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AskBury referral service buries truth about funeral home tie

BROOKSVILLE — The name begs for attention.

The concept might leave you wondering.

AskBury is a new referral service that connects mourners and funeral homes. Think of 1-800-Ask-Gary, the medical and accident lawyer referral hotline.

Only for dead people.

The story behind it goes like this:

In 2009, a woman named Rose Dawson moved to Brooksville from Connecticut to care for an ill aunt who had no family. When she died, Dawson didn't know what to do or who to ask for help with the arrangements. Flipping through the yellow pages, she figured there must be a better way.

Over the next two years, Dawson visited 60 area funeral homes as a "mystery shopper'' gathering details about each one, from the cost of a casket to the quality of the decor. She got enough to fill a book.

She launched AskBury a few months ago as a free community service, with bereavement specialists available day and night toll-free at 1-855-Ask-Bury. ''Overwhelmed funeral shoppers can now rest in peace,'' she declared in a press release blasted to media outlets.

AskBury caters to anyone who has lost a loved one, is about to lose one or who wants to set up future arrangements. Callers describe their budget, religious affiliation and preferred location. AskBury searches funeral homes that best match those needs and contacts each for pricing and services.

AskBury calls itself an independent referral service that makes its money through voluntary referral fees from funeral homes. Every page of its website says: "AskBury is NOT a funeral home, cemetery, or cremation society.''

But wait. Actually, it is.

•••

It turns out AskBury is connected to Brewer & Sons Funeral Homes, a family-owned business since 1965 with seven locations in west-central Florida, including two in Tampa.

AskBury lists the same P.O. Box in Brooksville as Family Owned Service Co., the business name for Brewer & Sons. Its bereavement specialists work out of office space attached to Brewer & Sons' funeral home on Broad Street. And its general manager, Rose Dawson? She's really Jill Grabowski, Brewer & Sons' marketing director.

Barry Brewer, president of the funeral homes, liked the idea of having a resource for people who are new to the area or unfamiliar with planning a funeral. Admittedly, he enjoys a bit of humor, having grown up in the burial business with the name, Barry. He envisioned AskBury catching on nationwide.

"It's the hardest thing to plan because you only have to deal with it once or twice in your life,'' Brewer said. "I thought it was a wonderful idea.''

To help AskBury get going, he offered use of his P.O. Box and office space. He suggested the name, a twist on Ask Gary, known everywhere for its TV ads and as the namesake sponsor of the former Ford Amphitheatre.

And Rose Dawson? Just a name they came up with up to kick off the service. Brewer's son likes the movie Titanic, starring Kate Winslet as Rose and Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson. Grabowski has a picture of Rosie the Riveter hanging over her desk.

Grabowski and Brewer say AskBury is totally separate from Brewer & Sons. It refers customers to a long list of funeral homes.

Of course, that includes Brewer & Sons.

•••

Maurine Moore called the service in March after her father died. She had seen AskBury's truck parked at a Walmart in Spring Hill and checked the website.

She called AskBury and got three referrals, one of them from Brewer & Sons. She picked it based on price, location and funeral home atmosphere.

"I could have gone with the other two, but I just went with Brewer,'' she said. "I was really happy with the service.''

Moore had no idea AskBury was linked to Brewer & Sons until told by a reporter. She was quite surprised.

Grabowski said they didn't reveal the connection initially because they didn't want people to think the service was exclusively for Brewer & Sons. She admitted she made up the story about her ill aunt, who actually died before Grabowski moved to Florida, because she thought it reflected a lot of people's situations.

"It's based on a true story, but Rose's story, not mine,'' she said.

Even before revelations of the link between AskBury and Brewer & Sons, some people have questioned a service trying to profit from the dead. Grabowski admits not everyone likes the name, or the idea of a truck going around town advertising the service.

Funeral homes have taken a cautious approach to AskBury, if they even know about it. Legally, a referral service does not need a state license because it's not selling services or quoting prices. It's just passing along information.

John McQueen, president and CEO of Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home in St. Pete, said he had never heard of it and would not participate, if contacted. People should call funeral homes directly, he said, because not all calculate pricing the same. Price lists might not include every cost.

"You really have to compare apples and apples,'' he said.

Keenan Knopke, president and CEO of Curlew Hills Memory Gardens in Palm Harbor, said he was surprised a funeral home with such a solid reputation as Brewer & Sons' would try to mask its ties to a referral service.

"If you say you are not affiliated with a firm, then you should not be affiliated with a firm. It's as simple as that,'' he said.

As president of the Florida Cemetery, Cremation & Funeral Association, he said AskBury might have a place in the marketplace, but not without full disclosure.

If you ask Knopke, word of mouth is still the best referral source.

AskBury referral service buries truth about funeral home tie 04/28/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 29, 2011 1:34pm]

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