A recent Freedom of Information Act request by NPR found that nearly 50% -- seven out of 15 -- Lansing area funeral homes recently violated the Funeral Rule - a little-known and often flouted consumer protection law.
That's much worse than the 18% national non-compliance rate.
The Funeral Rule is intended to protect consumers at a time when they are grieving and emotionally vulnerable, making informed financial decisions difficult.
The rule requires funeral homes to give potential customers a price list before they show them things like caskets, and an itemized statement before the services are provided. The funeral home also can't tell you that embalming is required, when it's not.
Tim McGillin is General Manager of Muehlig Funeral Home, one of the oldest funeral homes in Michigan.
McGillin says sometimes people come in with Hollywood-influenced ideas of a funeral - the two days of visitation, the embalmed body of the loved one in the gorgeous casket, the solemn procession with flags fluttering on the cars, the luncheon at a country club.
Then they're handed the price list.
"There is some sticker shock with a general price list," says McGillin, "so as the customers scale back, we can scale back as well."
Dotan Weinman is an assistant director at the Federal Trade Commission. That agency enforces the rule using trained secret shoppers who pretend they're in the market for funeral services.
"If a funeral home fails a shop, a secret shop, we will come back again," says Weinman, "and if a funeral home fails a second time, then we take steps to correct that."
Violators can choose to pay a fine that's equal to a small percentage of gross sales, and enter the Funeral Rule Offenders Program, a three-year retraining program for staff. Otherwise, the FTC takes them to court.
But the FTC only has about twelve people to do the secret shopping for the entire nation, so the chances of being caught are slim.
The FTC also struck a deal with a funeral directors trade group not to disclose the names of violators.
"The agreement between the FTC and the National Funeral Directors Association to keep those names hidden is scandalous," says Joshua Slocum, Executive Director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, "and it should be repealed immediately."
Slocum says the FTC should also require funeral homes to list prices on their websites. Most don't. So you can't easily compare the cost of services from one funeral home to another.
The difference can be staggering - we're talking thousands of dollars.
Slocum says the lack of online price disclosure means people have no idea what's reasonable to pay, so many pay more than they can really afford.
At the same time, he doesn't lay all the blame on the funeral industry and the FTC. He says Americans need to educate themselves about funeral costs ahead of time, and they can't do that if they're afraid to talk about death.
He hears this kind of thing a lot at the talks he gives:
"I don't need your services, yet, but I was just wondering if anything should ever happen to me...I call it death in the subjective mood. We can't even say for sure that we're going to die, because it might be a lifestyle choice that's just not right for my household."
The funeral rule is up for review next year. The FTC could modify it, but The National Funeral Directors Association says it's working as intended.
The group says most of the time, funeral homes just lack an understanding of the rule's requirements.
But the FTC's Dotan Weinman says the Funeral Rule is very clear and it's easy to comply with, so the national compliance rate of 82% should be closer to 100%.
Joshua Slocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance says consumers should know their rights, and it's a good idea to get a trusted friend to help arrange a funeral, if grief is getting in the way of thinking about the cost.
Lansing area funeral homes recently caught violating the Funeral Rule include: Nelson-House Funeral Home, Keck-Coleman Funeral Home, Holihan-Atkin-Backlay Funeral Home, Skinner Funeral Homes, Paradise Funeral Chapel & Arrangement Services, Gorsline Runsiman Funeral Homes, Peters & Murray Funeral Home.
From the FTC website:
Your Rights Under the Funeral Rule
The Funeral Rule gives you the right to:
Buy only the funeral arrangements you want. You have the right to buy separate goods (such as caskets) and services (such as embalming or a memorial service). You do not have to accept a package that may include items you do not want.
Get price information on the telephone. Funeral directors must give you price information on the telephone if you ask for it. You don’t have to give them your name, address, or telephone number first. Although they are not required to do so, many funeral homes mail their price lists, and some post them online.
Get a written, itemized price list when you visit a funeral home. The funeral home must give you a General Price List (GPL) that is yours to keep. It lists all the items and services the home offers, and the cost of each one.
See a written casket price list before you see the actual caskets. Sometimes, detailed casket price information is included on the funeral home’s GPL. More often, though, it’s provided on a separate casket price list. Get the price information before you see the caskets, so that you can ask about lower-priced products that may not be on display.
See a written outer burial container price list. Outer burial containers are not required by state law anywhere in the U.S., but many cemeteries require them to prevent the grave from caving in. If the funeral home sells containers, but doesn’t list their prices on the GPL, you have the right to look at a separate container price list before you see the containers. If you don’t see the lower-priced containers listed, ask about them.
Receive a written statement after you decide what you want, and before you pay. It should show exactly what you are buying and the cost of each item. The funeral home must give you a statement listing every good and service you have selected, the price of each, and the total cost immediately after you make the arrangements.
Get an explanation in the written statement from the funeral home that describes any legal cemetery or crematory requirement that requires you to buy any funeral goods or services.
Use an “alternative container” instead of a casket for cremation. No state or local law requires the use of a casket for cremation. A funeral home that offers cremations must tell you that alternative containers are available, and must make them available. They might be made of unfinished wood, pressed wood, fiberboard, or cardboard.
Provide the funeral home with a casket or urn you buy elsewhere. The funeral provider cannot refuse to handle a casket or urn you bought online, at a local casket store, or somewhere else — or charge you a fee to do it. The funeral home cannot require you to be there when the casket or urn is delivered to them.
Make funeral arrangements without embalming. No state law requires routine embalming for every death. Some states require embalming or refrigeration if the body is not buried or cremated within a certain time; some states don’t require it at all. In most cases, refrigeration is an acceptable alternative. In addition, you may choose services like direct cremation and immediate burial, which don’t require any form of preservation. Many funeral homes have a policy requiring embalming if the body is to be publicly viewed, but this is not required by law in most states. Ask if the funeral home offers private family viewing without embalming. If some form of preservation is a practical necessity, ask the funeral home if refrigeration is available.