Death a hard sell

A shared look of concern crept across the sea of aging faces at the annual meeting of the Five Valleys Memorial Society (FVMS) last Saturday as members discussed a motion to dissolve the decades-old nonprofit. But even the generous spread of brownies and cheddar biscuits at the University Congregational Church did little to alleviate fears over what dissolution might mean for those seeking streamlined, discounted funeral services in Missoula.

"We live in a different time than when the group was formed," FVMS Vice President Don Simmons explained to those gathered. "We need to look at the financial situation, which is the most critical thing and has no easy solution."

Since its establishment in 1973, the FVMS has offered members a list of discounted or free services through local funeral homes for a lifetime fee of $35. Treasurer Hal Braun described the society's inception as part of "a nationwide pushback against the funeral industry." He added that the founders had hoped to free families of society members from memorial arrangements and clerical necessities in the midst of the "emotional storm" that follows death.

But the society has become increasingly strapped for cash over the past five years. In 2005, the FVMS accumulated $2,553 in donations and new member fees to cover its annual operating costs. That total fell to just $655 in 2010, requiring the board of directors to tap reserve assets.

Simmons attributes the revenue drop to a shift in focus among nonprofit donors toward poverty- and homeless-based needs in the community. Also, as a 501(c)(4), donations to FVMS are not tax-deductible.

"Participation in this society, while it's important and valued, doesn't rise to the level of, say, the food bank," Simmons said.

And the society isn't alone in reconsidering its role. According to the national Funeral Consumers Alliance, similar nonprofits from California to New Jersey are dissolving or calling for volunteer support. Even funeral providers are closing with increasing frequency as the market for cheaper services becomes more competitive.

"It's a time when the small funeral homes across the country are dissolving," said local funeral home owner Rick Evans. "The small, independent funeral homes are closing at a rate of about 30 or 40 a year."

Members loudly refused the motion to dissolve, however, instead recommending the board bring a dormancy proposal to the table at next year's meeting.

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