Recently, I called up a Methodist minister I've known for some years. I was in his area for a few weeks, and I hoped to find a time when he and I could squeeze in lunch. "Tuesday's out," he said. "I have a funeral. And on Wednesday I have two funerals; Thursday I am booked with counseling; and on Friday I have to attend an unveiling at the Jewish ceremony. Saturday?"

A lot of death, I thought, and when we met at a coffee bar on Saturday, I asked him how he got through a week where he was bombarded with so much bereavement and loss. "Well, I've been doing this for 20 years," he said, "and it comes and goes in cycles. I may go through the next three or four weeks and not have a single funeral."

We got to talking about what a funeral entailed from the minister's perspective. Did he go with the family to pick out the casket? I asked. Did he hang around the funeral parlor during the viewing of the body? "I do usually go with them to pick the casket out," he told me. "I guess I've been down to Bob's funeral parlor three times in the last week. That's where I always send people, of course; Bob and I worked out an agreement a long time ago that he'd give me a little cut of whatever profit he made selling caskets to the folks I sent his way. Like at summer camp, you know, where your kids get 10 percent off their tuition if they manage to sell some other family on the same camp."

Call me daft, but I failed to see the parallel between a camp's offering a financial incentive to satisfied families who might pass along the camp's brochure to another family, and a minister who directed his parishioners to a particular funeral parlor because he got a percentage of the profits. It seemed at the very least like a conflict of interest, but I ...

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