How to Deal with Cemeteries and Funeral Homes
The state of the cemeteries in the United States is in limbo and has been for decades. This is why cemeteries across the country are in varied states of repair and maintenance. It’s also why consumers who rely upon cemeteries may have trouble doing business with them. Many customers who approach a cemetery for the first time may assume that fairly strong rules are in place that guide the exact services that a cemetery may offer and even the prices they may charge. This is an understandable assumption because of the fact that the United States Federal Funeral Rule does regulate companies involved in the funeral side of the death care industry. Funeral home customers across the country can expect a funeral director to quickly pull out the home’s “General Price List” very early in their first meeting with a family who as lost a loved one. This price list is required under the Funeral Rule, and it gives very specific information about each service the funeral home offers and the price it expects. When lawmakers developed the funeral rule, they had in mind a scenario similar to that of a restaurant in which a customer would be quickly provided a full menu upon entering the establishment and would know precisely what he or she is to receive and what payment would be expected. The rule was intended to bring a uniform system of accountability to a funeral home industry that, for much of the 20th Century, was notorious for its cynical financial abuses of customers who, by the very nature of their grief, were in weak position to negotiate effectively for services and prices that best met their needs.
But the truth is, The Funeral Rule applies only to funeral homes. Cemeteries – even those that are owned by companies that also own funeral homes – are under no legal obligation to follow it in either letter or spirit. This can lead to much confusion among people who are customers of a cemetery or those who are contemplating being a customer. So this article attempts to offer help for people wanting to buy a grave plot for themselves or their family members to understand what to expect as they navigate the industry to get the best price and the best service for their needs.
What Laws Apply to Cemeteries:
Laws that a cemetery must follow vary greatly from state to state and even various municipalities with a state are known to have different rules for cemeteries. But here are some basic rules of thumb that anyone considering doing a business with a cemetery should know about how the industry operations.
It is often the case that small, remote cemeteries are run under no legal authority except what is established by their “Cemetery Association’s” board of directors. These cemetery associations are usually established as formal non-profit organizations whose board members are elected by members, usually people who have relatives buried in the cemetery or who have purchased plots for themselves or their families. To become a legal entity, each of the cemetery associations must file with a state government a charter and a set of bylaws that govern how the cemetery will be run and what rules its members must follow. Enforcing the rules of the cemetery association is, therefore, up to the members themselves – except in rare cases in which those rules are in conflict with state or federal law. Members can expect that, generally speaking, no governmental entity will step in to enforce the rules on their behalf.
Complications can arise when a small, non-profit cemetery decides to sell its land, grave sights, and future obligations involving burial plots, to a larger, for-profit company that already owns many other cemeteries in other locales. Typically speaking, such a sale must be approved by a majority of the cemetery’s board. But once the sale is final, the new owners are not necessarily bound to the cemetery’s original rules. That’s when the widely diverse state and local rules become the only guide for how a cemetery must be run, and, at that point, the individual contracts that each new customer has with the new owners become the most important legal guide for how a cemetery is run. Many consumers may assume that contracts are pre-approved by a state or federal government – as they are, in a sense, in the case of funeral homes who must follow the Funeral Rule – but that is simply not the case in most cases. State and local laws typically address non-financial matters such as how and where bodies may be buried in the interest of public sanitation and health. Most laws assume financial matters to be negotiated entirely between the consumer and the cemetery. Disputes are then handled, on an individual basis, in civil courts as need arises – with the private contract between the two parties serving as the central law in the case.
Because of a lack of uniformity of laws related to cemeteries, many consumer advocates and lawmakers have in recent years pushed for a legal expansion of the Funeral Rule to include cemeteries and other business industries involved in the death care business. In the next section we will look closely at that issue.
Description of the Bereaved Consumer’s Bill of Rights
In 2011, Congressman Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Illinois lead a team of U.S. House Representatives to file a proposal for a bill called the Bereaved Consumer’s Bill of Rights. This bill would have expanded the Federal Trade Commission’s authority under the Funeral Rule to include Cemeteries. While not specifically mentioning the Funeral Rule, the proposed bill applied all of the same rules that currently apply to funeral homes to cemeteries. Among other things, the bill would require cemeteries to provide customers with a General Price List that clearly spells out the company’s cemetery services and their prices very early in the initial meeting with a customer. The bill would also make it formally illegal for a cemetery representative to knowingly mislead a customer (but false assertions of facts such as state laws) into buying a cemetery product – such as a burial vault – that is not necessarily wanted.
This law was well received by many consumer groups and a few of Rush’s colleague’s in congress, but, in the end, it never made it to the House floor for debate. Some groups that look out for families negotiating with cemeteries and funeral homes have pledged to keep the bill alive by finding more willing sponsors to introduce the bill again in future sessions. The text of the bill remains available for public inspection on several websites run by Congress, and hope for the bill remains alive among Rush and a number of his fellow Congress men and women.
