What Funeral Homes Won't Tell You
A survey finds the difficulty getting prices is a-palling
As if arranging for the death of a loved one wasn’t painful enough. Now, a new national survey from the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) reveals that funeral homes and cremation businesses do a miserable job disclosing their prices.
And if you think this kind of information is readily available on their websites (it is 2015, after all), you’re dead wrong.
The researchers, acting as consumers, tried to get prices for full-service funerals, immediate burials and direct cremations at a representative sample of 150 funeral homes in 10 regions. Only 38 of the homes — 25 percent — fully disclosed their prices on their websites and 24 (or 16 percent) didn’t do so either on their sites or in response to emails and phone calls.
In Minneapolis, just six of the 14 surveyed funeral homes with websites listed complete price information; eight sites there had no price information. And in Philadelphia, none of the nine funeral homes with websites posted complete lists of their goods and services.
Even when the researchers were able to get the pricing information, the process was neither easy nor quick. The Philadelphia researcher, a seasoned advocate for funeral consumer issues and price comparisons, described it as “painful” and “a nightmare.”
That experience was common. Completing the Atlanta survey took the researchers more than a month. In Denver, four of the homes responded by snail mail, even though making funeral arrangements needs to be done with great dispatch. A number of the funeral homes said they wouldn’t email prices because their price list was “complicated.”
A Knock on the Door
In one of the weirdest moments of the survey, a funeral home director for Service Corporation International — the largest funeral and cemetery chain in the world — in Indianapolis responded to the pricing request by appearing unannounced, in person, at what he thought was the customer’s house. (When filling out contact information with the request, the researcher who didn’t want not to be visited, put in an address of a nearby unoccupied house for sale, so no one answered when the director knocked.)
According to the report: “SCI is widely known for having some of the highest funeral prices in any region, and for their aggressive sales pitches. The unannounced visit was clearly intended to get the funeral director into the family’s living room in order to sell a funeral, or to sign the family up for prepaid funerals to be performed in the future.”
Says Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumer Alliance in Burlington, Vt.: “The funeral business is, in many ways, still stuck in the 1950s technologically and culturally.” And, he adds, “funeral homes are uniquely resistant to transparency in pricing.”
Slocum’s take on the survey’s findings: “Mortuaries make it hard for customers to know what to expect and what it will cost.”
The Worst Time to Go Price Shopping
I know. A funeral is the last kind of expense you want to spend time shopping around for the best price. But here’s why it pays to do so: This report also turned up huge price differences within the same region; you can find the city-by-city figures at Funerals.org.
For instance, in Atlanta, a full-service funeral with the same items cost as little as $3,370 at one home and as much as $11,050 at another. In Minneapolis, a direct cremation without a ceremony ran from $750 to $3,000 depending on the funeral home. And an immediate burial without ceremony or the cost of a casket in Mercer County, N.J. (the Princeton area) had a price tag between $850 and $4,040.
“The huge price ranges for identical funeral services within individual areas indicate that these markets lack effective competition,” CFA executive director Stephen Brobeck said in a statement released with the report.
Overall, the survey found, a full-service funeral cost more than five times as much in one part of the country than another: $2,500 in Minneapolis and $13,800 in Washington, D.C.
Where Is the Regulator?
You may be wondering: Isn’t anyone regulating funeral home prices? The answer is: yes and no.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued its Funeral Rule in 1984 and amended it in 1994. Trouble is, the rule only requires funeral homes to provide price information over the phone or in price lists if you visit them. The rule doesn’t require disclosure on the websites of the homes.
There’s also no requirement that a funeral home respond to an email request. And in the survey, many homes didn’t.
Only 29 percent of the funeral homes surveyed provided prices after receiving emails. In Washington, D.C., 11 of the 15 funeral homes ignored the emails they received. Some of the homes surveyed around the country didn’t even offer email contact information on their websites.
The Golden State Standard
There is one place, however, where getting funeral price information isn’t so hard: California. That’s because the Golden State is the only one that requires funeral homes to post on their websites the same prices the FTC requires funeral homes disclose by phone or in person.
Little wonder that the survey’s California researcher was able to complete the job in about a week, compared to a month or longer elsewhere. All 15 of the Orange County, Calif., funeral homes and cremation businesses surveyed had websites and 13 of them posted their complete price lists and consumer disclosures online. The other two said their price lists were available on request and quickly sent prices to researchers who asked for them. Incidentally, a full-service funeral in Orange County costs between $3,854 and $10,075, according to the survey.
What Could Help Survivors
I asked the survey’s creators what changes they’d like to see to help grieving consumers.
“Since they haven’t joined the modern retail world voluntarily,” said Slocum, “it’s time for the regulators to bring them into 2015.” Translation: Update the federal Funeral Rule and require funeral homes and cremation businesses to list their prices clearly and completely on their websites.
“I want to see funeral homes post the same detailed price information that even car dealers share,” said Slocum. “This would mean a complete copy of the funeral home’s General Price List and all the required consumer disclosures.”
Those disclosures may be just as important as the prices. They’d let you know, for instance, that you have the right to buy item by item instead of in a package; that embalming usually isn’t required and that basic options that are far less expensive than full-service funerals — such as direct cremation and direct burial — are also available.
How to Do Your Funeral Pricing Research
Don’t hold your breath waiting for new regulation, though. For now, you might want to go to the FCA site to see if there’s a local FCA group near you. Those affiliates conduct regular cost comparisons every few years, so yours might have useful figures.
Otherwise, Slocum advises, call or visit several funeral homes to compare prices. “Don’t restrict yourself to the funeral home you’ve always used or the one that’s closest to your home,” he says.
And don’t be shy about setting a firm, realistic budget.
Says Slocum: “Decide what your family can afford without depleting life savings, skipping rent or maxing out credit cards. Remember that you are the customer, not the funeral home.”