The short answer is misleading. No, cemeteries do not have to allow grave markers from outside sources. Legislatively speaking, that is. Judicially speaking is another matter. As is economics.
Though some people continue to push for a law that would specifically require cemeteries to comply with the spirit established in The Funeral Rule, which applies only to funeral homes, there is in fact no such formal rule. Whereas funeral homes are very specifically required to allow their customers to purchase products such as caskets and cremations from the source of their choice, cemeteries have so far escaped such formal regulation. The Bereaved Consumer Bill of Rights is the significant legislative attempt to require that cemeteries be open to outside vendors of headstones and the like, but that has been on the Congressional shelf since 2011 and seems unlikely to move out of committee any time soon.
But court cases, as well as matters of good business sense, dictate otherwise. Cemeteries that do not allow customers to buy their headstones and other products related to their grave plots face many legal and economic risks. And such a policy is likely a sign that the cemetery’s management may not be as ethical or as committed to its customer’s needs as it could be. Anti-trust related court cases such as a famous 2013 Supreme Court decision allowing a group of Louisiana Monks the legal right to sell their hand crafted coffins directly to the public without any sort of license have made it legally very risky for cemeteries to require caskets and head stones be purchased directly from them. And, besides, it’s generally considered bad business to try to trap customers into paying extra for a product they could get for less money elsewhere.
We offer the following brief-but-thorough discussion of this complex topic that is of great importance to anyone working with a cemetery after the loss of a loved one.
Why reputable cemeteries allow outside grave markers
Though it is dominated by a few large international companies that own most of the largest funeral homes and cemeteries in the country, the United States’ death care industry is surprisingly competitive, a situation that allows customers to save a lot of money – if they are diligent. Cemetery customers will likely find plenty of options for headstones, grave vaults and other such products that they can use with just about any cemetery plot for a reasonable price. And that situation owes itself to the fact that cemetery managers and owners recognize great value in maintaining a healthy, competitive spirit in their industry. (To be certain, it is still very possible to pay much more than is necessary for cemetery-related goods. Consumers who do not do their homework and simply accept the first suggestions offered by a cemetery sales person, are at great risk of ending up with buyer’s regret when the final bill comes due.)
This competitiveness owes itself to the fact any leaders of any big industry controlled by a few large companies understand: regulators are always watching cemeteries for signs of anti-competitive behavior. The moment there is any indication that the leading companies in any industry are colluding with one another or conspiring against smaller companies, legislative intervention on behalf of customers is almost assured. This very situation occurred in the death care industry throughout the 20th century as journalists and consumer activist pushed congress to pass The Funeral Rule in response to anti-competitive abuses that were rampant among funeral homes. Cemeteries, meanwhile, have managed to avoid such direct attempts at regulation specifically of their sector of the death care industry. And, because new laws typically involve a great deal of expensive record keeping paperwork and other bureaucratic hassles, the industry’s leaders have plenty of incentive to keep Congress (or any other legislative body) from creating a law for cemeteries that is similar to what they have done for funeral homes.
So, it just makes good business sense for cemeteries to allow their customers to order grave markers from outside sources that may be able to offer a lower retail price for the product. And fortunately, that is the existing policy in most cemeteries today. Granted, the policy may be offered only begrudgingly by some cemetery owners and managers, but it is nevertheless the industry’s standard rule that cooperation is the best course of action when a customer decides it is in his or her best interest to shop outside of the cemetery (or any “preferred providers” the cemetery may suggest) for grave markers or other related products. So long as the ordered marker meets standards set by the cemetery – which, just about any headstone manufacturer can do – there is little chance these days that a cemetery will refuse to allow a customer’s outside-sourced headstone to be installed on its property. (This is not to say that there is no chance of this, but it is a widely recognized fact in the death care industry that most cemeteries today will allow such a transaction.)
What cemeteries risk when they refuse outside sales of grave markers
Despite all we have said above, there are a few rare birds in the cemetery industry that will attempt to exercise their “full rights” under United States law by stubbornly refusing to allow grave markers supplied by “unauthorized” manufacturers or dealers onto their properties. Some of these companies may even site state or local laws.
Customers should know that such a policy is not required by any state law that has been upheld by a federal court. (Our country is filled with laws that have been struck down by Federal courts but remain, unenforceable, on the books of local and state governments.) Further such a policy is not a standard practice in any part of the United States.
