Funeral homes, mortuaries, and crematories are businesses, not charities, so of course they need to make a profit to survive. Consumers depend on these establishments during their time of need, and generally expect to pay reasonably for the services that are delivered. Most funeral directors and others in the industry are compassionate, dedicated individuals who treat people fairly and ethically.
Unfortunately, however, predatory practices in the funeral and cemetery business has been relatively common. In 1984, regulations were passed designed to protect consumers and curb unscrupulous practices. Called The Funeral Rule, the regulations are enforced by the Federal Trade Commission. Yet even today, consumers still face many of the old hazards. A recent spot check by the FTC of funeral homes found nearly one in four had serious violations of the Funeral Rule, involving their failure to properly disclose prices! Misleading buyers about federal and state law is another common problem.
Financial disputes over pre-need contracts, which allow you to buy funeral arrangements ahead of time, are growing and are now one of the top sources of complaints about the death-care industry. When consumers buy caskets and burial plots in advance of their death, they assume their pre-planning will someday save their family money and stress. Unfortunately it does not always work out that way. Unethical funeral homes and cemeteries may take advantage of people who are already financially “locked in” because they know that it is difficult or impossible for the consumer to just walk away. It’s not rare for a funeral home to tell the survivors of the deceased that they will owe for a range of mandatory services—such as prepping the body and digging the grave—that had not been disclosed or covered by the pre-payment.
Whether a pre-payment is involved or not, consumers need to be aware of their rights and the potential problems so that they can choose an ethical provider who will be a help in their time of need. The family should not be given incorrect information, such as an erroneous claim that state or local law requires certain services. The survivors should not be pressed to accept add-ons, such as a viewing, obituary, or printed programs. The funeral home should not refuse to handle a casket, urn, or other merchandise bought from another source or change a handling fee. And the funeral home should not put timing pressure on the family, preventing them from comparison shopping to find more economical arrangements.
Even when funeral directors are not blatantly violating The Funeral Rule’s requirements, they may employ tactics that skirt the restrictions and have a similar impact. Some tactics to beware of are:
- Urging you to visit in person. The Funeral Rule requires that cost information MUST be provided over the telephone, but you may be told that the pricing is too complicated and/or extensive to be fully understood without sitting down and reviewing the details and the packages in person. The funeral director knows that once you’ve taken the time and effort to come in for a visit, you’re more likely to make a commitment without further shopping.
- Asking about the family’s budget then saying “We are going to stay as close to that number as possible.” This conditions customers to think prices will stay within reason, but then just wait for the director to later say “We might go a little over your budget, but this add-on will be perfect…”
- Using hard-sell phrases. Don’t succumb to blatant guilt trips such as “Given your position in the community …,” “I’m sure you want what’s best for your mother,” or “Your mother had excellent taste. When she made arrangements for Aunt Nellie, this is what she chose.”
- Pressing you to buy a package. You’re told that the packages offer substantially discounted pricing, but what you’re not told is that the packages often include a lot of stuff you don’t need, such as grief counseling, digital tributes, and expensive floral displays, as a way to get you to spend more.
- Overwhelming you with options, such as memorial videos and websites, fancy vehicles for the funeral procession, keepsake jewelry that holds ashes, prayer cards, candles, memorial bookmarks, decorative cremation box, white-dove release for the memorial service, etc., etc. The more possible add-ons, the harder it is to not succumb and add items that you really didn’t want.
- Raising rates to offset lower merchandise revenue. If you buy a casket or urn from a third party source, the funeral director may raise the basic services fee or add some other obscure line item so as to not lose the income entirely.
- Disparaging the quality of outside vendors. You could hear something like “Sure you can buy on-line, but of course those Chinese-made products aren’t going to have warranties like American products.”
- Carrying caskets from firms with private labels. Since they will have different model numbers, you won’t know they’re the exact same option available more cheaply at another firm.
- Pressing for a pricey casket to hold the body for cremation. Since the container will be consumed with the body during the cremation process, it’s totally unnecessary to use anything more than an inexpensive “alternative container” made from pressboard or cardboard. But even if you hold firm on using just an alternative container, the funeral director then implies that having Grandma laid out in a cardboard box is disrespectful, so talks you in to accepting a high price casket rental for a viewing so that the family can say their goodbyes.
- Returning the ashes to the family in a box or bag marked “Temporary Container.” The intention, of course, is to guilt you into thinking that you need to buy a pricey urn to safeguard the ashes.
Bottom Line: When it comes to making final arrangements, you have the right to be treated honestly and fairly, and not be taken advantage of or pressured into spending more than you want to spend. Shopping around isn’t just a prerogative… it’s a necessity, because there is probably no other purchase situation where you will ever encounter such huge variations in pricing for the same products and services.