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Death Be Not Pricey

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.

In the fall of 1993, his wife was offered a job in Houston as an assistant principal. Fresh out of Restland, Lambert moved to the capital of the funeral industry. Grave-shopping with his parents, he refueled his righteous anger. Boredom, a shortage of cash, a strong sense of Christian duty -- these elements blended into one, and the Funeral Shopper was born.

"All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing," he trumpeted. At last, Lambert had found his mission: to boldly gather prices from funeral homes and direct customers to good buys.

There was the case of the little old lady who went into a mortuary speaking of a $20,000 inheritance from her husband. When she came out, she had plans for a $14,000 funeral. She called Lambert, who discovered that all she wanted was direct cremation. He found her one for $600.

There was the mortuary that wanted $4,000 to bury a baby; again, Lambert got it done for $600. He knew that many mortuaries offer discounts for infant corpses, hoping to also get the parents'.

There was Pastor Donald White, who said Lambert had probably saved the congregation of Westbury United Methodist Church more than $30,000. "I think Ken's on a worthy crusade," said the pastor.

And there was the undertaker who said, "You have a lot of hair on a certain part of your anatomy."

"Thank you," said Sir Ken.

Lambert usually works over the phone, but sometimes goes undercover to gather price information. When he arrived at Waltrip Funeral Home, a fan of ZZ Top was lying alone in the chapel to the quiet strains of "She's Got Legs." Across the hall, in the sitting room where people cry, stood the smiling bust of Bob Waltrip.

"If you're nervous, that's okay," Lambert whispered to a companion, "because most people are when they go to a funeral home."

He stood on the marble floor, jangling change in his pocket and trying to look blue. Gloom compounded gloom; the walls were beige, the light dim, the potted palms forlorn. You were not to forget why you had come. At last, Lambert's "counselor" appeared -- an efficient, fortyish woman named Laurie who wore glasses on the end of her nose and carried a binder in her arms. "If you'll follow me," she said, and everyone trudged to a corner couch. Sitting down, Laurie stuck out her bottom lip and inquired, "Are you all right?" Lambert nodded and began the sad story of Janie Peterson.

"She's got intestinal blockage," he began. "Can't keep anything down." Only 95 pounds now. Wasting away. "The doctor says, 'Hey, forget it, man.' " So here he was. It could be tomorrow, or it could be next month, but Janie had asked Lambert to plan the funeral.

"Oh, it's her time," Laurie agreed. "She might go as soon as arrangements are made. They do that, you know." Laurie was in pre-need sales; if Janie croaked before arrangements were made, her commission would croak, too. "There's a lot to do," she said. "You really don't want to have to do it after the death." So she tucked in her pouting lip and got down to business. Janie needed a sendoff; what would it cost?

The first item on Laurie's price list was a $2,195 basic services fee. Otherwise known as a cover charge, the fee buys the customer almost nothing but does pay the funeral home's overhead. Laurie went over the other fees: $350 to transport the corpse to the funeral home; $695 to embalm it (not required by law); $450 a day to refrigerate it (if not embalmed); $650 for use of the facilities if the body were memorialized on the premises (not covered by the cover charge); and $400 to haul it to the cemetery.

There were more service charges, of course. Laurie very helpfully pointed out that all charges would be higher if services were arranged after Janie's death. Perhaps she should deal with Janie directly? She would be very willing to go to the hospital, she said.  

"Oh," said Lambert, "I wouldn't want to put you through that."
Laurie looked most capable of handling the burden, but without protest, she repaired to the coffin showroom. "Take your time," she murmured, opening the door.

The light was better in here -- fluorescent -- and the beds of eternal rest stood gleaming beneath it, like so many grand pianos. A lot of customers break down in the showroom, Lambert had said. If you understand nothing else about the funeral business, you know that coffins are for dead people. At last, we had to accept the truth about Janie, or what should have been the truth -- that she was leaving us. She was going into the ground.

Lambert, looking suitably solemn, surveyed the room, making notes on a legal pad. The room was divided between wood boxes and metal boxes, and Laurie, who just loves wood furniture, confessed she had chosen a wooden box for herself. Not being herself a big believer in dust to dust, she would also be buried in a stainless-steel vault, "to protect the wood."

Wood coffins were the most expensive. They were highly polished and lined with velvet. The mahogany was about $8,000. It made a grand impression on the showroom floor and probably would make a fine coffee table, too. But as a container for the dead, it seemed all dressed up with nowhere to go.

The cheaper metal coffins offered the feature of rubber seals. According to Lambert, the seals are designed to keep the smell in during the funeral, but Laurie, when asked, said they would also keep the water out. The least expensive box in the room was a plain metal one that looked rather hard inside and not so cozy. It went for $1,095. Lambert's companion was looking it over, when Laurie laughed. "He's thinking, 'I don't want that,' " she said. Actually, he was thinking, perhaps a burlap bag would do.

