Double fee in moment of grief hard to understand

This Just In...

May 14, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

I TRY TO understand. When businessmen explain themselves, I listen and try to appreciate their perspective. All that stuff about profit margins and P/E ratios and the pressure to keep operating costs under control - we've all heard it. We understand it. But then there are days when, in the midst of all that yadda yadda, I feel like saying: "Both Larry Triplett's parents died in the same week. For God's sake, cut him a break."

This is one of those days.

The aforementioned Larry Triplett grew up in Hamilton, in Northeast Baltimore, the son of Dolores and Charles Triplett. His father was a decorated veteran of World War II, wounded in France in 1944. "He had little use of his right arm for the rest of his life," says his son. But Charles Triplett managed to have a long career as a federal official, at the Social Security Administration. He and his wife had four children.

Ten years ago, when Charles Triplett was 66, he went to Parkwood Cemetery and purchased a crypt in the cemetery's outdoor mausoleum for himself and his wife. It was a vault in a wall, long enough for two caskets end to end, and sealed with a plate that would be engraved with the Tripletts' names. They paid $4,400 for the crypt.

Within the last year or so, both Charles and Dolores Triplett slipped into failing health and were forced to leave their home in Hamilton. He had a stroke and required nursing home care. She had Alzheimer's disease and moved into an assisted-living facility. They were both later moved to a hospice.

Dolores Triplett died on the last Sunday in March; she was 75. Her funeral was scheduled for three days later.

But at 6:30 that morning, her husband died.

The Triplett children, having lost both parents within three days, canceled their mother's funeral so that she and her husband could be buried together later in the week.

"The funeral home, Ruck, right in Hamilton, was terrific about everything," says Larry Triplett.

But he had a different experience at Parkwood Cemetery and came away with bad feelings.

Though the Tripletts had paid for their crypt a decade ago, the one expense they were not allowed to pre-pay was an "opening fee" for the crypt.

When Larry Triplett went to Parkwood to pay this fee, he was told it would be $875.

"The $875 seemed high to me but I was ready to pay it," Triplett says.

But not twice, which is what the cemetery wanted - for a total of $1,750 - though his parents' crypt would be opened once for the double funeral.

Triplett argued this point with the cemetery manager, but she wouldn't budge. "So I paid both opening fees under duress, so the funeral could take place," he says.

Sounds like the cemetery used a heavy hand where a much lighter touch would have been in order.

But let's try to understand.

Let's consider that in 1991 - the year Charles Triplett paid Parkwood for his and his wife's crypt - a Louisiana company called Stewart Enterprises went public, trading on Nasdaq as STEI, and within a few years it became the third-largest publicly owned funeral and cemetery firm in North America, with nearly 800 properties, including several cemeteries in Maryland, Parkwood being one of them.

So, while Parkwood has local managers who make some local decisions, they answer to a higher authority and that higher authority answers to Wall Street and Wall Street demands returns on investments.

Stewart Enterprises' stock hasn't exactly been soaring off the Nasdaq charts in recent years. So that leaves little room for cutting a break for families like Larry Triplett's, even in this most unusual situation, which begged for it.

I listened carefully as the affable man who oversees Parkwood, Ted Nuckolls, explained how the $875 fee had to be collected twice because two people were being placed in the crypt and "each is an individual entitled to individual services even if the services take place at the same time."

I tried to understand when he said the fees covered "more than just opening and closing a crypt," though, according to their son, that's specifically the only expense not covered by the Tripletts' 1991 contract with the cemetery.

I tried to understand how "there is just so much more involved than simply opening and closing a crypt - there is the equipment used, there are records that have to be kept, a paper trail, ... dealing with families, a whole mess of things involved."

I tried to appreciate Nuckolls' point that "the average person" doesn't understand what's involved in running a cemetery and mausoleum.

I even tried to appreciate how nice it was that a regional official for Stewart Enterprises had offered Larry Triplett a $200 discount on his parents' $1,750 crypt-opening charges.

But I couldn't exactly get teary-eyed about it.

I still couldn't see this as anything more than a double fee for a single service.

Parkwood did not have to dig two holes for Charles and Dolores Triplett; it only had to open a crypt in a wall once for both, then seal it for eternity. The last thing Larry Triplett and his siblings needed was an argument over a bill, hard feelings on top of their sadness.

We all understand about Wall Street, but for God's sake ...

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