“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” Ben Franklin famously wrote more than two centuries ago.
You can’t escape high taxes, but Edward Sagel and Albert Bloomfield are trying to take the financial sting out of death — or burying the dead, to be more exact.
At 59, I have been around long enough to know that the familiar, compassionate presence of your neighborhood funeral home director is great comfort when you are grieving.
But it isn’t cheap.
Funerals can run from $5,000 to $20,000 and beyond. So there is nothing wrong with being cost-conscious, even when it comes to the recently departed.
Sagel and Bloomfield, each of whom has been in the funeral business for a couple of decades, are branding themselves as offering a “fair and realistic” price at Sagel Bloomfield Danzansky Goldberg Funeral Care, based in Rockville.
“We are setting a price point, close to around $6,500 with casket, that is slightly below the national average and significantly less than the Washington average of around $9,000,” Bloomfield said.
Sagel Bloomfield is actually two funeral homes located across the street from each other on Rockville Pike.
To cut costs, “we are taking two funeral homes and combining into one,” Sagel said in an e-mail. “The one we are closing is 20,000 square feet versus a new one at 6,500 square feet. We will save a lot on expenses (including $15,000 a month on lease and tax payments), which enables us to bring the average sale down for each family.”
The pair are also hammering away at costs, such as using more in-house labor to transport the recently deceased into the funeral home instead of hiring expensive specialists. They also use staffers to drive the hearse and body to the cemetery instead of outsourcing.
The two drive hard bargains with providers. They keep salaries, including their own, relatively low.
“We eventually hope to get our own, but we know it’s going to take time,” Bloomfield said. “We have debt to pay. We are going to grow the business, and we will be patient with it.”
Sagel once worked for Danzansky-Goldberg Memorial Chapels, one of the more prestigious Jewish funeral homes in the Washington area.
After a few years at Danzansky, Sagel went off on his own — but he did not go far.
In 1994, he opened a lower-priced home across the street from Danzansky on Rockville Pike. Two years later, Sagel sold his funeral home to Service Corporation International, a publicly traded chain of funeral homes and cemeteries. His former employer, Danzansky, also had been purchased by SCI.
Meanwhile, Bloomfield had worked at his family-owned pair of New Jersey funeral homes. Like Sagel, Bloomfield’s family sold its funeral homes to SCI in 1996. Bloomfield stayed around to manage them for the new owner. And stayed. And stayed — until last year.
“I learned a lot of things working for [SCI], like how to run an efficient business, scheduling, staffing, how to keep costs down,” he said. “It’s no different than any business. If I already am getting a discount on caskets or a good price, I don’t need to stock a tremendous amount.”
He and Sagel knew each other because they were in the same business, were of similar age and ran into each other at Jewish Funeral Directors of America meetings.
Sagel had regretted selling his funeral home and occasionally would ask SCI whether it was interested in selling it back.
The opportunity arrived last year after the federal government forced SCI to divest itself of the Danzansky and the Sagel funeral homes as a condition of a big acquisition.
“He calls me up in February  and says, ‘Do you have any interest in being my partner and buying these two back from SCI,’ ” recalls Bloomfield.
The pair partnered, received a 10-year, multimillion-dollar Small Business Administration loan at 5 percent interest, and last year purchased Edward Sagel Funeral Direction and Danzansky-Goldberg Memorial Chapels.
They opened last July.
The partners are on pace to serve about 500 families this year, which should gross around $3 million in revenue and produce a profit margin of 20 percent, Bloomfield said.
Sagel, 49, and Bloomfield, 44, each own 40 percent of the business. Investors own the rest. For now, the profits are reinvested into the business and put into cash reserves.
Funeral homes make money from several sources. The casket, grave liner, monuments and even catering services bring in revenue. The company limousine is also a profit center after the monthly volume passes its leasing, gas and maintenance costs.
Bloomfield launched a new line of business selling monuments, which already has earned $70,000 in the year they have been open.
“The key is volume,” Bloomfield said. “The basic gist is once you reach a certain volume, then every funeral you get after that is profit. The reverse of that is death occasionally takes a holiday, and we are sitting around staring at each other for over a week without the phone ringing.”
The vast majority of Sagel Bloomfield funerals are Jewish, although they serve any denomination. Jewish funerals tend to have closed, all-wood caskets to conform with their faith that man begins as dust and returns to dust. Catholics tend to embalm their dead and put them in caskets.
Sagel Bloomfield generally offers three kinds of services: The most common is a graveside service. The second is a service at a religious facility, such as a synagogue or temple. The third is the use of the chapel for bad weather or larger crowds or as a substitute for a temple or synagogue.
Graveside services tend to be the cheapest. About 11 percent of the business involves cremation, which can be less costly than a casket service.
Bloomfield and Sagel divide responsibilities.
“We complement each other,” said Bloomfield, who handles finances and monument sales. Sagel covers personnel and the move into the new building, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
Bloomfield’s two oldest sons work at the funeral home, filling in wherever they are needed, such as greeting mourners or tending the parking lot. Sagel’s 12-year-old son is a greeter as well.
Funeral homes sound like a simple business, but there are things that can go wrong.
Bloomfield was working in New Jersey when a hospital had the incorrect name on a body that one of his employees was picking up. Bloomfield’s staffer checked the tags at the hospital, saving them from a potentially embarrassing situation.
“We require that somebody from the family identify the deceased or they supply a recent photograph,” Bloomfield said. “There’s no way around it.”
No way around death and taxes, either.