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June 2nd, 2011
Freethought San Marcos: Open letter from SCI funeral chain official misleads public

Freethought San Marcos: A column

Austin funeral service icon Charles Walden lent his name to a misleading open letter that appeared, apparently as a paid advertisement, in the Austin American-Statesman, page A6, on May 26. The purpose of the letter seems to be to convince Austin area readers that the five Cook-Walden funeral service locations in the Austin area are the same now as they have been for the last 100 years. Of course, this is not the case. Cook-Walden originally had just one funeral home 40 years ago. It is now owned by Service Corporation International (SCI)–the largest funeral and cemetery chain in the world.

According to the history of Cook-Walden funeral services published at its own website, in the late 1800s a funeral home was opened in downtown Austin by Samuel E. Rosengren. In 1920, Charles B. Cook purchased that business. In 1971, Charles Walden purchased Cook Funeral Home. The name was changed to Cook-Walden. Shortly thereafter, Charles Walden bought two adjacent cemeteries in the Pflugerville area. In 1985, he bought Davis Funeral Home in Georgetown, then Forest Oaks funeral and cemetery in 1992. The two funeral homes at the Pflugerville cemeteries location and on Hwy. 183 at Anderson Mill were built more recently.

In 1997, Cook-Walden sold all of its operations to SCI. The recent open letter in the Statesman claims that in 1993 the Cook-Walden chain joined the Dignity Memorial® network (a registered service mark of SCI). But Cook-Walden could not have joined the Dignity Memorial® network until 2004 because that network did not exist until then, and that network is used only by SCI-owned facilities.

Since SCI’s purchase of the Cook-Walden chain in 1997, Charles Walden has continued to provide some consulting services, though the exact nature of his relationship with SCI is not clear. It is clear that SCI focuses mainly on making profits, which is the primary responsibility of all corporations. If, as its ad claims, it can provide “compassionate care” in doing so, that is a benefit to families. However, it has a reputation for being extremely uncompassionate to its employees, even when those employees are trying to provide compassionate service to grieving families.

In various on-line forums, employees have long complained about working conditions at SCI. Here are some examples. In May 2011, SCI fired a Washington state employee because she helped transport the body of a 5-year-old child to a cemetery after the girl’s family conducted its own home funeral. The employee failed to obtain a needed permit for the transportation of the child’s body, but this is merely a minor “paperwork” violation of state regulations.

Other former employees of SCI have posted notices on-line about their opinions of SCI (these are reproduced with typos intact as written):

“I am a funeral director and embalmer for SCI. It is a terrible company to work for, and I would discourage anyone from applying with them. The management is terrible, from the top all the way down the the location manager. You have no home life, you are expected to get the work done, but get in trouble for getting overtime hours. There is no such thing as christmas bonuses or raises in this company. You are not respected as a professional in your field. Bottom line, in my oppinion, this company cares about nothing but money. I got into this field to help people, not rob them without a gun.”

“This place is horrible! We got baught by SCI about 3 years ago and its been down hill from there. We’ve had 4 different managers. The average employee leaves within a few years. Im on my fourth year and havent even broke a dollar as far as raises. Micro-management, Micro-management. You work your ass off just to keep your job. They will suck the life out of your ability to care for grieving families. STAY AWAY!”

“I worked for this Hell Hole for 6 months…..IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY….NOT THE FAMILIES!”
“I also worked for this company. When Alderwood was bought out by SCI I thought all of these big box companies were alike. I found out how wrong I was. The families were served no longer mattered. I was expected to put in as many hours as it took to do my job, with not compensation for the overtime, and once worked 2 1/2 months without a day off. As the only director/embalmer at my location, I was responsible for every aspect of the funeral from first call to burial alone. I wasn’t even allowed to hire out the night time removals and was accused by my market manager of being too lazy to get out of bed at 3 am to take a call. I don’t care how much money they pay…I would never go back.”

