WHILE THOUSANDS of Canadians east of the Rockies keep tut-tutting and sometimes wringing their hands over the high cost of dying, as described in recent years in at least two best-selling books and a spate of magazine and newspaper features, nearly 5,600 British Columbians are banded together into a society that is making the lowcost funeral not just a possibility but an everyday reality.
In the month of January this year, for instance, a firm set up to serve the needs of the eight-year-old Memorial Society of British Columbia conducted thirty-one low-cost funerals —an average of one funeral per day.
Each of these funerals cost a basic one hundred dollars for society members ($125 for non-members) plus either fifty dollars for cremation, or ninety-five dollars for opening, closing and “perpetual care” of a burial plot. Beyond these total charges of $150 to $220, some next-of-kin chose to spend a few more dollars—to pay clergymen and place death notices in the newspapers.
Even with these extras, the total outlay probably amounted to less than half the cost of the average funeral as conducted in most cities across Canada. (Checks by Maclean’s reporters in seven cities indicated the average is around five hundred dollars for the undertaker’s services alone, not counting numerous extras or the cost of the burial plot, and funerals costing eight hundred to twelve hundred dollars are not uncommon.)
B. C. isn't the only place with such a society — there are at least seven others, most of them as old as the B. C. group. But no other funeral society can claim even one tenth the B. C. membership. One reason is that the others haven’t-their own facilities for looking after bodies and conducting funerals and thus need the active co-operation of one or more established undertakers.
In its early years, the Memorial Society of B. C. says, the society tried several times to make deals with undertakers for guaranteed service at a fixed low cost. But each attempt bogged down in delays and excuses.
Then a North Vancouver man named J. Douglas Foreman found
himself having to arrange a funeral for his father. At that time, Foreman was a manufacturers’ agent, but he got so interested in the society’s aims that he agreed to set up a firm to conduct low-cost funerals.
Now Foreman, who may be the only undertaker in Canada who advertises himself as an undertaker (instead of a funeral director), operates First Memorial Services Ltd. to provide a low-cost service for anyone referred to him by the society, whether they’re members or not. Nineteen of the thirty-one funerals he conducted in January were for members who had relatives to bury or cremate: the other twelve were for non-members.
Since last August, Foreman’s wife Shirley has been working full time as the society’s clerk. Between October 1 and January 31 she registered more than seventeen hundred new memberships, at five dollars per person, ten dollars per family. (Membership guarantees a person a funeral to his own specifications, at a fixed price.) Lately she has been getting up to forty inquiries a day by phone and letter.
To handle the expanding business,
Foreman has opened a Victoria branch that covers lower Vancouver Island (where extra transportation costs mean a surcharge of twenty-five dollars on the basic rate).
How can he make money at these rates? “We work on a volume basis,” Foreman explains. “A lot of funeral directors have sixty or seventy funerals a year — one or two a week. We sometimes have two or three a day.”
Problems and progress elsewhere:
* EDMONTON Memorial Society, with no staff, no office and no telephone listing, is hard to find. “We can’t afford advertising,” says president John De Man, a university professor. Membership is only about 135 families, but De Man claims it’s been growing fast lately. Four funeral companies are co - operating, but clergymen won’t take a stand. “They say it’s controversial and they don’t want to get involved,” De Man says.
* MANITOBA Mortuary Association has about 225 members, ninety percent of them Unitarians. Organizers say other denominations seem reluctant to join. The MMA can’t cite more than twenty-two funerals conducted to its low-cost specification since its formation nine years ago. But it claims some progress. It once won a hot argument with the undertakers over whether the law required coffins for all burials, and it has pressured undertakers into running “no flowers” requests in death notices, which they once refused to do (presumably because it was a significant step away from showy funerals).
* LONDON Memorial Society, two years old with about forty-five families and ten single members, has searched in vain for an undertaker willing to handle members’ needs at a fixed fee.
* TORONTO Memorial Society, with eight hundred members, has lately placed one Catholic on its board for the first time but has no Jewish mem-
bers (one prominent rabbi told Maclean’s he was interested but had never been asked to join). Lately the society has been urging the Ontario government to appoint a majority of outsiders to the board which governs the undertaking business. The board’s present membership: five undertakers.
* OTTAWA Memorial Society, by word-of-mouth advertising and through classified columns in newspapers has built membership to 425, including many upper-income families, but can’t attract Roman Catholics. With only twenty low-cost funerals to show for seven years of attempts at “changing public opinion,” president J. Ross Colvin, a government biochemist, admits progress is slow but reports relations with undertakers are cordial.
* MONTREAL’S memorial association has grown fast in the past ten months, since one undertaker agreed to provide service at $100 to $150 for all members. But other undertakers still resist—and so do most clergymen. A Montreal minister, enthused at the idea of simpler funerals, phoned Fifty colleagues and found only one who could go along with him.
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