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CNBC gets down and dirty on funeral business

By Michael Storey

This article was published January 31, 2013 at 2:22 a.m.


A Robin sits on the top of a headstone Monday afternoon at Little Rock National Cemetery.

— For another section in this newspaper I recently interviewed two Arkansas women who have a personal interest in cemeteries. One point they made struck a chord.

Tamela Tenpenny-Lewis and Carla Hines Coleman are the president and vice president, respectively, of Preservation of African American Cemeteries Inc. They know a good deal about cemeteries and the business of putting folks’ remains in them.

“There used to be honor and pride in burying your loved ones,” Tenpenny-Lewis said, “but that was when everyone in the community took part. Now [with funeral homes] everybody gets together for 30 minutes or an hour.”

Coleman added, “The human element of burying a loved one is gone. It’s all commercial. Don’t expect somebody else to do somethingthat you should be doing.”

Having somebody else handle the logistics of burial is the norm these days. It’s an industry. In fact, it’s a $17-billion-a-year industry, according to a new one-hour special set for CNBC.

Death: It’s a Living airs at 8 p.m. today on the cable channel and promises to be aneye-opener.

The special asks, “Can this industry, steeped in tradition and facing profound changes, reinvent itself for a generation that’s demanding new ways to deal with the departed and celebrate their lives?”

CNBC reporter Tyler Mathisen goes behind the scenes of the increasingly corporate-owned business of funeral homes, “explaining a tradition critics say is commercially created and designed to pump up profits.”

The special will explore the increasing use of cremation and show some unconventional ways to say farewell - from burial at sea to having cremated remains launched into space aboard a rocket.

Changing industry? CNBC follows Indiana traveling salesman Frank Mauriells, whose casket product line includes new plus-size models that have been widened toaccommodate rising obesity rates. Viewers also go inside the Aurora Casket Co., where rolls of steel, bronze and copper can become a $15,000 coffin in a matter of hours.

The special points out that funeral service is a fiercely competitive business employing about 30,000 funeral directors around the country. One such family-owned funeral home outside Denver is profiled as the documentary follows a family grapplingwith the mysterious process of burial “with its list of eyeopening prices.”

Mathisen also interviews one consumer advocate who says that too often grieving families are steered toward making unnecessary choices that may not be in their best interests. That includes buying a casket that can cost several thousand dollars or more.

Casket sales are the bread and butter of the funeralhome business, and the biggest threat to profits is the growing use of cremation, which exceeds 40 percent in the United States.

The special follows the little-understood process and explains the steps taken to address a family’s biggest fear - getting back the wrong remains.

Finally, the documentary journeys to Charlotte, N.C., where 6,000 funeral professionals gathered for the annual convention of the National Funeral Directors Association. There are hundreds of exhibitors showing off the latest advances in the deathcare industry, from automated body lifters to biodegradable urns.

CNN wins. The Nielsen numbers are in and CNN had the most cable viewers for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration Jan. 21.

More than 3 million watched him take the oath of office on CNN. MSNBC tallied 2.3 million, while Fox News managed only 1.3 million.

Downside: 8 million watched CNN for Obama’s first inauguration four years ago. That’s quite a drop.

Bacon scores. The Jan. 21 premiere of Fox’s The Following starring Kevin Bacon drew an impressive 10.4 million viewers, according to Nielsen. That puts it among the highest-rated debuts this season. NBC’s Revolution garnered 11.6 million; CBS’ Elementary managed 13.4 million.

The TV Column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. E-mail:

Weekend, Pages 34 on 01/31/2013

Print Headline: CNBC gets down and dirty on funeral business


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Jackabbott says... January 31, 2013 at 9:21 a.m.

Good artilce about an industry and a business that still spooks folks.

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