These mostly anonymous posts may be viewed as biased or dishonest, but they are in line with the reputation of SCI that I have heard for the last fifteen years. I would not suggest that all the claims made in Charles Walden’s open letter and advertising are false, but many of them are. Given the personal experiences that I have had with SCI on behalf of my family and others, it is difficult for me to accept that SCI provides “world-class services” or offers “the best value.”  Without question, the Dignity Memorial® network has not served “the Georgetown Community for 100 years” as claimed in Charles Walden’s advertisement for SCI.

I am sorry to see Charles Walden allowing himself to be used in such a dishonest way. The only time I recall having contact with him, he was courteous and forthright. He used to have a reputation that such corporate puffery belies.

Local families who need to plan a funeral would be wise to ignore SCI’s self-promotion and shop around. There are many good and fair-priced funeral services available in the Austin area. Cost comparisons are made simple by the annual survey of funeral costs published by AMBIS–the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance affiliate serving central Texas. The 2011 survey can be found on-line at . Be sure to read both the narrative and the chart to understand what services are being described.

For example:

• While some SCI funeral homes charge as much as $2800 for Direct Cremation, that identical service is available for as little as $775 by another funeral home. From personal experience, I can say the lower-cost funeral home gives just as high a quality of service as the most expensive SCI funeral home.

• For a full-service “traditional” funeral, a family can pay some SCI funeral homes as much as $10,860, while several other funeral homes charge $2,000 to $6,000 less for the same thing.

• Four SCI funeral homes charge $4,295 for their basic service fee (making arrangements, coordinating with others, and covering overhead costs), while some competitors charge as little as $525 for that service . Likewise, some SCI funeral homes charge $1,395 for embalming (an optional service, not required by law), while others charge as little as $425.

Families have a choice in the Austin area market. With a little research, anyone can find reasonably-priced alternatives to price-gouging. While funeral shopping at a time of grief is no fun, it can be less onerous if you know where to look for information and advice. It’s even better to make these decisions and compare costs ahead of time. But it is seldom necessary to pay ahead of time. You can set aside funeral funds in a pay-on-death account that names a recipient who will use the money for your funeral upon your death, or you can name a beneficiary of other investments who can use the proceeds for funeral arrangements. You can beat the high cost of dying if you choose to do so.

© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos

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19 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: Open letter from SCI funeral chain official misleads public

  1. Not the first time I have seen an article by this person on his views of SCI…. He has an axe to grind and uses SOME facts to bear his side of the story.

    I am an employee of SCI and in my market we are fairly priced with our competition. We are not the lowest, but nor are we the highest on all services and merchandise.

    In the article the writer mentions an employee being fired for transporting a body without the necessary documentation and implies that it is a small formality and SCI was cruel to dismiss the employee. Now what would have happened if the employee had a car accident on the way to the cemetery? What happens if the family gets mad at the employee for the way the body is being handled? Is the writer of this article going to open his pockebook when the lawyer shows up with a multi-million dollar lawsuit. It is a state law to have a tranportation permit. It is not up to an employee to break the law….. in our company or yours. SCI is a great company to work for and we the employees strive to serve families in both pre-need and at-need situations the same way we would have our families served.

