Merriam-Webster defines “death care” as “providing products or services for the burial or cremation of the dead.” It’s an $18 billion dollar industry nationwide.

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But Hawaii has lax regulatory requirements for its mortuaries and employees. Moreover, most states have some type of death-care industry regulatory board. Hawaii does not. Rather, the local industry is regulated in piecemeal fashion by the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs and the Department of Health.

DCCA’s Provisional and Vocational Licensing Division is responsible for cemetery authority and pre-need funeral authority licensure. The Department of Health’s Sanitation Branch administers embalming licenses and mortuary permits and its Clean Air Branch monitors emissions from crematories.

No licensing requirements are in place for funeral directors or salespersons. Most states require licenses for both roles, given the nature of their duties.

In 1963, Jessica Mitford’s bestseller, “The American Way of Death,” was the first investigation of its time to expose unethical practices in the death-care industry. It led the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly — of which the late Hawaii Senator Hiram Fong was a member — to probe antitrust aspects of the industry.

As a result, The Federal Trade Commission eventually implemented “The Funeral Rule”— providing guidelines to thwart deceptive and unfair trade practices by all funeral providers nationally.

Due to the fact that families are often making decisions hastily under emotional strain when a loved one dies, Hawaii needs significant oversight of the industry.

Hawaii’s death care industry lacks a code of ethics.

Flickr: Karen

I would categorize the types of problems/legal issues seen in the death-care industry as falling into two distinct categories: 1) practices dealing with the business aspects of the industry (e.g., funeral trust accounts), and 2) practices dealing with the handling of bodies (e.g., embalming, cremation, and burials). 

 A deluge of incidents occurred in the industry over the years in Hawaii that evidence a need for greater oversight.

For example, in 2003, Robert Diego from Memorial Mortuary (which is no longer in existence) pleaded no contest, along with his wife and daughter, to stealing $500,000 from a pre-need funeral plan trust account.

Mililani Memorial Park and Mortuary was targeted by a class-action lawsuit relating to mismanagement of its pre-need trust account in 2009 in which the business reached a settlement agreement with its clients.

The Hawaii death care industry needs a code of ethics for its professionals. We must look at the law as the foundation of decision-making, and hence ethics as ideology and virtue which supersedes this foundation.

The legal bottom-line is referred to as the “moral minimum.” Ethical decision-making, especially in such a sensitive industry, is imperative to reach end results that positively affect society as a whole. While awaiting reform, Hawaii’s death-care industry can heed this philosophy.

Body Decomposition

As we look toward the future of the industry, death care is expansive and even affects climate change.

A HuffPost article from 2014 describes how death affects our climate: Body decomposition processes in traditional burial methods produce the greenhouse gas methane. In addition, an obscene amount of embalming fluid, concrete, and metal are in graveyards which have produced emissions in its wake.

Cremation is a better environmental choice than a body burial, but still requires 28 gallons of fuel per body, emitting approximately 540 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Hawaii can transform our death care industry to have a lower carbon footprint. We can become trailblazers in this industry in a mission to go green. This is a concept a regulatory board could contemplate.

However, over the span of the last 20 years, resolutions and bills at our Legislature pertaining to death care have been fruitless. One bill in particular dealt with terminating pre-need sales practices (only 70% of client funds must be deposited into trust accounts currently, but the bill called for 100% of funds to be deposited).

“No one likes to talk death, but we must.”

As we approach a new legislative session in a few months, I strongly encourage lawmakers to brainstorm revolutionary regulatory solutions for this overlooked industry. No one likes to talk death, but we must.

The death care industry has personal significance to me.  My dad was in the industry for over 30 years, starting off as the night watchman and living on the premises in a studio at a local mortuary while still a teenager. He worked the 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift and received the first call when a death occurred. He would subsequently dispatch the body removal service.

Later, he went on to work at another local mortuary and became a licensed embalmer and funeral director. After switching over to pre-need funeral sales, my dad eventually retired as the vice president of the division. My dad even met my mom through clients he helped when they lost their patriarch. Hence, I came into existence because of the death care industry.

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