Change is Necessary
The death care industry is a multi-billion dollar concern in the United States each year and it is dominated by several large companies – several of which are publicly traded and have operations in other countries making them a part of the “multi-national, global economy” that is so often talked about in the news. Accordingly, it is carefully regulated by lawmakers and bureaucrats at all levels of government in the country (local, state and national). And it even has its own set of federal rules that apply specifically to it, the Funeral Rule, adopted by congress and enforced by the Federal Trade Commission as a means to protect consumers against abusive monopolistic practices by the funeral home industry in the decades in which all of death care was dominated by small, family businesses that operated under very lax, or even non-existent regulation.
But as with any legal maze, the laws intended to protect consumers are confusing to those who do not work or study funeral homes, cemeteries, and all related businesses on a daily basis. So brief, yet thorough, reviews are helpful for people who depend upon the law to help them get fair deals on the memorial products and services the death care industry provides. We offer such a review in this article.
The most important source of confusion that we intend to clear up in this article is that the Funeral Rule mentioned above applies, technically speaking, only to funeral homes. Cemeteries are, officially, not affected. But since funeral homes and cemeteries work so closely with each other and are often owned by the very same companies (not to mention being insuperably linked together in the minds of many consumers), the Funeral Rule most certainly does have an effect on the way cemeteries are typically run. We hope that becomes clear as readers progress through this article.
Why Knowing the Laws Is Important
Though it’s not a requirement that customers of cemeteries have a thorough understanding of the laws as they relate to the industry, it is important because, well, cemetery owners have a vested interested in exploiting loopholes or weak spots in the laws. While we will not present evidence in this article that most cemeteries are doing this, we will certainly make no attempt to argue that cemeteries are run exclusively by altruistic angels who are in business solely to look out for their customer’s best interest. The fact is, customers of cemeteries are wise to beware of unethical and even unethical practices. Such vigilance can save those thousands of dollars off the overall price of person’s final expenses, particularly, of course the burial.
The Funeral Rule
Congress adopted The Funeral Rule in the 1980’s (and revised it in the 1990’s) to help protect consumers from wide-spread abuses that consumer advocates and journalists had been complaining about for most of the 20th century. The law was passed despite much lobbying pressure from those in the death care industry, and, as is often the case with laws aimed at regulating rogue industries, it the final version did not have as much “teeth” as advocates had hoped for. One of the ways in which the law is “watered down” from its creator’s original intent is the fact that it, very specifically, applies only to funeral homes. Cemeteries, though they are closely related to funeral homes, are not mentioned in the law.
The effect of this has been the following:
Funeral homes today routinely supply their customers with a “General Price List” – treated almost like a formal public document that is open to inspection and verification by anyone who asks to see it – very quickly upon their first meeting. (And, in many cases, the customers are given the GPL even before their first meeting with a funeral director.) This list functions much like a restaurant’s menu, giving customers a thorough and accurate look at all services and goods the funeral home offers and the prices that are charged. The Funeral Rule requires that funeral homes stick to those services and prices for all customers. Deviations are simply not allowed, and customers who experience a change are encouraged to complain to the Federal Trade Commission, the agency authorized to enforce the rule and administer penalties against funeral homes found to be out of compliance.
There are other aspects to The Funeral Rule, but that is the gist of it, especially as it applies to helping consumers negotiate the fairest price their local market will naturally provide for funeral goods and services. Whereas in the days before the Funeral Rule was in place, funeral directors were free to down play (or “forget” to mention) their lower priced goods and services, now those products must be clearly listed, with everything else, on the GPL. And, further, whereas funeral homes of the past were allowed to be coy, or even secretive, in discussing its prices with potential customers (so as to discourage people from shopping around for the best prices available in town), now all funeral homes in a given city must readily supply their GPL to anyone who asks, and this gives customers the power to shop competitively, just by reviewing various GPLs in the comfort of their homes.
But, as we say, all of this applies to funeral homes, not cemeteries. Technically speaking anyway.
In practice, the Funeral Rule has led to cemeteries, generally speaking, being very honest and forthcoming about all the services they offer and the prices they charge. While many cemeteries still do not automatically offer anything like a GPL to customers, many now do. (And even those that do not are generally amiable about discussing their services and prices with any strangers who inquire – even over the telephone.) The fact is, since many cemeteries are owned by companies that also run funeral homes – and in fact, many cemeteries and funeral homes operate out of the same building on the same property – the Funeral Rule’s intended practices have spilled over into the world of cemeteries too in large measure.
From the consumer’s perspective, the most important thing to realize about The Funeral Rule as it applies to cemeteries is that, though cemeteries are not required to be thoroughly open about their prices, services and other policies, many (if not most) are. So, if consumers find themselves dealing with a cemetery that is not forthcoming about the prices it generally charges, or is hesitant to discuss all services it provides, it is very likely that a competing cemetery in the very same town will be more amiable. Whereas with funeral homes, consumers have an ally in the Federal Government, cemetery customers have a, perhaps an even stronger, friend in competing cemeteries.
Bereaved Consumers Bill of Rights
Alas, no industry is perfect. Bad apples exist everyone, as the saying goes. Complaints about questionable, potentially abusive, practices of some cemeteries continue to be heard each year by lawmakers and consumer actives. So legislators at all levels of government continue to pursue efforts to bring to cemeteries the same legal requirements that funeral homes have faced for decades now. To date, none of these efforts have seen complete success, but there is one Congressional bill that remains alive as of this writing and has some potential to be brought forth in a serious way just about any time. That bill is called The Bereaved Consumers Bill of Rights. It was first proposed in a committee of the House of Representatives in 2011, but was never approved for consideration by the full house. This often means that a bill “died in committee,” but the truth is that bills never officially die until the sponsoring members formally requests that they be removed from the Congressional database of active bills. The sponsors of this bill have not yet made such a request, so the bill remains open for another round of discussion in a Congressional committee any time the committee agrees to begin such talks.
Accordingly, consumer advocates continue to promote it in articles and speeches, and lobbyists in the death care industry continue to publish and talk about their objections to it. Type the bill’s name into just about any search engine, and you will find a world of debate about this bill, much of it from very recent months.
As we say, the intent of the Bereaved Consumers Bill of Rights is that cemeteries be required to submit to the same GPL requirements as funeral homes. But opponents of the bill argue that no more laws are necessary, that there is no evidence that cemeteries routinely engage in abusive practices that need to be stopped (as was, all seem to agree, the case with funeral homes before The Funeral Rule was passed).
While this debate carries on, largely in a low key manner in private offices, emails, phone calls, and an occasional obscurely published article, the enforcement of The Funeral Rule’s spirit – at least when it comes to cemeteries – is entirely up to consumers. So this is certainly a case of buyer beware.