  2. I find this article very offensive. You can look at any given company and find employees that are unhappy with their job and that will talk negatively about their job until no one will listen. The fact is, I work for SCI and absolutely LOVE the company and have personally seen on many occasions where SCI has given employees bonus money for simply doing the bare minimum! I have never been apart of an organization that stands up for its employee’s or takes care of it’s employee’s like SCI does! I will admit that there is a high turnover rate at some SCI funeral homes/cemeteries but I feel like most of these are due to bad hiring decisions. It could even be looked at in a positive light too. Its all in how you view it, is the glass half empty or half full? At least SCI is trying to get the right people in the right place instead of keeping someone in front of families if they are not properly doing their jobs. Lets face it…there are people that go through the police academy and don’t realize that don’t have what it takes to be a police officer until the actually get a job and see what it’s really about. I think it is the same way in this industry. It is DEFINITELY NOT for everyone! It truly takes a special person to work in this type of industry. Are SCI’s prices higher than most competitor’s? In a lot of instances, yes they are, but at the same time, the families that go through a Dignity Memorial (SCI) provider get many more benefits with what they purchase that are ONLY available through Dignity Memorial! You say that some funerals with SCI cost as much as $10,860 while competitor’s only charge $2,000-$6,000 and get the same thing? I disagree…from the outside looking in it may appear that you get the same things but it isn’t until you read what all is involved. From reading your article it sounds like you are looking for reasons to write negative things about SCI and I feel like that’s a shame! Is SCI out to make money? Yes! What business, what SUCCESSFUL business isn’t?! I feel it to be an honor and pleasure to work for SCI and be a part of such a wonderful company! My brother was in a terrible automobile accident and the corporate office of SCI had lunch and dinner catered in to the Neuro ICU at the hospital he was in for my ENTIRE immediate family for the ENTIRE week he was there!! So it is very disrespectful for you to write SCI doesn’t care about its employee’s and I take direct offense to that Sir! When you search out the cheapest, you need to expect to get the cheapest! SCI is the very BEST for a reason!!

  3. And why didn’t these two commenters address SCI’s false advertisement that precipitated my column?

  4. Mr Hankins… I don’t find the advertising false… the name of the busines was purchased by another company. As a lawyer I would think you would see that the “brand” name is being advertised… Just because McDonalds signs said over 1 million served doesn’t mean that the resturant in Longview Texas served over 1 million guest… but McDonalds as a brand name had sold over 1 million.

    Your website promotes family lead funerals and burials… there is no problem with this, however we are not the rural society that we were in the late 1800s and most people do not want to have a family lead burial. SCI and MOST of its employees strive to provide a service at a fair price that the public wants. Not all of us want to cremate our relatives and put them in a PVC pipe and bury them with post hold diggers… but for those that do, that is available to them as well as long as it is within the law and rules of the local cemetery.

  5. Dana, SCI funerals are a ripoff. You know it, I know it, Lamar knows it, and everyone else needs to know it. The bodies are prepped at a central location, much like an assembly line, and the highest priority is pulling as much money out of grief as possible, with service of the families and happy employees a very distant 2nd and 3rd. Yes, I’m a former SCI employee from 20 years ago.

    While companies are in business to make money of course, gouging consumers at a time of loss is not acceptable, no matter who does it. What’s the markup on caskets at your location, and do you make it difficult for families to bring in their own caskets? What are your embalming and non-declinable fees? Are you encouraged to talk people out of direct cremation and into a full service with cremation? What is your fee for direct cremation?

    If you take more than 2 minutes to look at, you’ll see much more than family funerals. (Nice dig at people who don’t want to avail themselves of your services, by the way.) The site educates consumers, which most funeral homes don’t and won’t. Mustn’t part that formaldehyde curtain and let sunlight in. People might not want to pay five figures for funerals then.

  6. Wise, please list the things one gets with an SCI funeral that they don’t get with a competitor. Justify a five-figure price tag for a funeral.

  7. Melody,

    SCI didn’t get to be the biggest company of its kind by not offering a quality service… and no we are not a rip off. By the way, most of the SCI locations do NOT use a service center for preparing bodies, they are prepared at the location. I am in management with SCI at a local combo…. only 10% of my compensation is based on quota… the biggest consideration on our comp plan is how well we score with JD Power and that is a direct result of our client families satisfaction with our services and our prices. You’ve been away for 20 years so you really don’t know who or what SCI is today.

  8. To Dana Greer:

    If you did not note the false advertising I referred to, perhaps you should re-read the column. The ad claims that the Dignity name was used years before SCI purchased the Cook-Walden chain. It claimed that Dignity had served Georgetown 74 years before Cook-Walden bought the funeral home in Georgetown, and 19 years before SCI service-marked the name Dignity. It got the date of SCI’s acquisition wrong and made claims which are mere puffery and contrary to my personal experience. I’m sure standing up for your employer will put you in good stead with your supervisors, but it doesn’t demonstrate that you are able to reason well, or even read carefully.

