The death care industry in the United States can be complicated, forcing unwitting families grieving the loss of loved one into complex financial mazes that may not always be in their best interest and to which they may not even be aware. In no part of the death care industry is this unfortunate situation more likely than in the relationship between cemeteries and the companies that make the grave markers installed on their properties. This article offers a consumer’s overview of some important matters that will be helpful to them in working with cemeteries and headstone manufacturers to get the product that best suits their needs at a reasonable price.
Overview of laws
The most important thing that customers can know about laws governing the relationships between cemeteries and grave markers is this: they are few. Even one common practice that many assume is built into United States law is not part of any law: though most modern cemeteries allow their customers too choose their own grave marker manufacturers, this arrangement is not necessarily prescribed by law. In fact, lobbying representatives of the death care industry have worked against legislative attempts to formally include it in laws such as The Funeral Rule, which do, in fact, require funeral homes to allow customers to order products such as caskets and cremation urns from third party vendors. The argument against a legal similar requirement of cemeteries is two fold. First, cemetery advocates argue, there is little evidence that cemeteries today use strong handed sales tactics to force their customers to order grave markers and headstones from particular companies. Second, it would simply not make good business sense to do that.
So, while customers ordering a grave marker for a loved-one’s cemetery plot may assume they have strong legal protections outside the promises made in advertisements and on contracts, that is not necessarily the case. The best advice a consumer can receive in working with a cemetery or a grave marker manufacturing company is to make sure they fully understand all documents they are asked to sign and to not agree to anything that seems against their best interest. Consumers should never enter into any business contract that makes them feel uncomfortable or, worse, victimized. The current state of law in the United States takes the approach that market forces – in other words, consumer choices – are the best enforcers of justice and fairness in the market place; the death care industry is sufficiently diverse that even customers in midst of deep grief can find cemeteries and grave marker manufacturers that will suit their needs at a reasonable price.
Cemeteries that supply their own grave markers
One of the scenarios consumers will likely come across as they decide upon a grave marker for a loved one’s cemetery plot is a situation in which their cemetery offers to supply their own grave markers. Here are some things to keep in mind in such a situation.
First, it is likely – especially in the case of flat grave markers – that grave markers provided by the cemetery will not be manufactured by the cemetery personnel itself. Rather, the cemetery is likely planning to serve as a retailer and will be contracting the manufacturing to a third party. Customers should ask questions about this and should be sure to ask for credentials of the manufacturer. If the cemetery is, indeed, planning to produce the headstone with its own employees and equipment, then it should be happily willing to be up-front about that, including offering a tour of the manufacturing facility at your request. Further, the price for the headstone should be less expensive than than it would be if the company where ordering it elsewhere. (Presumably, the reason the cemetery would start its own headstone manufacturing operation would be because the two businesses could combine resources and save customers money.) Price checking is encouraged. If you should consult with another headstone manufacturer and discover that the price will be less expensive, you should not hesitate to go with that offer. If the cemetery suddenly lowers its price for you in an effort to win your business away from another company, that is a sign that you may be working with an unethical cemetery and you would do well to consider taking your business elsewhere for both the grave plot and the headstone itself.
Cemeteries that order grave markers from outside manufacturers
It is often the case that cemeteries do not manufacture headstones themselves but will place orders for their customers from outside manufacturers. This is quite a common arrangement, but consumers should, as in the section above, be careful to ask about the manufacturer’s credentials. Many of these third party manufacturers will in fact work directly with the customers themselves after they have been introduced by the cemetery staff. In these instances, the customers would do well to ask the manufacturer for its suggested retail price for the marker it is selling. If the price is more than what the customer has been quoted for the marker, then buying from another retailer is suggested. Also, as in the section above, we repeat our warning that, if a cemetery lowers its price quote in order to keep you from ordering somewhere else, that is a sign that you may be dealing with an unethical cemetery management that puts its profit ahead of its commitment to customers. One thing for customers to keep in mind is that several of the largest headstone manufacturers in the United States manufacture exclusively for most cemeteries in the country (especially the larger cemeteries). Anti-trust laws, however, prohibit the manufacturers from requiring that the cemeteries charge certain prices for their products. The cemeteries, therefore, are allowed to set their own prices and do not necessarily have to follow the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. It is up to the customer, therefore, to make sure that he or she is getting as good of a deal from the cemetery as he or she could get from any other retailer. It can be assumed that retailers working with the same manufacturer are probably paying the same wholesale price for the grave marker.
Ordering grave markers from third party manufacturers
As may be evident from our discussion in the previous two sections, cemetery customers may sometimes benefit from ordering a grave marker or headstone directly from a third party manufacturer not chosen by the cemetery staff. This arrangement may not always be encouraged by a cemetery, but it is certainly legal. Unfortunately, given the confusing state of United States laws related to cemeteries, it may also be legal for a cemetery to refuse to accept a grave marker made by a third party manufacturer it does not hire itself. The Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule requires funeral homes to accept third party products as part of the services they provide to customers, but no such rule applies to cemeteries. Fortunately for consumer, however, most cemeteries in operation in the United States today will eagerly comply with such requests by customers because they do not want to invite legislative action that might be forth coming if they do not. Also, consumer advocates as well as representatives of the cemetery industry all say that it simply makes good business sense to allow customers to order products made by outside vendors.
We repeat our advice from other sections of this article: if a cemetery is reluctant to allow you to work with a third party of your choice to get a headstone or grave marker of your choice, that is a sign that the cemetery is not run in an entirely ethical matter. In fact, the following is a common tactic recommended by consumer advocates: inquire about the cemetery establishment’s policies about third-party headstones very early in any conversation with the staff (and do this no matter whether you intend to buy a headstone from a third party, from the cemetery itself or from a company that does regular business with the cemetery). If the answer does not indicate a complete willingness to work with an outside vendor, the best bet is to immediately find another cemetery with which to do business.
Most third party vendors are well versed in working with cemeteries of all types and in all states and their staff can help you to navigate through any difficulties you may encounter. In general, these businesses (most of which operate strictly on-line, thereby saving customers the overhead costs associated with maintaining a “brick-and-mortar” retail outlet) will not accept full payment for an order before a cemetery staff member has signed a document indicating a willingness to accept delivery and install the marker once it is finished. Whether your manufacturer does this for you or not, it is very important that you secure such a document from the cemetery before you formally agree to place a headstone order. In fact, if your manufacturer does not offer this service up-front, that may be a sign that you are working with a company that is not run as ethically as it could be.
In general, being vigilant about understanding any contracts you are agreeing too before money changes hands or papers or signed is the best way to assure that the relationship between your headstone manufacturer and your cemetery is beneficial to you in getting your family’s needs met at a reasonable price.