Laurie showed off the vaults, too, all the way up to a $19,000 copper pot that would keep the bugs out for all time. Not until Lambert brought it up, though, did she mention the cheapest alternative -- a $1,000 concrete grave-liner, which is all most cemeteries require.

Later, in her Suburban, looking for real estate, she drove quietly by what Lambert knew to be the cheapest plots in Memorial Oaks Cemetery. She pointed to the Lanier family plot, the Mecom plot, the A.J. Foyt family plot. There are a lot of prominent people buried here, she said. If Janie could never afford life in River Oaks, she could certainly die in Memorial Oaks. For about $2,400, she could join the party.

Laurie began tabulating other costs; it came to roughly $11,590 for a low-grade casket and a graveside service. Golly, Lambert said, maybe he'd better shop around. Laurie said, it's like this everywhere. You need to lock in those funeral prices before death.

"Prearrange, prearrange," said Laurie. "See, I know I'm going to live another 45 years, and when I go, I'm going to be laughing. Because what's it going to be then -- $50,000? Who can afford that?"

The purpose of the Texas Funeral Service Commission is to protect consumers, said Chairman Dick McNeil. But if you show up with a complaint, he won't be glad to see you.

"It gets downright insulting sometimes," the chairman said. "I just wish someone could be kind to us every once in a while."

A Fort Worth undertaker, he defended the funeral industry for two hours over the telephone, with rarely a question to prod him along. He and his fellow board members always grant customers with grievances their time to complain, he said. Then, after they're done, the board quite often answers, "Well, we find nothing wrong." And that's that.

McNeil doesn't think these customers are lying, necessarily; more often, he said, they're "just mad at God." Or, not having bought a funeral recently, they can also be startled at the prices. McNeil had never heard of Lambert, but he agreed funerals were expensive, like everything else these days. The industry was "surviving," but there were so many bills....

There were gas bills, electricity bills. "You have to clean the facilities," he said. There were limos and hearses to buy. There was the cost of complying with "all sorts of demands" from regulatory agencies. Rattling off a list of these agencies, he omitted his own. (Of those he mentioned, the funeral customer is protected only by the Federal Trade Commission, whose rules are widely thought to have been gutted.)

McNeil went on: The mortuary has to buy fans to disperse formaldehyde fumes. There was the cost of protecting the funeral director against great peril -- smocks, masks, goggles and double gloves to guard against hepatitis, AIDS and "a strain of tuberculosis that's incurable right now."  

It was also quite expensive to train the funeral director in grief therapy. Many funeral homes assume this burden as a public service. "Grief that is shared is grief that is diminished," said McNeil.

Lastly, there was the undertaker's salary to consider. It might come to several hundred thousand dollars a year -- all of which he earns. He works hard, he sacrifices. Most of all, your neighborhood funeral director cares about you. McNeil said he had given his life to funeral service. "A ministry to the people," he called it.

"I'm not trying to sit around here and bark bark bark about poor us," he said, "but we all have to stand up for what we believe. We have to do what we think is correct and right."

Sir Ken came to the rescue on the August day that Katharine Rushing found her mother dead. In tears, Rushing sat beside the bed and painted her mother's nails ("Mom always liked her nails to look good"). And when she was done, she called the Funeral Shopper.

Thrift was a way of life for her mother, and Rushing saw no reason to change after death. Rushing had seen Lambert's ad the year before in a senior citizens' publication, and had clipped it, as she would a coupon, for future use. With his help now, she knew where to send the body for inexpensive preparation. She bought a cheap casket and even had it painted to match her mother's dress. "And believe me," she said, "I got a good buy on my flowers."

The service was held in a chapel at SCI's Forest Park East. Rushing's mother went out "in class," and without costing an arm and a leg. By using Lambert's contractors, Rushing figures she shaved $4,000 from the Forest Park bill. For this, she owed Lambert $350.

"You couldn't find a nicer man to work with," said Rushing. "Like I say, I still haven't paid him a cent."

Lambert's customers are generally pleased with their savings. His "Comment Book" is as full of gratitude as his bank account is empty of money. Can't pay now, one customer wrote, but "God bless you." "Dear Ken," wrote another, "Sorry this payment was a while coming." "Never expected to save this much," wrote a third. "Allowed me to make a contribution to our church."

Lambert, meanwhile, plunges deeper into debt -- $70,000, the last he knew. The problem seems to lie not so much with his customers, but with his company. He has an unusual way of doing business.

He makes no follow-up calls, not even when the customer requests it. ("We do not do high-pressure sales.") He charges nothing in advance, but instead dispenses his information freely, hoping customers will call back after the funeral. If they do, he asks them for 10 percent of what they saved, usually discounting that, always giving them ten months to pay. If after ten months they haven't made good, he crosses his fingers and hopes they will. But if they say they don't want to pay, that's okay, too.

