Death Be Not Pricey

In which good Ken Lambert fights the high cost of dying

One fine day, when the sun was surely breaking through the clouds, he came down from the heavens to save us -- one good man unto a land of death and despair.

The first thing he did was to go to Quik Pics and order calling cards. They gave him "a great price," but he was not entirely pleased with his photo. He had planned to pose in full armor, until his wife said, "What kind of fool are you?" And he had compromised. He had been photographed in a dark business suit, wielding a silver sword and a shield emblazoned with a cross. The text of the card still read:

"You need me on your side ... When you, your family, or a friend are up against the wall with a high-priced funeral dragon, you need: A Knight in Shining Armor."

His name was Kenneth C. Lambert, president of Funeral Shoppers, Inc. Presenting his cards, he said, "Here, take five. Give some to your friends." Sir Ken, as it turned out, was the original free lance, a Christian who confronted evil where he found it. And he had smelled the smoke. He had seen the fire. Sir Ken had found the dragon in the funeral industry.

Charging into battle now, he sat astride no proud warhorse but at the wheel of a rusting old Taurus whose transmission slipped as he stepped on the gas. He wore neither armor nor business suit but blue jeans and a garish Hawaiian shirt. He had not shaved; he had forgotten to take something for his sniffles. The one would suggest a long night in the hospital, and the other could serve as grief. As for his sword, Kenneth C. Lambert was armed instead with an elaborate fiction about a dying friend.

"We'll tell them we have an imminent death," he said with a grin. "It'll be like throwing a steak to a hungry lion."

The Taurus veered into the parking lot. He wiped the smile from his face, and marched solemnly into the lair of "the ravenous beasts."

Sir Ken hails from a middle-class brick castle on the outer reaches of Tomball -- and what a deal he got, let him tell you. In the upper corner of the house, there's a room with a computer, a fax machine, two telephones with headsets, two filing cabinets covered by an old door ("Can you believe they were going to throw it away?"), and that in turn covered by stacks of promotional materials, all of which bear the same message: The funeral industry is trying to rip you off; Ken Lambert is trying to save you money.

He is also trying to make money, but business has been like the hole in his pocket. Pointing to the hole, he marvels that his checkbook could fall right through there, and then he says he saves money by not buying clothes. Lambert tries to make things right. Possessed by the holy spirit and by an "incurable entrepreneurial spirit," he tries to make a business out of the battle between good and evil. "I'm a firm believer in the American dream," he says, "as long as it doesn't interfere with what my Lord wants me to do."

Through the trees, miles away, an ashen tower rises some ten or 12 stories over Allen Parkway. At the top are black letters that spell Service Corporation International, and this is a different kind of business. This is the headquarters of the empire of death.

The funeral dragon, as an industry, is said to be a massive, ruthless creature, shielded from normal market rules. Theories of business go out the window when the customer walks in with a corpse. The industry is recession-resistant; one of the "attractive industry fundamentals," according to a funeral chain report to the SEC, is that funeral customers rarely comparison-shop.

The funeral dragon grows, then, despite a chronic shortage of corpses. Texas, which yields only 135,000 dead a year, supports 1,200 funeral homes. The average home subsists on just two funerals a week, with prices compensating for lack of volume. The arrival of corporate chains might have brought discounts, if the customer were price-conscious. Instead, SCI's method is to buy old funeral homes, retain their names, hire the former owners to run them and quietly raise prices.

The average funeral now costs about $8,000, including the plot. Starting with one funeral home on Heights Boulevard, Bob Waltrip has made SCI the largest body-disposal business in the world. As usual, Waltrip wasn't available to talk about it, but on the company web page, under the heading "Why Our Future Looks So Bright," SCI happily anticipated a greater harvest: By the year 2030 -- oh bountiful earth -- the death rate is expected to rise by 61 percent. "Through an aggressive expansion program, SCI is preparing for this increase."

As the empire of death conquered the world, Ken Lambert, an Air Force pilot, was blissfully cruising heaven. For 20 years, he was truly a Christian soldier, and then in 1992, he retired and couldn't find a job. Lambert grew bored, then depressed, then desperate. Finally, he found himself among other desperate people, hawking coffins and graves in a place called Restland. It wasn't quite hell, but it was close. "Disgusted the fool out of me," says Lambert. And after six months, he was ousted from Restland for failing to meet the quota.

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