  9. Actually Dana, I do know…I’ve stayed in touch. SCI is the biggest company of its kind due to its numbers. It’s not due to quality of service as you state…nobody else comes close to the sheer number of facilities owned. When you buy out your competition, of course you’ll be the biggest.

    SCI normally keeps the name of the funeral home and often retains its previous owners and managers, so people have no idea Joe Blow isn’t the owner anymore. Their families have gone to Joe Blow for generations (and SCI knows this), so they’ll continue to do so. People don’t shop around, unfortunately, and they don’t know 10% of what they should know when it comes to buying a funeral. People don’t comparison shop caskets and embalming. Ignorance is not only bliss, it invites pricing abuse by funeral homes in general. So unless you do something egregious, like lose a body or treat family badly, of course you’re going to get a good ranking on a survey and their family and friends will continue to use you.

    I notice you didn’t address any of my questions above, not even the one about embalming and non-declinable fees, which are supposed to be on your GPL and available to the public upon request. And in areas where there are several firms, the bodies ARE prepared at a central location. I happen to live in one such area.

  10. From an on-line mortuary chat: “I was employed by SCI for three years. . . . Once I was at a regional meeting. All were asked if they were funeral directors or sales people. The ones who raised their hands saying they were funeral directors were reprimanded and told they were not funeral directors but sales people. . . . Families do not matter to officials at SCI. Only the almighty dollar, and their prices are high.”

  11. I worked for Charles Walden before he sold his firms.

    SCI has done a masterful job of using him as their ‘poster boy’ in promoting the embellished story of this Austin firm.

    Dana and Wise while I appreciate the cheerleader act, the fact of the matter is SCI has stooped to a new low. Mc Donald’s never insinuated they served 1 billion burgers in Longview, Texas. Domino’s Pizza never said they would deliver you a great tasting pizza in 30 minutes or less.
    Unfortunately for SCI the ‘paid article’ in the Austin American Statesman did list the WRONG year of the SCI acquisition of the firm (as compared to the history of the firm on its website), the WRONG length of time that the “dignity memorial” brand was first registered (public search the “dignity memorial” trademark). I guess when you pay to write your history, you can write whatever sells best?

    Dana and Wise, I am sure if you were ever repeatedly lied to in the way that Lamar has been in dealing with SCI during the loss of both his parents and brother that you would be vocal about false claims, and statements of laws and regulations that do not exist. I am very sure if you were treated in that manner you would remain silent and know that this ‘successful’ business that ‘strives to serve families in both pre-need and at-need situations the same way we would have our families served.’

    Wake up…the list is long and distinguished to name a few
    -Menorah Gardens in Florida
    -National Funeral Home in Falls Church, VA
    -Funeralgate in Texas
    -Katrina Body Count in Louisiana
    -Alexander Memorial Park in Evansville, Indiana
    -Mount Comfort Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia
    -Mount Holy Cemetery in Charlotte, North Carolina
    -Dade Memorial Park in Palm Beach, Florida
    -Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills, California

    But I am sure Dana and Wise these are just isolated incidents. Sounds Like a Great Company to me! NOT!

  12. More importantly… this is a San Marcos site, is it not? Why do we care about an AUSTIN funeral conglomerate?

  13. OK guys…. I get the message… for those of you with axes to grind you will not be happy no matter what… personally I started in the business in 1992 in a firm that was acquired by SCI in 1995. I wasn’t happy with SCI at the time. SCI made a TON of mistakes and paid for it. But since then SCI has really made a concerted effort to enhance its service. Most of the quotes I have seen here are from former employees and most of those are from MANY years ago, so I have to discount those complaints because just “keeping up” is not the same as being there.

    As for the false advertising, again when SCI or any company purchases another they do use the purchased companies history. And yes, when McDonalds puts “Over 1 million served” on the marquee outside a resturant that implies that one million has been served at that location. Oh by the way, purchasing those funeral homes also means that SCI has to take care of all the previous problems as well. I can only speak for my location and my own experience (I have been in 6 locations in 2 states) and I have never seen any of our staff refuse a third party casket, or the ability to refuse charges that they don’t want. But at the same time I have seen SCI provide funerals for homeless vetrans for FREE…. How many of the “discount” funeral homes have done this?

