Standing in front of an empty coffin carrying signs reading “I can’t afford to die,” leaders of the Washington D.C. Jewish community staged a protest outside the offices of the Federal Trade Commission urging it to block expected rate hikes following a planned merger of two funeral conglomerates.
“Our point of concern is that the merger between the first and second largest funeral companies will leave Jews in the Washington area with no inexpensive burial option,” said Ron Halber, director of the Greater Washington Jewish Community Relations Committee.
At issue is the planned $1.4 billion acquisition of Steward Enterprise, the nation’s second largest funeral services provider, by Service Corporation International (SCI) who has the largest market share. If the merger goes through, SCI will control all of the Washington area Jewish funeral services, thus, activists fear, having the ability to raise prices for Jewish burial.
The greatest impact would be on the Hines-Rinaldi non-sectarian funeral home in Silver Spring which is now owned by Steward. The home had been offering for years a low cost Jewish funeral option for less than $2000, based on a contract it signed with the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington.
It also allowed Jewish families to wait until the end of the 30 days of mourning before making payments. Cost of Jewish burial at other funeral homes is around $5,000.
Under the merger agreement SCI agreed to keep the lower price option for a year, but to set prices by market value after that. Washington area activists, supported by local lawmakers, are now calling on the FTC to listen to the concerns of the community and to exempt Hines-Rinaldi from the merger.
“Why can’t there be one funeral home that is not owned by SCI?” asked Halber. “Where are the consumer’s rights?”
The FTC met with members of the Jewish community last month and has yet to make a decision regarding their request. The Hines-Rinaldi funeral home performs around 230 Jewish funerals a year.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.