"We are a Christian business," a flier attests. "We want to help you. We will help whether you pay us or not."

More than a Christian business, Funeral Shoppers resembles a Christian charity. Lambert will take your donation if you give it, but he'll still bless your soul if you don't. On the telephone, he often asks callers if they're intimate with Jesus. If the answer is no, "Hold on!" he'll say. "The funeral is the least of your concerns." Because you're headed for the fires of hell, you know, and Lambert has never yet found an air-conditioned casket.

Saving money and saving souls -- he can't imagine a job better than his own. His wife might consider a job with a salary an improvement, but late in life, she has found herself married to a crusader, and there's nothing she can do. With three children in college, Lambert keeps pouring borrowed money into his sinking business. What kind of Christian, she wonders, takes care of other families before his own? Lambert's answer is simple: a Christian who sees family as his third priority, behind God and fellow man.

Last year, he saved strangers about $200,000. He managed to bill $16,000. He collected only $12,000. But a customer wrote that Mother "has probably already talked to God about adding a little more square footage to your heavenly space," and Lambert considered it a pretty good year.

Smoke began billowing out of the air-conditioning vents of the old Taurus. Not to worry, said Lambert, turning the AC off. "Just a little maintenance problem."  

He traveled onward to other funeral homes. At Earthman Hunter's Creek, the counselor also compared her work to the ministry. "I help people," Rebecca said. Lambert told her about Janie, who by now was down to 75 pounds. Rebecca sympathized and went for the sale. She broke the law when she said the seal on a metal casket protects the body, which it doesn't. She gave a price of $6,000 for a cremation with viewing, but Lambert couldn't coax her into volunteering the cheapest option, direct cremation.

At Crespo on Broadway, it was much the same. The sales lady said the cheapest coffin could only be used for cremation, which wasn't true. Lambert chalked it up to her inexperience. He was nice that way.

He fed his collected data onto another spreadsheet. ("I could paper my walls with spreadsheets," he said.) The three funeral homes represented the three largest funeral chains in the country. For a graveside service with a minimum casket, the Loewen Group's Earthman would charge roughly $11,620, or about $30 more than SCI's Waltrip. Crespo, owned by the Stuart Corporation, was the cheapest of the chains, at about $8,470.

And then there is Claire Brothers Funeral Home, owned and operated by Mr. Jim Claire -- $3,770 for the same work, done to the same corpse, placed in a more attractive box, buried in the same graveyard.

Why pay more? Lambert refers people to Claire for coffins and body work. Claire buys his coffins from the same manufacturers and manages to make a profit selling them for about half of what other mortuaries do. His labor is cheaper, too.

He looks and sounds something like the Godfather. Claire is an earthy man, which is all anyone could hope for in an undertaker. Inside his small parlor on Hillcroft, between a used-car lot and an auto-body repair shop, Claire had to work while he spoke. With a reporter standing by, he and his assistant hoisted a large corpse off the gurney and dropped it with a thud into the coffin. As the assistant rapidly brushed the dead man's hair, the skin jiggling with each stroke, Claire gazed with admiration. "He looks good, doesn't he?" said the undertaker. "See, we do good work."

The phone was ringing. He took it into the bathroom with two lines on hold: The family of a man about to be executed wanted to make arrangements "so everything runs smoothly." Someone else wanted to know if anyone had seen Mrs. Jones, or the ashes of.

Claire does about 500 funerals a year, or about four times what he expected when he opened in 1996. He had found a niche, he said. Most funeral homes are priced for the rich, and most people are not rich.

"See what I'm saying? You don't need to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on this hole to satisfy your grief."

One of these days, Lambert is sure, the forces within the SCI tower will be dispatched to destroy him. There will be a "showdown," and Lambert will do his Christian duty. And sometime after that -- could be days, could be years -- "My Lord will say, 'Hey, Ken, it's time.' "

An obituary recounting the many good deeds of Ken Lambert will run to $300. Beyond that, Lambert will save a bundle. Jim Claire will cremate him for $595. The "cremains" of a veteran will get a free niche in the VA cemetery. The flag will replace flowers, which will save $150. The American Legion will fire a 21-gun salute, and his wife will finally appreciate Funeral Shoppers.

About the time that everyone is sitting down at Luby's, Lambert will be getting the first taste of his reward. Having battled so hard against the funeral dragon, having promised to let his business die if it isn't profitable by January, Sir Ken suffers a recurring nightmare about heaven:

There will be 200 years of work waiting for him, and no peace, no eternal rest.

That's the dream, just a dream. In Ken Lambert's reality, he'll be surrounded by all the people whose money he saved. They'll all tell him he really made a difference. "And I'll say, 'Hey, great -- good to see you!' "

E-mail Randall Patterson at randall_patterson@houstonpress.com.


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