Your Funeral Home May Be Scamming You

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Funeral homes have long been accused of taking advantage of their customers, who are forced to make a series of expensive decisions in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death, when they’re extraordinarily vulnerable. And a recent investigation by the Federal Trade Commission finds that — despite frequent crackdowns — deceptive and manipulative practices continue at a strikingly high percentage of funeral homes: About one in five, in fact.

In 2012, 23 of the 127 funeral homes, or about 18%, that the FTC visited undercover “significantly violated” the federal agency’s Funeral Rule, a 1984 law that requires funeral homes to give consumers itemized price lists, prohibits them from requiring the purchase of certain items like caskets as a condition to get other products and services, and bars aggressive selling of services not required by law, like embalming.

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The highest occurrence of violations among the areas checked this year were found in the Brownsville/Harlingen area of Texas, where 8 of the 21 facilities visited broke the rules; Everett, Wash., where four of the 11 funeral homes were cited; and McAllen, Texas, where four of 18 were in violation. In addition to the 23 where “significant” violations occurred, the federal agency says another 43 additional funeral homes were in violation of more minor compliance issues.

While the FTC doesn’t release the names of the violators, it does attempt to get funeral home operators to comply with the rule by either enrolling them in a three-year program called the Funeral Rule Offenders Program, which serves as an alternative to a possible FTC lawsuit and fines of up to $16,000. So far only one funeral home in violation had not signed up, and it remains under investigation, according to the FTC.

The FTC found more violations in 2012 than the year before, when it discovered that 16 of 102 funeral homes investigated had significantly violated federal law. But last year’s number was far lower than in 2009, when the FTC found 49 “significant” violations in 175 homes, or about 30% of those visited.

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For years, the funeral home industry has been criticized for pushing unnecessary products and services onto the grief-stricken. In the 1960s, Jessica Mitford’s muckraking classic The American Way of Death chronicled the industry’s business practices, shedding light on the kind of merchandise sold to mourning families. It took two decades for the federal government to implement the 1984 Funeral Rule to crack down on some of the industry’s practices. But even with the 30-year old rule in effect and the threat of financial penalties, a significant number of homes still don’t appear to be complying.