The Church Gets Into Funerals 

The beleagured Oakland diocese of the Roman Catholic Church is moving into the mortuary business — and other morticians aren't happy.

You might say that the Oakland diocese of the Roman Catholic Church hasn't had the most fruitful couple of years. Its 2005 priestly-sex-abuse settlement cost more than $56 million. The price tag for the new Lake Merritt cathedral was recently revised from $100 million to as much as $190 million. According to the Oakland Tribune, enrollment in local Catholic schools has dropped by a third in the last five years. And despite the persistent influx of Latinos to the East Bay, Sunday church attendance has actually dropped 1 percent since 1998.

But one new church venture should pay off rather handsomely. Over the last year, starting with the purchase of a funeral home in Hayward, the Oakland diocese has gotten into the lucrative mortuary business. In the process, church leaders have broken relationships with family-owned Catholic mortuaries around the East Bay — relationships that in some cases stretch back one hundred years. Now the diocese may be about to develop a massive new cemetery and mortuary, further infuriating Catholic funeral directors and turning a venerable tradition of goodwill and philanthropy into just another business.

Last month, Alameda County planning commissioners approved plans for an enormous new cemetery and mortuary in North Livermore. The project would include 105,000 gravesites. One Livermore resident told the Tri-Valley Herald that the new cemetery was the "Wal-Mart supercenter of the death industry."

The project developer is Jack Smith, who did not respond to comments for this story but has a storied career as a former Hayward mayor and big fund-raiser in California Democratic Party circles. Among his many positions is cochair of the fund-raising campaign for the diocese's new cathedral. And according to Robert Seelig, the diocese's director of funeral and cemetery services, the church has been talking with Smith about taking over operation of the cemetery. "There has been a discussion about having a regional cemetery," Seelig said. "He's contacted us, and there have been a couple of other developers that have talked about alternative uses for the land if they can't develop it."

Such plans have rattled the remaining handful of family-owned Catholic funeral homes that haven't been gobbled up by big chains. Livermore hosts two funeral homes that cater to Catholic families — one has been in business for a century — and if the diocese moves in, they will obviously be affected. Other funeral directors are livid that the diocese has aggressively invaded their industry. Kevin Smith, co-owner of the Fremont-based Chapel of the Angels, estimates that 40 percent of his clientele is Catholic. According to Smith, the church has betrayed an arrangement that goes back generations, solely to make a little extra green.

"My great-great-grandparents helped to buy the dirt for Holy Sepulchre," Smith said of the church-owned Hayward cemetery. "The intent was to put a cemetery in for Catholics, so they could be interred reasonably. That is no longer the case. The original intent, that is gone. It is now big business, and don't let anybody tell you differently. It's all about bottom-line profits."

According to Seelig, the diocese has entered the mortuary business as a defense mechanism to preserve the integrity of the Catholic funereal litany and hold onto an ancient tradition that is in danger of being obliterated by modernity. As the Baby Boomers enter the end stages of their lives, Seelig said, modern medicine has shielded them from the persistent reality of death. As a result, few Catholic Boomers have even a remote familiarity with Catholic funeral rites, and many are opting for nontraditional funeral methods. "There's been a sense that anything goes," Seelig said. "Funeral homes are offering anything you want. You can go up in a plane to be scattered."

The traditional division of labor in funeral practices only exacerbates this problem, he added. Up until a year ago, there were three stages to a Catholic funeral: a vigil at the mortuary, a procession back to the church for services, and a final visit to the cemetery. More and more families who rarely attend funeral services decided to skip the church visit altogether, reducing a Catholic funeral to an almost exclusively secular affair. By buying the Hayward mortuary, Seelig said, the church has once again inserted the liturgical tradition into the funeral rite: "If you were born into the church and baptized as a Catholic, you ought to be brought back to the church."

Finally, Seelig claimed that the total cost of funerals are often prohibitively steep, sometimes costing up to $9,000. Consolidating the arrangements can defray the cost; after church leaders bought the Hayward mortuary last year, they knocked down the price of the service from $3,600 to $2,400, less than almost all their competitors. But Smith claims that the church is just performing a cynical bait-and-switch on its own congregants. The service may be cheap, he claims, but the church has quietly raised the price of the gravesites and walks away with a pretty penny in the end. "It's a cat-and-mouse game," he said. "Get people into the mortuary, and then you can jack up your cemetery prices." Seelig was unavailable to respond to this claim by press time.

Smith isn't the only competitor complaining. Guy Dilling owns the Santos-Robinson Mortuary in San Leandro, which has been working with five local Catholic churches since 1929. Dilling also claimed that the diocese has radically raised the price of plots. "We had somebody pay $1,900 to put somebody's ashes in a grave," he said. "We had another for $900, and another for $1,500. That's for a little five-by-seven-by-seven-inch box. It's like a shoebox." But what really bothers Dilling is the crass way the church has been marketing its new product, using Sunday services to flog the new mortuary. At one point, he claimed, diocese officials visited San Leandro churches and promised congregants that if they drove to the Hayward mortuary and watched a promotional video, they would each get a crucifix personally blessed by Bishop Allen Vigneron.

"We've supported these churches and the families in the community, the schools, their drives to [get] work done for the schools, or whatever," Dilling said. "We donate a lot of things back to the church. And here the Catholic diocese takes the time to bring in a representative and stand up right after Mass every Sunday, and say, 'Hi, I'm Mr. Smith from the new Catholic mortuary in Hayward, and we just wanted to let you know about us.'"

On January 11, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to look again at the proposed cemetery. The Livermore City Council is opposed to the project; City Attorney John Pomidor claims that in a region facing a chronic water shortage, it could suck up too much groundwater and violate the law. But since the cemetery lies outside city limits, and since the county planning commission approved the plan by a five-to-one margin, the project seems likely to pass. This, in turn, could spark a new round of recriminations between the diocese and the people who have spent a century helping grieving families lay their loved ones to rest. Anyone who's read Jessica Mitford knows about the greedy side of the funeral business, and in the East Bay, that business just got a little more cutthroat.


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