Why proponents believe the Bereavement Consumer Bill of Rights is necessary
Those who have supported the Bereavement Consumer Bill of Rights argue that its implementation will help to resolve much confusion among death care industry consumers over just what a cemetery’s sales staff is supposed to offer them and how pricing and payment is to be made. This is particularly important, the proponents argue, in an industry in which funeral homes and cemeteries are increasingly run by the same companies. In many of these cases, families grieving the loss of a loved one are faced with the uncomfortable, confusing situation of being asked to work with two sets of passively-aggressive sales people (one from the cemetery side of the business and the other from funeral home side) each of which has a different set of legal requirements that serve only to confuse the family. In one particular case that we know about, a family in Texas was sold a burial vault by the funeral home side of a company that operated both a funeral home and a cemetery. The vault was listed as part of the funeral home’s services on the funeral home’s general price list, though a careful inspection by the family later revealed that the cemetery side of the business also typically sold funeral vaults at a lower price. A cemetery representative told the family that he could not legally sell the burial vault to customers who were buying their supplies “at-need,” and, since the vault was not listed on a standardized price list that the cemetery side of the business put out, the family had no reason to suspect this was erroneous. In practice, however, it was erroneous and there is absolutely no law requiring cemeteries to refuse sales of burial vaults to families buying “at-need.” If cemeteries were subject to the same laws as funeral homes are under the Funeral Rule, the cemetery salesman in this case would have been in clear violation of the law because of his misrepresentation of state law.
Why opponents believe the Consumer Bereavement Bill of Rights is unnecessary
Opponents of the Consumer Bereavement Bill of Rights argue that most of the bill’s provisions are already covered under existing laws, particularly those dealing with anti-trust and anti-competitive practices. They also point out that market forces keep cemeteries honest naturally. An organization whose prices are too expensive or whose practices are too deceptive will quickly lose customer support and will not be in business for long, the bill’s opponents argue. Further, they highlight commentary and statistics even from the bill’s proponents who say that most cemeteries today can be found to operate quite ethically. Among other things, the opponents of the bill point out that today’s cemeteries are typically quite cordial toward customers who wish to buy merchandise related to their plot – headstones, caskets, and even cremation urns – from other companies. It is general practice among most cemeteries these days that, so long as the third-party vendor can provide products that meet the cemetery’s posted standards, the outside merchandise is allowed. This is despite a federal law – other than, perhaps, anti-trust laws already on the books – specifically requiring cemeteries to adopt these policies.
Description of who owns what in the cemetery industry
Our discussion now requires a brief, realistic summary of how the cemetery industry operates in the United States. It is important for customers to realize that relatively speaking, very few cemeteries today operate as stand-alone operations even though outside appearances may indicate otherwise. In fact, it is sometimes very difficult to know just who owns a cemetery. In one recent example, folks at a small town city hall had been in the habit, for years, of telling inquirers that the city’s local cemetery was owned by a local non-profit cemetery board. The fact is, however, the board had sold the property to a large “death care” company many years before the folks at city hall were aware of the transaction. The new owners had kept most of the cemetery’s managers on the staff – only now they were actually getting paid for their work in exchange for signing an agreement not to divulge information about the sale to the public. This discussion is important because the complicated ownership patterns of cemeteries can play a role in whether cemeteries are likely to voluntarily abide by the spirit of the Funeral Rule even if they are not required to by law. If, for example, a cemetery is owned by a death care company that also owns funeral homes, it is likely that the company, already used to regulations under the Funeral Rule, will apply the same sorts of rules to the cemetery side of the business. If, on the other hand, a company is very careful to operate only cemeteries, that could be a sign that the company is not committed to the consumer-protection principals spelled out in the Funeral Rule.
What consumers should watch out for
No matter who owns a cemetery, customers buying a grave plot for themselves or their family members would do well to make sure absolutely sure they understand anything they are asked to sign by the cemetery staff. In many cases in today’s world, we are all tempted to give a simply cursory glance over documents we are asked to sign – especially when the documents come from a company we assume to have an excellent business reputation in the local area. This is not recommended when working with a cemetery. Because laws regarding cemeteries are few and often difficult to enforce, customers should remember that their contract with the cemetery is about all that they will be able to rely upon in the event things go awry. Thought it may be difficult to be a tough negotiator during a time of great emotional stress brought about by a death of a friend or loved one, it is important that families stand firm on their business ideals when working with a cemetery and not agree to anything that is not absolutely necessary. Further, they should also not be bashful about shopping around for the best price. Many of the items that go into a cemetery, such as headstones, grave markers, caskets and even larger memorials can be obtained to outside memorial dealers. Though there is no law that officially requires cemeteries to accept merchandise purchased from their competitors, most ethical and reputable cemetery companies will allow such merchandise be installed on their property – without additional charge – so long as it meets written requirements that apply to all customers. Any customer that encounters a different policy – or different attitude – from a cemetery, should not be afraid to find another establishment with which to do business. The fact is, there is no shortage of cemeteries in the United States. Customers, therefore, have control of this “market,” but for that control to be effective in keeping prices reasonable and motivating excellent service , the customers must learn to exercise it.
Who is available to help in the event of problems
The lack of uniformity of laws regarding cemeteries in the United States means that getting help in the event of disputes can be difficult. Often, even issues of neglect of a grave site can be unchallengable except by any contracts that may have been signed by both parties. Government officials will rarely get involved in these cases, but, rather, the parties must resolve their disputes on their own or with the help of a court. And, given the complicated nature of cemetery-related laws, even many attorneys will be uncertain of how to proceed in some cases (some may even be unwilling). While it is rare to find an attorney who specializes in cemetery-related matters, there are some consumer groups that can provide recommendations for attorneys.
If formal legal resources prove to be unhelpful in the event of problems with a cemetery, customers would do well to consult media outlets. Many local television stations and newspapers have “consumer investigation” teams whose job it is to investigate claims of fraudulent or incompetent practices at businesses in their audience areas. Contacting one of these teams to ask for an investigation may be a great way to resolve any issue you may be having with a cemetery. Local cemeteries are often interested in avoiding any negative publicity, so even a brief mention of contacting a media outlet over a dispute may be just the thing a customer needs to win quick concessions from a cemetery owner or staff member.