Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that it is precisely the worst time to plan a funeral. With emotions raw and little time to make decisions, the pressure is on to skip comparison shopping or bargaining for a better price. For Jewish families, with particular funeral observances and requirements, there is almost always no better price, because the consolidation of the funeral industry and the near disappearance of the family-owned funeral home have caused the virtual elimination of competition.
In the Washington area, the little bit of competitive pressure on price that exists may be snuffed out if the Federal Trade Commission approves the merger of funeral giants Stewart Enterprises and Service Corporation International in a $1.4 billion transaction in which “the combined company would control some 15 percent of the U.S. industry,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
Indeed, in the Greater Washington Jewish community the effect of a merger would be much greater, because the combined company would control all Jewish funeral business in the area, except that performed by family-owned Torchinsky Hebrew Funeral Home.
SCI, which charges $6,256 on average for funerals excluding casket and cemetery plot, owns Jewish funeral homes Danzansky-Goldberg Memorial Chapel and Sagel Funeral Direction. Stewart Enterprises owns Hines Rinaldi Funeral Home, which provides the only price competition to the SCI homes. The Silver Spring-based Hines Rinaldi has a contract with the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington, a group composed of 48 local synagogues, pursuant to which it provides traditional Jewish funerals for less than $2,000.
That Hines Rinaldi contract is up for renewal in 2014. Should the FTC approve the proposed merger, we are concerned that the combined company will have no interest in working with the Jewish funeral group, resulting in the loss of a lower-priced alternative for Jewish funerals in our area. That loss could cause serious problems for middle-class Jewish families.
A better option would be to exclude Hines Rinaldi from any approved merger, which would leave the JFPC on a more even footing to negotiate a new contract. The FTC decision on the merger is pending. We urge the agency to consider the concerns of the Jewish community in making its decision.