Service Corporation International: A multi-billion dollar company that wants to bury you

Donovan Roudabush, Staff Writer

Contrary to popular belief, your local mortuary may not be a private, family-owned business. According to SCI’s location locator, 15 of the bay area’s funeral homes are run by Service Corporation International (SCI), a Houston-based death care industry leader that owns more than 1,500 funeral homes and 400 cemeteries in 43 states, eight Canadian provinces and Puerto Rico. SCI runs under the names of Dignity Memorial, Dignity Planning (their in-house pre-planning division), Advantage, Funeraria Del Angel (specialized funeral services targeted at Hispanic customers), Memorial Plan, Catholic Mortuaries (responsible for all funeral services in the Los Angeles Archdiocese), National Cremation Society and Neptune Society (the two latter making up 70% of crematoria in the United States).

The company’s network of funeral homes almost entirely consists of existing funeral homes they acquired, businesses that are firmly settled and already well-known in their community. They retain the funeral home’s original name and often keep former owners as management. A typical funeral home that is owned by SCI will not contain advertisements or logos for SCI, with the exception, perhaps, of employee pins on staff lapels. As a result, most North American consumers are unfamiliar with the company. Instead, SCI places a strong emphasis on their Dignity Memorial brand. The “Dignity” logo can be seen throughout SCI’s funeral homes and cemeteries, on staff, signage, paperwork, vehicles etc.

In an interview with The New York Times, SCI founder Robert Waltrip described how his company elevates the playing field.

“The hamburger business used to be solely a Mom-and-Pop hamburger stand. You used to sit down at the table. Mom would serve it to you. Dad’s back there cooking it. Now you go to McDonald’s or Burger King and everybody’s in a uniform. All the cooking is computerized and all the order-taking is computerized. They’re all trained to say the same things to you. There is nothing amazing about trying to bring that to an industry that never had that before. And 90 percent still don’t have it. But we have just started to scratch the surface” (New York Times).

Mr. Waltrip is referring to is how SCI runs their quarters like one big franchise. Often SCI locations will share hearses and “first-call” cars (used to transport the deceased from their place of death to the funeral home) so cars never loungearound. Areas highly served by SCI will have Regional Centers, where one funeral home is selected to house all embalming/preparation operations for that area, unbeknownst to grieving families. Often employees will work for multiple SCI facilities, keeping them constantly busy.

Waltrip is aware of what his company has become, and has laid it all out for the Times: “People that don’t buy our stock just don’t like money. It’s the greatest buy I’ve ever seen. People are always going to die” (New York Times)

With their franchised business practices, what happens on the inside may be unsettling.

In an investigative article published in Bloomberg Businessweek, journalist Paul M. Barrett found that despite their lower overhead, SCI has higher prices than independent funeral homes. Through compiled information from SCI’s Everest Funeral Package, a traditional funeral costs $6,256 on average (excluding casket and cemetery plot, undoubtedly the two most costly elements of one’s final arrangements), which is 42 percent more than independents.

The FTC’s “Funeral Role” is the main governing body of the death care industry, which states that funeral homes must provide a general price list and declare their requirements (like the fact  that embalming is not required in any funeral services that does not have a viewing), but there are no regulations regarding cemeteries, which leads to many of these incidents.

SCI is also now facing  controversy over their Central Embalming Scheme, at their National Funeral Home near Fairfax, VA. The funeral home is purposed as the central embalming center for SCI’s four funeral operations in the Falls Church Area, and as the final preparation point for many deceased veterans en route to Arlington National Cemetery. Upset and confused to be informed that his veteran father was not being taken from the Hospital to Demaine Funeral Home, but to another location, Ronald Federici followed the van to the National Funeral Home. When the white garage door opened, Federici told  The Washington Post that the foul odor of decomposition smacked him in the face. A body lay on a gurney in the garage near a rack holding coffins, and the walk-in cooler where his father was to be left was filled with exposed bodies. “The stench was horrific,” Federici, said about the cooler. “Bodies were laying buck naked all over the place. There was no dignity whatsoever. It was disgusting, degrading and humiliating” (The Washington Post). Several other families soon discovered their deceased loved ones were also in these conditions, leading to several class-action suits.

