The Mourning After: Funeral Home Rip-Offs

Experts say it’s difficult to compare funeral-home prices, and consumer-advocacy groups are asking Federal Trade Commission to require funeral homes to provide detailed prices online. Meanwhile, funeral homes are scrambling to make up for lost revenue.

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Eight years ago, California lawyer Ed Howard learned that his 78-year-old father was diagnosed with stage 4 liver and pancreatic cancer and had 6 months to live. Howard’s sister, Kathryn, took on the task of finding a funeral home for their father. One afternoon, she called Howard near tears, which was “extremely out of character” for the high-school principal, he says.

“She had been on the phone and internet all day and couldn’t get a coherent list of prices or options,” Howard says.

Howard, who is the senior counsel at Center for Public Interest Law, which is an advocacy organization, took over for his sister under the belief that finding a funeral home would be easy. After 1 day, he was angry and exhausted, with more questions than answers.

Federal Trade Commission’s 1984 “Funeral Rule” mandates that funeral directors must provide an itemized list of prices and services, which is called a general price list (GPL), to anyone who asks for one in person or over the phone. However, Howard says that after he spent 8 hours on the phone with nine different funeral homes, no one gave him a GPL. When he requested that a list of prices be emailed or faxed to him, funeral-home employees failed to follow through. In a few cases, he received different price quotes from the same funeral home when he talked to two different employees.

Howard vowed that he would make sure that other grieving consumers wouldn’t share his frustrating experiences. Two years later, in 2011, Howard worked with California lawmakers to pass a law that requires funeral-home directors to provide an itemized list of products and services on their websites.

Unfortunately, California still is the only state that requires funeral homes to post their products and services online. Consumer advocates hope that this will change. Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA), which are consumer-rights groups, filed a petition in July 2016 that urges FTC to update the Funeral Rule to require online price lists. An FTC spokesperson tells us that the Funeral Rule isn’t slated for review until 2019 but that the petition “might be addressed sooner.”

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“We don’t shop the way we did in 1984, and it’s time for the Funeral Rule to be brought up to speed,” says Joshua Slocum, who is the executive director of FCA.

Three of the industry professionals whom we interviewed agree with Slocum. One of them, Bob Biggins of Magoun-Biggins Funeral Home, says he has posted prices on his website for a decade and that “educated consumers deserve this information.” However, we found that most funeral homes don’t post their prices online.

What’s more, because of antitrust mandates that should protect consumers from inflated price fixing, funeral homes are discouraged from discussing prices with one another. How do they come up with competitive rates? The truth, Slocum says, is that they don’t.

“[Funeral homes] don’t want consumers and competitors to know their prices, because then they’re going to have to start reacting to pressures to be competitive,” he says.

In other words, experts say it typically is difficult for consumers to make an educated price comparison unless they visit at least four funeral homes in person and ask for prices. We believe that that’s a daunting, stressful process for someone who grieves over a loved one, yet it’s imperative to find a fair price. Unfortunately, none of the consumers whom we interviewed actually took on this task.

RISING COSTS. Frazier W. Langley, whose wife died of a heart attack just over a year ago, used J.F. Floyd Mortuary, because his in-laws used that home for another family member’s funeral.

“It’s a very emotional time, and [funeral directors] use subtle sales pitches to steer you into selecting something a little more expensive,” he says. “Like the greeting register that guests sign: They cost between $50 and $200, but the quality jumps tenfold with the more expensive book.”

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