My dad passed away on July 18, 2006. It was after midnight. When my mom called, I drove to their home in Tomball. My mom called 911. My dad was pronounced dead at my parent’s home.
My family was gathered, crying and comforting one another when the phone rang. I answered to hear a woman from LifeGift on the other line. She wanted to know if we wanted to donate any of my dad’s tissue or organs. Before she hung up, she told me that if we hadn’t already made funeral arrangements, we should call Ken Lambert.
“Now?” I remember asking. It was already after 1 in the morning. The woman from LifeGift told me Lambert took calls 24 hours a day.
He answered by the third ring, whispering so he wouldn’t wake his wife. Lambert asked me to give him a moment while he stepped out of his bedroom.
And there, with my family in the other room, Ken Lambert, the “Funeral Negotiator” walked me through what my family should do to begin preparing my father’s funeral. The paramedics were waiting to transport my dad’s body to the closest funeral home when Lambert told me we should go to another.
And that is how I came to meet Ken Lambert. Maybe you think it’s tacky or in poor taste to negotiate or bargain when someone you love has just died. Lambert says that’s exactly the thinking that costs most people so much money.
Lambert agreed to answer a few questions of mine for this blog.
What caused you to take up negotiating funerals?
KL: I was exposed to many of the manipulative sales tactics employed by the funeral industry in 1992 when I got out of the Air Force. While waiting for an airline job, I went to work as a pre-arranged funeral salesman. I could not do what they were asking me to do. I tried to be ethical but finally had to give it up after 6 months. I observed that many of my peers would do anything to get a sale. Their tactics were outrageous. Finally I had to quit. In 1994, I wondered how bad funeral industry was as a whole. So I did a 4 month research project: I played customer at over 150 funeral homes and cemeteries in Harris County, then I put all their prices in a database computer. In November 1994, I saved my first client over $9,900. The manipulation and price gouging I discovered were absolutely outrageous. It was worse than I anticipated. There are wonderful people in the funeral business, and wonderful businesses, but as a general rule, the systems they must operate under will encourage deception, manipulation, and outrageous price gouging. I determined someone needed to do something so I went into business as an advisor and negotiator. People needed a coach on their side in this outrageous game.
Is this a full time job for you?
KL: Up until 2004 I had to work several jobs to make ends meet. Since 2004, I have worked full-time from my home office. I wake up every day loving what I do. It is a business and a personal ministry. I help families nation-wide, on the honor system.
What is the biggest mistake people make when planning a funeral for a loved one who has died?
KL: Over-spending by thousands of dollars and not understanding all their funeral options. Making mistakes their family will regret for generations. There are many mistakes, but the biggest mistake is not understanding that a funeral home and cemetery are “car dealerships”. If you want to insult a car dealership, just accuse them of using funeral home sales tactics. The biggest mistake is not using a funeral consultant. Imagine going to court without an attorney. Ditto.
Is there a family or case that stands out as the most memorable to you?
KL: A man lost his wife in Lubbock and his family was planning a move to Austin and had already purchased a home and children were enrolled in school. The family was Jewish which is usually a quick burial graveside only. But the autopsy was going to delay the burial for about a week. I researched the cemeteries in Austin. The ones in his area were over $3,000 per space or over $12,000 for the 4 spaces he wanted. I found him a small cemetery association who allowed him to purchase spaces since he lived in the neighborhood. He purchased 4 cemetery spaces for a total of $250. It wasn’t two miles from his new home. I also saved him at least $5000 on the funeral services with a smaller funeral home which was very nice. This family’s total savings were over $17,000. My fee was quoted at 20 percent, but I charged him $1,000, less than 6 percent of his savings. He remarked that 20% was more like $3,400. I remarked that I have to make a living, not a killing.
I would imagine your job has all the stereotypical characteristics of a bartender. When people call you up, do you find them talking about other things than just funeral planning and negotiating?
KL: We discuss many things. One thing that leaps to the forefront is RELIGION. Most of my clients claim Christianity but many of them are Christian in name only and really do not know what they believe. When it comes to the death of a loved one or facing their own death, and “what happens next?”, many of them are clueless about what they believe. They have been giving lip service to God all their lives and now they are faced with their mortality. Many are scared. In many cases I can assure them that their loved one is in Heaven. But for many of them, they know and realize their loved one did not have a relationship with Jesus Christ and they will be eternally separated. It is the most heart-breaking situation. For families who have a strong faith, the funeral is a wonderful celebration of their loved one’s life. Christians do not lose loved ones who are Christians, they have a personal relationship with Jesus. We are separated for a while, soon to be rejoined. Many older Christians long for this wonderful reunion with loved ones who have gone before. Eternity is a very long time and it is going to be one heck of a celebration! Many people do not realize that we do live forever.
What is the one thing you wish everyone knew about paying for a funeral?
KL: How much you spend on the funeral has nothing to do with how much you love your loved one. Always separate the ceremony from what is done with the body. The best place to have your funeral is at your own church because when you have all ceremonies at the church, every funeral home in Harris County must compete for the opportunity to serve your family. Funeral homes compete with price and quality. Funeral homes do not lend money. Payment is due before the service is scheduled. But families who literally have no money can truly celebrate and honor their loved one if they are coached properly. The family’s number one fear about funeral’s? NOT SPENDING ENOUGH MONEY AND APPEARING CHEAP.