From a Few Determined People…
A Seventy-five Year History of PEOPLE’S MEMORIAL™
People who today say “I just want simple cremation” or “bury me in a plain casket,” owe a great deal of gratitude to the visionary founders of PEOPLE’S MEMORIAL Association (PMA). It was in Seattle at the end of the great depression that small group of citizens, outraged by the high prices and high pressure sales tactics of the funeral industry, banded together to form PMA.
An outspoken spiritual leader, named Rev. Fred Shorter from the Church of the People in Seattle’s University District rallied other like-minded citizens together to create an alternative. This was at the height of the cooperative movement and several of the early members of PMA were also involved in the formation of Group Health Cooperative.
Prevailing funeral customs stressed embalming, display of the body and burial in a costly casket. The founders of PMA felt these practices ostentatious and emphasizing the material rather than spiritual aspects of death. Their aim was to present a meaningful and beautiful service at a fraction of the cost.
On January 12, 1939, the PEOPLE’S MEMORIAL Association was formally organized. The founders adopted by-laws and elected a board of trustees to oversee Association affairs.
The biggest problem facing the newborn non-profit was finding a mortuary willing to do business with it. Fortunately, James C. Bleitz, president of a funeral home at the foot of Queen Anne Hill, had an open mind and a strong sense of business integrity.
Memorial Societies such as PMA remained controversial for many years. At one point, PEOPLE’S MEMORIAL Association was even accused of being part of the communist movement! Even Bleitz was wary of having his name publicly associated with a reformist organization. Not until 1957 was there a written contract between his funeral home and the PMA.
But interest in PMA’s ideals increased in the religious community after several Seattle-area ministers preached sermons decrying the mounting commercialization of the funeral industry. The Association got a big boost among the general public from a laudatory column in the Seattle Times in 1958. The federal government launched investigations into funeral industry practices, CBS-TV broadcast an hour-long special report and popular publications ran a series of hard-hitting exposes. Especially influential was the best-selling book The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford. The author found her relatives in England had no such elaborate funeral practices and she was angered by seeing a family in her neighborhood nearly ruined financially by the costs of a funeral.
Alternatives, however, began to emerge and have now gained widespread acceptance. Now over 90 memorial associations exist in the United States, following in the footsteps of PMA. In 1962, PMA and its affiliates were successful in forming a national organization-the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) to be a unifying force and a voice on the federal level. In the early 1980′s FCA was instrumental getting the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to adopt a set of standards for funeral home pricing called The Funeral Rule. These standards were revolutionary in enabling consumers to get accurate price information from funeral homes.
Cremation has continued to become increasingly common, used for 48 percent of all deaths in the U.S. The practice is even more prevalent in the West. Washington state has one of the highest rates of cremation in the country now over 75%.
With the growing popularity of cremation, PMA saw its membership numbers reach 100,000 in 1993, presenting the milestone honorary membership to then Governor Mike Lowry. Corporate consolidation resulted in many independent funeral homes being purchased by large corporations during the nineties. This included the sale of Bleitz Funeral Home to Service Corporation International (SCI) in 1995.
On March 20, 2006 Service Corporation International, the parent corporation for Bleitz canceled their contract with PMA, stating that they were unable to make enough money off of our members. That ended a more than 60-year relationship between PEOPLE’S MEMORIAL Association and Bleitz Funeral Home.
Leary of corporate funeral homes, the members of PEOPLE’S MEMORIAL Association voted at their annual meeting on April 12, 2007 to open a cooperative funeral home in Seattle. In a matter of 7 weeks, the board and staff were able to get the cooperative incorporated and licensed as a funeral home, office space leased, furniture and equipment purchased, staff hired and trained. The Co-op Funeral Home of PEOPLE’S MEMORIAL opened its doors on June 11, 2007 on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, sharing a suite with the membership office of People’s Memorial Association. In addition, PMA contracted with 12 other independent, family-owned funeral homes in Western and Central Washington. For the first time, PMA also contracted with a funeral service that specializes in home funerals, A Sacred Moment.
In 2004, PEOPLE’S MEMORIAL Association merged with its sister organizations, the Memorial Society of Central Washington and the Spokane Memorial Association, in 2008, expanding our services statewide.
PEOPLE’S MEMORIAL Association, a 501(c)(4) non-profit continues to thrive as America’s oldest and largest funeral consumer organization, having enrolled over 202,000 members since its inception. No longer exclusively a cremation society, the association offers a full range of services.
The PMA played a key role in changing Washington law to place the funeral industry under the state’s Consumer Protection Act and helped pass another law legalizing the scattering of ashes of the deceased. In the 2005 legislative session, PMA succeeded at protecting the rights of families to care for their own dead and in 2007, PEOPLE’S MEMORIAL successfully advocated for the right of religious and cultural minorities to have up to 24 hours to perform religious or cultural rituals with an unembalmed, unrefrigerated body. In the 2011 legislative session, PMA worked side by side with the funeral industry to bring about passage of Designated Agent legislation, once again benefiting consumers.
The PEOPLE’S MEMORIAL (PMA) Education Fund, a 501(c)(3) non-profit was formed in 2006 to finance the consumer educational efforts of PEOPLE’S MEMORIAL. This includes educational brochures on a wide variety of end-of-life topics as well as a bi-annual price survey of funeral home prices, to enable consumers to make informed choices regarding final disposition. In addition, the PEOPLE’S MEMORIAL Education Fund sponsors educational seminars for the general public on topics such as home funerals and green burial.
At the 2016 Annual Meeting, PMA members voted to merge the Association in with the Education Fund to create a single 501 (c) (3) nonprofit to create more opportunities for fundraising and other benefits afforded fully tax deductible entities.