Preface – PDF Version

I have been a funeral director for more than 42 years. During most of this time, I owned and operated my own funeral home and cremation services business. I operated the funeral home as a part of a family enterprise and as a sole practitioner. After selling the business, I worked with Service Corporation International, a major funeral service consolidator, for seven years. Over my 40-plus years in funeral-cremation service, I have seen many kinds of leaders. Some of them treated risk management and risk avoidance lightly. Some felt that training employees was an unnecessary expense, secondary to revenue generation. Some viewed disgruntled customers as people who do nothing but disrupt their daily regimen. Still, others wrongfully believed that client families do not need to know what will take place. As an owner, I viewed best practice and risk reduction as powerful tools to establish customer loyalty and differentiate myself from all competitors. In addition to improving revenue, risk management provided me an intangible benefit I call “sleep insurance.” I am confident that this book will help you in the same way.

This book could have been written in many different ways. I chose to focus on important areas that challenge the funeral-cremation provider and discuss those things that follow a natural sequence of events from the time of receiving the first-call through ultimate disposition. I have drawn on examples from legal cases I have been involved in where other funeral-cremation providers did not always do the right thing.

Some readers may be uncomfortable with some of the suggestions and recommended Best Practice in this book. The average funeral professional and student may be overwhelmed with some of the content. I could not have made this a “soft” book that did not deal with all the harsh realities I’ve come to know. I have spoken to thousands of colleagues in every part of the country. The situations I describe are real. In some parts of the book, instead of using a shovel, I used a “bloody spade.” The truth must be known about the dangers that exist and how lives and businesses can be changed, even destroyed, when facing a lawsuit. I have not exaggerated but have drawn from real-life examples.

In 1990, I wrote Cremation and the Funeral Director– Successfully Meeting the Challenge. At the time and with the exception of a couple of progressive casket manufacturers I occasionally advised, who like me, saw a drifting away from traditional funeral elements and the importance of dealing with cremation, I was not widely known outside the state of California. I vividly recall the words of Wes Horbatuck, a friend of mine, prior to writing that first book. At the time, he was the national sales manager for Casket Shells, Inc., in Eynon, Pennsylvania. After a presentation to funeral directors on the East Coast, Wes waited until he was the last person in the lecture room. After thanking me for the presentation, he said, “Mike, there is one thing you must do if you truly care about funeral service and your colleagues. You have to put what you said in a book. Funeral directors need this information in a book so they can study it and learn from it.” Wes caught me off-guard. I was flattered but knew nothing about writing a book.

I contemplated Wes’ words for several weeks. Thinking about it made me chuckle and I just shrugged it off. How does one go about writing a book? It seemed insurmountable until I received a call one day from my very good friend, Dr. William Lamers, Jr. When I told Bill about the comment from Wes, without hesitation, Bill said, “It’s a good idea and you’re the person to do it. I’ll help you. Come over tomorrow and we’ll start by making an outline.”

As I look back on how much has changed since then, I realize my first book offers this lesson: Write one. If a book sells nicely, a funeral director’s life changes; and then an author’s life changes.

Invitations to speak about cremation came from funeral companies, professional organizations and state & national associations all over the country, from people I did not know. Some colleagues asked me to advise them with operating their business. Such a welcome response triggers a potential pitfall: It is to think I know everything now. Labeled as an “expert” or guru, the author looks inside, believing he can find all the wisdom he needs.

Traversing the Minefield is a close look “at home.” What I have come to realize is that this book began shortly after publication of the first book. As an author and frequent speaker about “cremation,” the consumers who choose it, and how funeral service is affected by it, I also began receiving phone calls from attorneys, asking me for advice and my opinions on various funeral, cremation and cemetery legal issues. I was asked to serve as an expert witness. In 1990, I never envisioned this type of involvement in my profession. Working as an expert witness for the past 17 years has become an unanticipated and very important part of my education and career. Cremation and the Funeral Directorserved to focus on an aspect of funeral service handled until recently, with avoidance by many colleagues, and even with contempt by a few. Cremation, while practiced for thousands of years in other parts of the world, was relatively uncommon in most areas of North America in 1990. Working as an expert witness in various lawsuits covering most aspects of the business, shocked me with the realization that only a small number of funeral-cremation practitioners know about or engage in best practice in fulfilling their duties. The vast majority of funeral-cremation providers are trusting, hard-working and care-giving. Sometimes overwhelmed in serving the needs of bereaved people, many have never considered being sued as a concern and have not realized they perform their duties without a safety net. They are not aware of the minefield they are walking through in this day and age. For some of my colleagues, a lawsuit is what happens to someone else, not to them.

Traversing the Minefield, like my first book, emphasizes my experiences – as a personal service provider, a funeral director and embalmer, owner and employee, expert witness, “funeral director’s coach” to colleagues and advisor to related service businesses – and reflects on ways in which the first book changed my perspective. This book shares other experiences through working with defense and plaintiff attorneys as well as plaintiffs and defendants. A quote from Dame Cicely Saunders, OBE, a founder of the modern hospice movement, is applicable here. She said of hospice care, “Nothing leaves us out from excellence.” The same is true for funeral-cremation service.