SCI’s Memorial Gardens Cemetery near Fort Lauderdale, FL was the center of controversy in 2001 for overselling plots, burying bodies in the wrong places and separating spouses. Many of the vaults were cracked open with a backhoe. bodies were exhumed, with bones, skulls and shrouds thrown into nearby woods and bodies were stacked on top of each other, with remains relocated without notifying relatives. This was disturbing to the cemetery’s predominantly religiously-observant Jewish customer base, The Miami Herald reported, noting that traditional Jewish law requires bodies to be buried intact and prohibits disturbing the dead.

This is not the last time SCI was caught committing such atrocities. In 2009, four SCI employees were caught digging up 200 graves at Burr Oak Cemetery southwest of Chicago, IL dumping bodies into unmarked mass graves and reselling plots in a scheme that went back at least five years. A study of the scarce records indicated that between 140,000 and 147,000 people were buried at Burr Oak. However, the cemetery has space for a maximum of 130,000 graves, and some areas appear never to have been used for burials. After burials resumed in November 2009, some human remains were found in areas that had not been recorded as used.

Another case was brought forth in 2009 at Eden Memorial Park near Los Angeles, Calif. A class-action lawsuit alleged there was a mass-desecration of graves to make room for new interments. Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the state Department of Consumer Affairs, said, “We have not seen any evidence of the kind of massive desecration that [is] being alleged…The kind of activity they’re alleging [is] not easily hidden, especially on a willful, large-scale basis” (SOURCE?) The plaintiff’s attorney rejected the state’s findings in the investigation. Michael Avenatti, the plaintiff’s attorney, said more than 800 families have joined the class action suit. Avenatti claims the state’s investigation was shoddy, saying, “Investigators from the state were told by various groundskeepers over a year ago that they had been repeatedly told to throw bones away, and yet for some reason, the state didn’t adequately follow up.” (The Washington Post).  SCI denied all charges. After the lawsuit was filed, the Consumer Affairs Department reviewed five to six years of the cemetery’s annual inspection records and found no indication that graves were disturbed. According to the Los Angeles Times article, “The agency also asked the dozens of families that contacted officials to look for signs of disturbances — shifted or cracked gravestones or anything else that appeared different from previous visits — and didn’t receive a single call back” (SOURCE?). The lawsuit has been ruled to be a valid class action in Los Angeles Superior Court and a settlement of $80M was reached.

In the late 1990’s, SCI started to get into trouble in their home state of Texas over violating state embalming laws. Following a lengthy investigation, the Texas Funeral Service Commission (TFSC) recommended SCI pay out $445,000 for the violations. At about the same time that the agency began pushing for payment, the funeral giant was able to get extraordinary access to and helpful intervention from the staff of then-Governor George W. Bush. The “formaldegate” or “funeralgate” incident because a household name when TFSC director Eliza May was fired while investigating SCI. May alleged in a civil suit that she was fired because she refused to halt her investigation despite pressure to do so from Bush. Bush was subpoenaed by May’s Lawyers, but Texas Judge John K. Dietz threw out the subpoena on the grounds that the then-governor was not in the position to have any involvement in the case, due to not having any “specialized information”. SCI was additionally fined $21,000 for administrative penalties.

Many students as Dougherty Valley are unaware of SCI, but upon discovery many were appalled.Senior Brandon Cruz weighed in, “It’s disgusting to ponder especially now that I know of this. I think about my deceased loved ones and the disrespect they probably received before laid to rest. Something needs to be done.”
Even with the tightening regulations, nothing can stop SCI at this point. They’re already on the unstoppable track to become the monopoly of funeral services, with the public unknowingly not being able to escape SCI — much like death itself.