So cemeteries that insist upon such a policy risk much.
First, they risk a lawsuit. Since the United States Supreme Court and many lower courts, including many state courts, have declared such policies illegal on anti-trust ground, a customer who has been refused the right to install a headstone (that meets all of the cemeteries posted requirements) on a plot, can simply head to court. It is always possible that unique factors of an individual case can result in a ruling in the cemetery’s favor, but, given the overwhelming number of times in which consumers have won their cases in similar situations, that prospect seems unlikely, and few (if any) attorneys would likely be willing to argue such a case.
Further, any cemetery that refuses an outside grave marker risks a lot of bad publicity. Once it becomes known among potential customers that a cemetery has tried to milk a little extra money out of grieving customers by forcing them to pay more than the market will bear for products such as headstones and burial vaults, it seems likely that customers will quickly decide to take their business elsewhere in the future. Any extra money the company might make in a forced sale of one of their customers will likely be lost by several multiples when business taken elsewhere is factored into the equation.
What customers can do when an outside grave marker is refused
In the rare instance in which a cemetery says it will not allow a grave marker from an outside source to be installed on its property, probably the best recourse for a family is to immediately cut all ties to the business. Taking one’s business elsewhere is a powerful statement of protest in any free-market situation – and it certainly is no less so in regard to cemeteries.
But another course of action a family can consider is to take one’s case to the local media. Many television stations and newspapers throughout the United States have “consumer action” investigative teams that look into consumer complaints and confront abusive companies about their management practices and policies. Calling a complaint against a cemetery to one of these team’s attention may end up convincing the managers to change their policy for all customers, not just the customer in question. It is often amazing what the light of a little public information can accomplish for all consumers in such cases.
And, finally, a family refused to the right to install an outside-sourced grave marker on a cemetery plot can take the cemetery owners to court. This course of action may involve a significant investment in legal fees, of course, but often such cases are open-and-shut, so many attorney’s make be willing to take the assignment with payment contingent on a win. It is sometimes the case simply threatening to call an attorney will end up resulting in a change of heart among the cemetery owners and managers.
Whatever a customer does, it is best to avoid one particular sort of offer from a cemetery: consumer advocates ask that, if a cemetery decides to lower its price on a grave marker for you after you have made a fuss about not being able to bring in an outside headstone, it is advisable to not take the offer – unless the same price is to be offered to all customers henceforth. An offer of anything less should be taken as a sign that the cemetery is trying to bribe you into not making a fuss about its unethical policy (which would likely be overruled by a court and rejected by the public).
If all of these options mentioned here appear impractical or impossible, there is one final option that a family can consider, and we discuss it at some length in the next section.
How do outsides sources help protect their customers
It may be surprising to learn that the outside sources themselves can likely offer assistance in convincing a cemetery to change its policy about allowing third-party products on their property. But that is often the case.
The outside sources have a vested interest, of course, in helping customers secure permission from the cemetery: they stand to lose a sale if they don’t. So it is very often the case that the third party manufacturer will have a passionate, knowledgeable staff member available on call to help in this situation in order to salvage an order for the company. Customers may be angry at the cemetery staff and wish for the headstone manufacturer of their choice to take an aggressive, angry approach to resolving the matter and getting the headstone accepted. But the opposite approach is often most effective. In many cases a laid-back, even friendly, tone with the cemetery will be much more likely to win the day. And, since outside sources will likely end up getting orders from a particular cemetery’s customers in the future, it just makes good business sense to remain calm, collected and even friendly in the negotiations. A good resolution for the manufacturer or outside retailer would be to convince a cemetery to change its policy, permanently, for all customer, and a good way to do that is to be up-beat, positive and encouraging in the discussions. Many outside source manufacturers and retailers, for example, may end up offering to become an informal sales agent for the cemetery – sending the company new business without expectation for any commission – in exchange for a policy that is friendly toward outside manufacturers and retailers. This sort of resolution to a conflict between a cemetery and its customer would be a win for all involved and is actually quite common in today’s practice in the industry.
So, while it is rare in today’s death care industry, that a cemetery will try to shut out its customers from purchasing grave markers from anyone except manufacturers it “approves,” such practices have not entirely been eliminated. It should serve as some source of peace and comfort, however, that many types of resolutions are available to consumers when that happens and that, in fact, the scenario is rarely ever final. Plenty of options are available, no matter what the circumstances.