    I am not trying to change your opinion, however I do want to speak up when I feel that you guys are being misinformed and perhaps out of date with your complaints. Mr. Hankins, I am aware of the situation you had in SE Texas with SCI so I can understand why you have decided on your position, but from my personal experience in the several locations that I have worked there are hundreds of SCI employees that strive each and every day to provide a quality service at a fair price.

  14. Dana,
    Quoted “I have to discount those complaints because just “keeping up” is not the same as being there.”

    REPLY: Let me be clear I have never worked a day for SCI. So I have no axe to grind with a former employer.

    Quoted: “As for the false advertising, again when SCI or any company purchases another they do use the purchased companies history. [sic] Oh by the way, purchasing those funeral homes also means that SCI has to take care of all the previous problems as well”

    REPLY: SCI bought one of the oldest and most respected funeral firms in Austin, and chose to embelish its history with this advertisement, it wasnt broken and did not need fixing. Since they have owned the firm many local firms have benefited by the ‘over marketing’ of this company. One of its direct competitors right down the street has expanded 3 locations in the market and grown marketshare tremendously as Cook-walden has lost marketshare to them.

    Quoted: “I have seen SCI provide funerals for homeless vetrans for FREE…. How many of the “discount” funeral homes have done this?”

    REPLY: The power of a ‘google search’ may prove this statement false. I know many independent funeral homes that have provided services for free and never advertised the fact. I have done this several times in my 26 year career.

    Quoted:”from my personal experience in the several locations that I have worked there are hundreds of SCI employees that strive each and every day to provide a quality service at a fair price.”

    REPLY: Having the highest ‘Non Declinable Fee’, ‘Embalming’ ‘Traditional Service Fee’ in the market does not equate to a ‘fair price’ You might want to refer to Mr. Webster’s dictionary for a definition of ‘fair’

    Such a great company…you might wanna ask yourself… “when was the last time you atteneded a retirement party for an SCI employee?”

  15. To Rex:

    For the record, SCI is an international funeral and cemetery conglomerate. Families from San Marcos do use SCI funeral homes in the Austin area. No one is limited to their city or county in choosing a funeral home. Also, I tend not to be too parochial, though I do write about local San Marcos issues sometimes. However, issues like church-state separation, health care, Medicare, corporate greed, etc. are all issues that affect everyone, whether they live in San Marcos or New York. I don’t have any particular geographical focus. I write about whatever interests me each week and hope that it will interest enough readers to make the effort worthwhile.

  16. Reply to Wiser…(not your real name I guess??)

    I am attending a retirement party on the 17th for our outgoing GM… who has spent 28 years with SCI…

    I can’t get over the “venom” in your post…. SCI is a good company with a quality product and service for a public that both wants to and in some cases needs it. In any company and/or any profession there will always be bad situations… but the vast majority of good goes unnoticed. Lawyers, car salesmen politicians, and what ever your profession is have many examples of corruption that seem to grab the headlines and then paint everyone in the firm, or professon with the same broad brush. But for an example of doing the right thing… today in my location we are providing a full service to a client family that purchased a pre-paid insurance product several decades ago that promises the moon…. we will loose a significant sum of both real and potential dollars, BUT… we honor it because when we purchased this location we took on it’s liabilities as well as the benefits of it’s name.

    I am proud to be in the death care industry and am proud that I have had the chance to help hundreds of families (including my own) deal with a very hard time in their lives.

  17. Since some has been necroposting, I just saw this. It was interesting to see Lamar take a break from writing hit pieces on the GOP and instead write a hit piece on a private company. Maybe not wise, but interesting.

    One thing he did say that I agree 100% with….funeral shopping or cost comparison is no fun in a time of grief. However, the unwillingness of many people to do so does not make the funeral companies “evil”. Caveat emptor, as they say….

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