Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dead profitable

Death and credit
From the cradle to the grave, the economic crisis has no end of ramifications. Overcoming it will be a stiff task

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Ian Williams
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday October 21 2008 18.20 BST
Article history
There are perhaps not a few citizens of the world disappointed that there have been no credible sightings of erstwhile Masters of the Universe defenestrating themselves from the Temples of Mammon on Wall Street. One reason could be that the windows are now sealed and air-conditioned, offering no access to the ledges.

The other could be that they have looted the "pre-need" funeral plans that would pay for their interment. Last month, a little-noticed casualty of the financial crisis was National Prearranged Services, which shuffled off its corporate coil, leaving in doubt some 200,000 customers who had paid in advance "pre-need" for what the industry equally coyly calls "end of life" services.

Another organisation in Colorado, the Neptune Society was charged with skimming the funds this month.

Paul Krugman took time off from dusting off his tux for the Nobels to make tangential reference to the connection between the death industry and the credit crisis in his blog. He cites the very conservative Daily Mail inveighing against the British labour government because the credit crunch has made it slow in paying out funeral grants to the families of
the impoverished deceased. It highlights the decadence of a welfare state for American conservatives – socialised death care as well as healthcare – no wonder the British Empire fell!

I should declare an interest. I once wrote a column advocating "synergistic dialectical investing" and as a joke invested my annual
pension contribution in Service Corporation International, the world's biggest chain of funeral homes, and Philip Morris, on the grounds that death and taxes are inevitable, and tobacco would help them both along.

As an investment, the joke has paid off six-fold, but SCI has not done as well as I anticipated. This month the credit crunch killed off its takeover bid for the second biggest chain of morticians, Stewart.

From cradle to grave, the credit bust has no end of ramifications. Overcoming it will be a stiff task.

It raises the question about the billions of dollars put aside pre-need by Americans in the confident expectation that it will pay for them to be gutted, pickled in toxic fluids and sealed in expensive caskets with (as I recall in one trade publication) "a lifetime guarantee".

Can they really trust the finance industry not to assume that since you cannot take it with you, we may as well take it from you now? Hoping that someone will follow in my footsteps when we did a quick and clean funeral for my father (at his request), it is not an issue that deeply concerns me, except for the environmental consequences of stuffing sealed toxic capsules below ground in a country where millions are dependent on wells tapping the ground water.

However in the public interest I approached the Funeral Ethics Association whose Lisa Carlson advised pre-needers not to bother, "unless you are reducing assets to the level to get Medicare". Better to plan ahead she said, while her organisation also advocates cheaper, greener, DIY burials - where the law allows.

The death industry in the United States has lobbyists almost as tenacious as Wall Street's in Washington. Embalming, morticians, concrete vaults and all sorts of expensive ghoulish accoutrements are compulsory in different states. Carlson herself is being sued by Thomas Lynch, author and poet of the mortuary slab for comments she has made about the industry and his business.

Ms Carlson does not say so, of course, but if you are not worried about funeral costs, those who are about to die can happily run up huge credit card charges and leave them swinging for the bailiffs to try to shake down the urn afterwards. Now that is real pre-need planning. But do be careful. My father tried it, and paid an insurance premium on his Visa card. They noticed and came a-knocking.

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