Dying Is Expensive: The FTC Funeral Home Abuses

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Consumers are at a big disadvantage when conducting business in unfamiliar venues. For most of us, happily, that includes shopping for funerals. As a result, the funeral home business is rife with exploitative practices, despite fairly strict federal regulations governing the industry. In fact, a recent round of undercover visits to funeral homes by the FTC has confirmed that none of us should wait until it’s too late to learn about the business of death.

Because those making arrangements are generally coping with the loss of a loved one, consumers tend to let down their guard when it comes to making decisions about funerals. And given how expensive a funeral can be — the total cost often exceeds $10,000 — the stakes are high and opportunities for abuse ample. “Between the state in which many people find themselves when a loved one passes away and the infrequency of this happening in one’s lives, there’s a lack of awareness,” said Craig Tregillus, Funeral Rule coordinator for the Federal Trade Commission.

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Since the 1980s, consumers have had a measure of protection. Federal law requires that funeral homes promptly present consumers with a price list (that can be taken home for consideration) of the various services offered before getting down to business. The law also prohibits making families pay for services they don’t want or convincing them to order services like embalming when they aren’t necessary. Funeral homes also can’t add charges if, say, a customer decides to buy a casket at Walmart or Costco or one of the many online sellers; and can’t prohibit customers from doing so

Tregillus’ agency, which enforces the so-called Funeral Rule, has been sending employees undercover into funeral homes for years to see what they’ll find. In the latest round of visits, which the FTC reported on last week, about 16% of the 102 visited had “significant” violations of the rules. Around 33% had minor violations.

Most of the violations were for failing to give or show price lists. (Funeral homes are required to reveal prices at three stages: during the initial conversation, before they show caskets, and before they ask customers to choose a burial vault for the casket.)

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In general, funerals have in recent years become a bit easier to navigate for consumers, and Tregillus said a far larger percentage of businesses play by the rules these days.

But it’s still largely uncharted water for most of us, so it’s important for all involved if funeral arrangements are discussed well in advance; even better is to make decisions in advance. Discounts can even be obtained by prepaying.

Some other useful things to know that some funeral directors won’t volunteer:

  • A public viewing isn’t necessary. Nor are the upgrades (and added costs) that usually go into preparing the deceased for a viewing.
  • The least expensive concrete burial vault will do. Vaults are required by cemeteries to prevent cave-ins after the dirt from a burial settles; but there’s no need to upgrade.
  • Cremation is an increasingly popular option. Cremation a lot less expensive than a burial, and it’s becoming an increasingly common choice in the U.S. Funeral Director Association statistics show cremations account for 41% of all funerals — nearly double the rate in 1995.
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