Nails in the coffin 

Small funeral businesses say new regs will kill bottom line

On a recent morning inside a small funeral home in downtown Ronan, mortician Mike Thompson points to an array of sportsman-centric cremation urns with images of calf ropers, fishermen and golfers. Thompson says he has a vessel to satisfy just about everyone.

"We normally have a birdbath that's an outdoor urn," he says. "It holds two sets of ashes. It's called a garden urn. A lot of people use that, put it outside in their yard."

Thompson owns Shrider-Thompson Funeral & Cremation Services, which serves about 60 clients a year. Thompson describes his customers as "hard-working farm families" who "come in with a figure in mind that they're willing to spend, and we try to get them what they want, so they can afford it."

Losing a loved one yields an enormous emotional toll, but many people don't realize the significant financial expenses, as well. Thompson says the majority of his clients are friends and neighbors, leaving him especially sensitive to the importance of keeping their expenses low. Basic cremation services at Shrider-Thompson run $1,510. "And we return the remains to you in a temporary cardboard container," Thompson says.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Ronan mortician Mike Thompson says that state regulations are making it tough to keep costs low.

The problem, according to Thompson and other smaller cremation businesses, is the Montana Board of Funeral Service continues to increase regulations that make it tougher to offer affordable services. "It's going to force us to hire help," he says.

Last month, the six-member funeral board rolled out a series of proposed amendments to the rules governing disposal of human remains. Among the most troubling new mandates for Thompson is one that would limit who can transport bodies. As it stands, Thompson employs a call service, an ambulance or an on-call firefighter to retrieve the deceased. The new rules would require either Thompson or a direct employee perform the task.

"That creates ungodly hardship," Thompson says. "In terms of time, you're looking at three hours, probably, that I'm away from here."

Among the other proposed changes are a requirement that families sign off on a five-page "Authorization for cremation and disposition" form, which goes into significant detail about the cremation process itself, itemizing, for instance, the fact that most human bodies after being incinerated weigh "several pounds" and that "dental gold or silver and other non-human materials" remain after incineration. Shrider-Thompson's authorization form now covers one page. Another sticking point for Thompson comes from a provision that would require the next of kin to view the deceased, something not everyone wants to do.

"They don't want to view the body," he says. "They want to remember Grandma as she was."

Thompson believes that the new rules, if approved, would constitute an intentional effort by the board to tilt the playing field against small operators like himself, while leaving large and comparably well-staffed funeral homes to dominate the market.

"I think it's to stifle competition," Thompson says.

Thompson isn't the only business owner making allegations against the board. When Bill Spoja opened Lewistown's Central Montana Crematorium in 2003, state regulations didn't expressly prohibit crematory operators from treating bodies, such as removing pacemakers. The rules governing crematories, however, have become increasingly stringent.

Spoja, who for 10 years offered $995 cremation services in Lewistown, says the board, which is composed almost wholly of morticians, cracked down on his operation and others like his to protect their interest in Montana's funeral industry.

"Anything they can to do defeat the small crematory operators," Spoja says, "they're going to do."

Dick Brown, who, in addition to owning Cloyd Funeral Home and Cremation in Lewistown, also serves as the chairman of the Montana Funeral Board, filed the first official complaint against Spoja in 2004. Since then, Spoja says 15 complaints total have been filed with the board against his business. All of them, he says, came from "a mortician or a mortician designee."

In 2012, a Montana Department of Labor and Industry hearings officer determined after interpreting state statute that Spoja was operating unlawfully. Spoja was ordered to hire a mortician or to cease doing business. He closed in December 2013.

In response to allegations that he's using undue influence to stifle competition, Brown says he's abstained from votes regarding Spoja's operations and that state attorneys advise the board. "I've had nothing to do with what's gone on with my competition in Lewistown," Brown says.

Brown argues that, because communicable diseases can linger long after death, cracking down on crematory operations such as Spoja's is in the public's best interest. "The problem is if a crematory person wants to do the things a mortician is doing, then they need some of that training. And they need to be tested by the state," Brown says. "They have no training in the communicable disease aspects, which is the number one thing why you have a mortician."

Brown adds that the proposed rule changes governing transportation didn't stem from the board, but rather Montana Board of Health directives governing ambulances, which license the emergency vehicles to haul living people and conduct lifesaving efforts. "We're trying to make our rules coincide with their rules," he says.

Despite criticism from within his own industry, Brown also contends that funeral costs have not skyrocketed. When he first launched his business 37 years ago, a service cost roughly $4,400. The same commemoration today runs about $7,700. "I think the funeral home industry has done a damn good job at keeping the costs down," Brown says.

The Montana Board of Funeral Homes will debate the proposed rule amendments during an April 18 hearing in Helena.

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