Consumers already suffering from the loss of a loved one are up against significant headwinds as they try to make funeral arrangements. A new report found only 25% of funeral homes fully disclose prices on their website, and a meager 16% fully disclose prices both on their website and in response to consumer inquiries.
The difference in cost for the same services can be extreme: from over $2,500 to almost $14,000 for a full-service funeral.
The Consumer Federation of America held on Monday a teleconference outlining the results of its report on the cost of dying in America. The report was conducted jointly with the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit organization that aims to educate consumers on affordable funeral options.
The report examined disclosure practices at 150 funeral homes across 10 different regions: Atlanta; Denver; Indianapolis; Mercer County, New Jersey; Minneapolis; Orange County, California; Philadelphia; Seattle; Tucson, Arizona; and Washington. Funeral homes were randomly selected and included at least one large chain. Researchers made several attempts to gather pricing information, starting with examining the website, followed by an email, a phone call and in several instances, a visit to the funeral home.
Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, said that shopping for funeral services is uniquely difficult for consumers, not just because of the emotional difficulty, but because funeral homes actively hide prices from consumers and “foster mistaken beliefs like ‘embalming is required by law’ or ‘viewing the body is necessary for everyone to grieve properly.’”
He noted that “with few exceptions,” researchers for the survey had to contact funeral homes in the survey repeatedly by phone and email to get pricing information, and in some cases funeral directors were so resistant to send it electronically that it took two to three weeks of contacting the same firm to get prices.
Slocum said that funeral homes often act as if they’re being persecuted by disclosure rules imposed on them. He said some of the homes took an “adversarial” tone with researchers. In one case, a researcher sent the funeral home a self-addressed, stamped envelope asking for information for a survey and requesting a price list. “Instead of doing this, the funeral home tucked her letter back into the self-addressed stamped envelope and made notes on it about how they weren’t required by law to give prices by mail, but if she wanted to travel several states away to meet them they’d be happy to.”
The Funeral Rule
Recognizing the “unique vulnerability” of consumers trying to lay loved ones to rest, the Federal Trade Commission passed the Funeral Rule in 1982, which requires funeral homes to disclose prices by phone, to give out printed itemized price lists to consumers who visit the home and “most importantly, bars the historical industry practice of funeral bundling.”
Before the Funeral Rule, Slocum said, most funeral homes sold a casket with other services included in the price whether the consumer wanted them or not. “Thirty-three years after the Funeral Rule, it’s still too difficult for consumers to compare prices,” he said.
Slocum argued that it was time for the Federal Trade Commission to update the Funeral Rule to better protect consumers in the age of the Internet.
The Internet has changed the way consumers shop for goods and services. “We know how to compare features and prices on appliances and big-ticket consumer goods, but we know very little about our options for funerals,” Slocum said.
He added that if funeral homes constructed the price lists they give consumers who visit the home the way they present them on their websites, “they would be violating federal law.”
“The pre-Internet Funeral Rule was the best we could do in a world of typewriters and telephones, but the Internet has changed everything for American consumers, except consumers of funeral services,” he said. “For them, it’s shopping by telephone or physical visits to multiple funeral homes, just like in 1982.”
Slocum noted that California has led the way in protecting funeral consumers. In 2013, it became the first — and is still the only — state to require funeral homes to put their complete general price list online or at least list the services they offer and disclose that consumers can request a complete list.
He urged the FTC to follow California’s example and update the Funeral Rule. “Any funeral home that has a website should be required to post its prices and consumer disclosures on that website,” he said.
There would be benefits to the funeral home as well as the consumer. “Posting a simple document online costs almost nothing and certainly less than cost of the paper you have to print it on, and informed consumers make satisfied customers,” he said.