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Column: Death is certain, but funeral home pricing often isn’t

Nedra Rhone, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Senior Living Features

ATLANTA -- There’s a new scam that has been sweeping the nation.

Crooks search funeral notices to identify people who have recently lost a loved one. After waiting enough time for funeral arrangements to be made, these unscrupulous folks call family or friends pretending to be the funeral home, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Then, the scammers ask for more money and threaten to cancel the funeral if it isn’t sent immediately.

That’s low-down.

But I fully expect criminals to commit criminal acts. I don’t necessarily expect funeral providers to blatantly prey on their grieving customers.

Last year, the FTC brought its first complaint in almost a decade against a cremation-service provider. The agency accused the company of misrepresenting itself as a local business in various states. The company, Heritage Cremation Provider, would then contract with third-party service providers that were sometimes located hours away, the FTC says. Customers complained about being forced to travel long distances to pick up their loved one’s remains.

The company also routinely charged more than the prices it posted and didn’t provide tallies of the total cost, according to the complaint. If families balked at paying these previously undisclosed higher prices, the company threatened to withhold their loved one’s remains, the agency said.

Holding a deceased loved one hostage? What in the name of the Funeral Rule is going on?

Yes, there is a Funeral Rule, a 40-year-old FTC regulation that requires funeral homes to disclose prices and other information to their customers. But it was last updated in 1994, and a lot has changed.

Many consumers look for pricing and other information online, though most funeral homes don’t list prices online. When they do, it’s couched in such confusing language that consumers don’t know what they are reading anyway. That could change soon. These considerations and more are currently under review by the FTC as it seeks to update the Funeral Rule.

The Funeral Rule, as it stands, requires that prices be given upfront to consumers, whether they are calling a funeral home or visiting in person. It also requires that all costs should be itemized. And the rule prohibits unfair practices, such as charging undisclosed embalming fees, or forcing a consumer to purchase a good or service in order to receive another good or service.

 

The FTC recently conducted an undercover phone sweep of 250 funeral providers around the country and found 39 to be in violation of the Funeral Rule. Most of the providers, including two in Georgia, either refused to answer the FTC’s questions about pricing by phone or provided inconsistent pricing for the same services during two different phone calls. The companies received warning letters from the FTC.

I reached out to the two providers in Georgia, one in Hapeville and the other in Cedartown, to follow up. A person at the Hapeville company declined to speak and hung up the phone. A person who answered my call at the provider in Cedartown confirmed a warning letter had arrived, but said the owner was on vacation and unreachable.

It has been almost four years since my dad died. I remember searching on my computer for funeral homes. My sister and I settled on two or three, but we couldn’t get pricing online or over the phone. I remember that we ended up making appointments to visit at least two funeral homes and cemeteries.

I recall sitting in an office numbly looking at images and price sheets, viewing caskets and plots, deciding on markers, and trying desperately to stay focused on what my father would have wanted. It would have been much easier to process everything from the comfort of home rather than listening as sales staff presented a blur of services, products and packages at different price points in terminology we didn’t always understand. The proposed updates to the funeral rule may have made this experience more tolerable.

If funeral arrangements haven’t been made in advance — and only 17% of Americans have pre-planned arrangements — loved ones must make fast decisions that can have far-reaching financial implications. The last thing they should have to do is deal with shady providers.

I’m sure the bulk of funeral providers are honest and seek to help individuals at a difficult time in their lives. Here’s how they can do that: be transparent and consistent about prices; provide that information in a way that is convenient for families, whether that’s online, by phone or in person; and be clear about the process and next steps.

I hope the Funeral Rule will get the update it needs. Death, as we know, is certain. But understanding the costs associated with burying our loved ones shouldn’t be so taxing.

Read more on the Real Life blog ( www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/ ) and find Nedra on Facebook ( www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn ) and Twitter ( @nrhoneajc ) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com .


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