeral home prepared to match the current contract either in price or compassion. While it’s true that the FTC ruling removed the Edward Sagel Funeral Home from its decision, it’s also true that Sagel’s has not stepped up to provide an affordable and inclusive funeral package, and neither has any other area funeral home.
The FTC ruling has brought our community back 30 years to the unfair practices abandoned long ago. The ruling is a loss to the community, and reverses decades of progress in protecting the religious and economic interests of the Washington Jewish community. I hope that our community will be able to marshal the strength and resources to find a fully appropriate replacement for the fixed price funeral that has been available to so many for so long.
Samuel Sislen served on the staff of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington (now the JCRC) Social Action and Urban Affairs Committee in the 1970s. He later became the council’s director of international affairs, a position he held for more than 20 years.