I wrote this book because experience can be a tough teacher. I have seen first-hand people’s lives ravaged by lawsuits. If you understand the principles in this book and adopt them in your business, you may not have to learn the hard way as some other colleagues have. Like some of them, I have also experienced the agony that accompanies being sued while owning a funeral home. Being a hands-on owner in southern California, I noticed how rapidly the legal climate and consumers were changing. The business that I learned from my father and mother was changing. Customer tolerance was replaced by higher performance expectations without defect. When something went wrong, some client families were inflexible to explanation and instead, escalated their concerns into a lawsuit. Sadly, I also learned that many practitioners put off examining their risk exposure, including their insurance coverage, until after they have been sued. After being sued, practically every funeral home, crematory, cemetery and independent contractor puts Best Practice in place and makes important modifications to policies and procedures. The smart ones do it ahead of time.

I wrote this book because, with the exception of experience, there are few, if any resources available to help funeral, cremation and cemetery operations assess their exposure to risk and avoid future lawsuits. In many ways, funeral-cremation businesses remain “unprotected,” not because they do not have adequate amounts of insurance (many do not, however), but because they are unaware of their vulnerability. Many practitioners go about performing their duties as they have for generations. As some avoided learning about cremation, some avoid acknowledging their vulnerability today. There is no “center” where one can obtain comprehensive training about risk management. At present, no such information is included in the curriculum in schools of mortuary science. Only a few major insurance companies provide a service of this type to their clients and, because they are not familiar with the day-to-day operations of running a funeral home, crematory or cemetery, overlook many critical areas. Experience (the school of hard knocks) must not be the only teacher. Maybe this book will jump-start such a learning center and prompt some mortuary schools, professional organizations and insurance companies to focus on due diligence.

I wrote this book because over the years, I have met thousands of funeral-cremation providers who are unaware of the tremendous changes taking place among consumers and especially within the legal profession. All of these contribute to greater vulnerability for the practitioner, especially for the unknowing. It is a fact: operating a personal service business, like a funeral home or crematory, goes far beyond just meeting the requirements of the Funeral Rule, OSHA standards and your state laws and regulations. Customer service goes far beyond just satisfying a client family. The business climate and our responsibilities are fraught with obstacles that resemble a minefield that can destroy a reputation overnight that took generations to build.

I wrote this book because funeral professionals, like other personal service professionals, have become a “target” and identified as a “cash cow” by some people in the legal profession. Major settlements have put the funeral, cremation and cemetery businesses on the front burners and garnered the interest of attorneys. In addition to the usual specialties of law, there is an emerging specialty that deals with funeral, cremation and cemetery litigation. Funeral service has not only made the financial pages of the Wall Street Journal but is a topic of discussion in law-school classrooms and legal journals. In legal seminars, attorneys learn about lawsuits involving our profession and industry. As incidents of wrongdoing continue to make headlines and become more widely known among consumers and attorneys, the magnitude and number of claims will continue to escalate.

I wrote this book because as a student of the consumer, I learned that the new consumer requires a lot of information and desires to be educated. This is the age of consumerism. Client families want to know more than just how much it will cost; they want to know what is going on, who will be doing what and why certain things need to be done. Practices within the profession cannot be kept proprietary or secret. Almost as a second nature, the new consumer challenges expertise, authority, tradition, leadership, ritual, belief systems and more. People working in funeral-cremation-cemetery services are not exempt from these challenges. The new consumer expects to do business with an expert and desires active participation from their personal service providers. They do not like dealing with “order takers.” Their questions can be hard-hitting and to the point. This is why you will read often throughout this book my personal mantra that I adopted years ago: Inform before you perform.

I wrote this book because I learned to my amazement, that as I and my staff became more conscious of risk reduction and developed best practice, we reflexively became more customer-focused. Client families liked the openness we exhibited and valued learning about many aspects of service we provided. Not only did we reduce our vulnerability, we also found it less stressful to perform our duties. Readily sharing information and making disclosures helped us become recognized as the premier funeral-cremation-shipment resource in our community.

I wrote this book because the occasional bad news is highly offensive to all of us and it must stop. Bad news about funeral, cremation and cemetery abuses reflects on all of us. What happens at a funeral home or crematory in New York City affects funeral service in Oregon, and usually overnight. Client families deserve only the best of care and service. It is not someone else’s responsibility to police our profession. It is not some agency’s job to make sure things are done correctly. Everyone who works in the profession shares in the responsibility of preventing bad from occurring.

Finally, I wrote this book because if I had a son or daughter entering the business, these are the things that I would want them to know to become the consummate professional expected by customers today. It is in that spirit of sharing, continuous improvement, love of the profession and best wishes for your practice that I present these proven strategies, lessons learned, case examples and risk-management tools and resources to help you safely traverse the minefield.

But enough of this Preface. It is already too long. Let’s get started!

Michael Kubasak