Advocates Fear Exploitation of Funeral Consumers

Planning a funeral presents a litany of questions: How much should it cost? Should you pay more to make sure the body is "preserved"? Is it a good idea to prepay for your funeral? Don't know the answers to these questions? You're not alone.

The struggle to properly remember a deceased loved one is a painful, overwhelming experience, one often helped by guidance from a professional funeral director. But some consumer advocates fear that rather than assisting their mourning customers, some in the funeral services industry are exploiting them for profit.

The simple fact is that very few people plan ahead for death or the arrangements that accompany death, leaving the funeral services industry flooded every year with uninformed customers. Because of this, funeral directors are charged with not only navigating their clients through grief, but running a business that does not take advantage of their ignorance and emotional strain.

It's a trust many in the industry embrace. But with the odds stacked against the customers, is it wise to trust them all? Not always.

"The way the industry operates is beyond the view of consumers because people don't want to think about death or talk about death," said Lamar Hankins, a Texas lawyer and former president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a national nonprofit consumer group. Hankins is now chairman of the FCA's legal committee.

The industry is rife with price gouging and misinformation, according to consumer advocates. Hankins said it's not unusual for funeral homes to mislead clients about the cost of their services, often marking up casket prices 300 percent to 700 percent above wholesale price. And too many give false information about services like embalming or the preservation of the body, Hankins said.

"They'll tell a family that a more expensive casket will preserve the body or that embalming is necessary," Hankins said. "Caskets don't preserve bodies, and the U.S. embalming process is only intended to keep a body preserved for a couple of days."

Corporate Funeral Growth

Karen Leonard, president of the Redwood Funeral Society in California and a funeral consumer advocate for more than a decade, said increased corporate ownership of funeral homes during the past 20 years has escalated prices industry-wide.

The National Funeral Directors Association estimates the national average cost of a funeral at $6,500, and Leonard said prices could continue to rise if consumers remain in the dark.

"The bigger the conglomerate, the higher the price," she said. "Unless consumers demand change, we're not going to see it."

It's a trend that bothers some small funeral home owners.

"Big corporations have come in and driven the prices up," said Dominic Hassara, a second-generation funeral home owner in St. Paul, Minn. "They've bought enough places that they can control markets and set prices all across that market."

Hassara said price increases are at least partly due to higher overhead costs as funeral homes make the transition away from small, family-owned operations.

"It used to be that a funeral home was an old house. Now they've built these big, Taj Mahal-type buildings, and they've got to pay for them," he said.

Large Settlements

Some of the most egregious accusations have been leveled at corporate-owned operations.

Houston-based Service Corporation International touts itself as the largest owner of funeral homes in the world, with more than 17,000 in North America alone. In the last decade, the company has been accused of offenses ranging from price gouging to the use of unlicensed embalmers to burying body remains on top of each other.

In the 1990s, the company settled out of court with the family of an 81-year-old Florida woman who paid more than $130,000 for funeral services for herself and her husband. And early this year SCI settled a multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuit brought by families charging that an SCI-owned cemetery had desecrated graves at two Florida cemeteries. The suit accused the cemeteries of secretly burying remains in locations other than the plots purchased and mixing up body parts from different individuals.

"Any big corporation will have lawsuits, especially when you're dealing with something as sensitive as funerals," said SCI spokesman Greg Bolton. "We serve more than 700,000 transactions per year, and we get complaints for less than 1 percent."

Bolton said the company has high service and training standards, and noted a recent customer service inquiry suggesting that many SCI customers are willing to recommend the company to others.

The company declined an request to comment about the specific charges related to any of the lawsuits.

"When something like this happens, we investigate it and do whatever we can to make sure it doesn't happen again," he said.

Leonard said SCI uses its size and financial position to saturate its markets with advertising, using subtle words like "dignity" to reinforce their credentials as grief counselors and public servants.

"They're the worst. They've got the money for advertising, and what people see is what they buy," she said.

Federal Regulations

The funeral industry is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces a Funeral Rule requiring funeral directors to give customers an itemized price list of their products and services and allow clients to choose whatever goods and services they like.

Regulators believe that publishing a price list and making sure it is open to the public prevents price gouging.

But Hassara, who has worked in the funeral industry his entire life, is not so sure. He said he has witnessed funeral homes avoiding FTC regulations.

"There's a funeral home right here in Minnesota that I know of. When they know a family that has some money is coming in they'll change the price on a casket," he said

The National Funeral Directors Association, which counts 80 percent of the industry as members, says it requires all members to comply with the FTC rule. SCI also says it requires its homes to comply with the rule.

In fact, the NFDA is pressing the FTC to expand the rule, which currently only applies to funeral homes. The group would like to see the regulations applied to crematories and cemeteries as well. If the FTC does not expand it, Biggins said the NFDA favors "sunsetting" the rule, leaving the industry with no federal regulations.

"I've been a funeral director for 25 years, and I've never told a family that a more expensive casket will preserve a body or present a body better," Biggins said. "Funeral directors are most concerned with caring for the living and celebrating the life of a loved one."

Monitoring Sales Tactics

But it's the gray area of running a business that operates somewhere between salesmanship and grief counseling that leaves the industry open to question, critics say. Funeral homes are, after all, businesses, and it is perfectly legal for funeral directors to advertise and sell their services. But is there a point where salesmanship becomes manipulation?

No other business handles a customer base so uninformed and emotionally fragile. Hankins said too many funeral directors are willing to cross the line when dealing with clients who are willing to pay up for a funeral honoring a deceased loved one.

During his time as a funeral consumer advocate, Hankins said he has seen flashy pamphlets and seminars run by the funeral industry designed to bilk customers of their money. He noted one pamphlet dubiously titled "Moving Families Beyond an Inexpensive Option."

"They have specifically tailored techniques to use on people who are vulnerable," he said. "They tell the family that it's important to the grief process to have a viewing of the body looking peaceful -- that they will be sorry for the rest of their life if they don't. That's just nonsense. All of that stuff costs money, and some of it is very highly manipulative."

For its part, the NFDA agrees that consumer education is necessary, and Biggins said the organization generally supports the work of the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

Ignorance is the root of the problem, advocates say. It's not unusual for today's consumer to voraciously study Web sites, magazines or professional advice before purchasing a car or a new home. Funny then, that few have the foresight, or courage, to address one of life's inevitable expenses: the disposal of a body.

"Nobody wants to be dead, but people have to separate dealing with the body of a loved one from worrying about death," said Leonard of the Redwood Funeral Society. "They have to separate the money part and think of it as a consumer decision."