Rules established before the internet age may be in for a major overhaul to protect consumers in today’s everything online world, and the first business niche to go under the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) update microscope are funeral home operators.
When the FTC established its “Funeral Rule” in 1984 – a requirement that funeral home operators disclose prices up front – the rule only required funeral providers to show a Casket Price List (CPL) and Outer Burial Container Price List when someone asks in-person about those items or their prices, and before showing the items or pictures of them.
Interestingly enough, the current rule doesn’t require disclosure by phone or any other means except “in person" -- which, by the way, can be at a hospital or another place.
"Funeral homes are allowed to provide prices by phone or email or online. And if they do, they must be accurate. But they’re not required," Teresa Murray, Consumer Watchdog, at U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) told ConsumerAffairs.
Now, 38 years later, the agency feels it has no choice but to amend the rule to cover any internet or electronic communication, such as email or text, between the funeral home and the consumer.
What the FTC hopes to clear up
There’s a lot of ground to cover if the amendment goes into action, too. The FTC said its research shows that more than 60% of funeral home websites have little to no pricing information and less than half (40%) provided any information about the price of the goods or services offered.
Even when funeral homes did disclose anything, it wasn’t much according to the agency’s research. Approximately 11% of the websites provided only starting prices or package offers, about 24% of the websites contained an itemized price list, and about 4% of the websites contained information only about prices for caskets or alternative containers.
“Funeral homes catch aggrieved consumers at their most vulnerable while they’re trying to honor the memory of their loved one,” said Ed Mierzwinski, senior director, Federal Consumer Program at U.S. PIRG Education Fund.
“It’s an opportunity to upsell or increase prices. Consumers can’t really shop around, nor do they have the time or state of mind to visit multiple funeral homes, which is the only way to comparison shop. Online disclosures would help consumers compare prices more quickly and would allow customers to make sure after the fact that they weren’t overcharged.”
Until the FTC updates the rule, what consumers need to know
At present, the FTC requires that funeral homes disclose an itemized list of prices, plus it prohibits funeral homes from misrepresenting laws or burial requirements. Those include:
Charging for embalming without permission;
Requiring a casket to be purchased for cremation; and
Requiring consumers to pay for specific goods or services before getting other goods or services.
Until the Funeral Rule gets an update, U.S. PIRG says consumers should understand their rights. As it stands, the current rule requires six prices/disclosures:
The basic services fee;
A list of casket prices;
Costs for embalming (which isn’t required);
Alternative containers for direct cremation;
The price list for a burial vault or grave liner; and
The consumer’s right to select only the goods and services desired.
As a safety net, U.S. Pirg suggests taking a trusted friend or someone else not as close to the deceased person if you’re going to the funeral home to discuss funeral arrangements and prices. That alone could help you make decisions with clarity.
When that situation happens, remember everything you’re entitled to: The Funeral Rule requires that anyone can ask for and obtain, in person, anywhere (for example, at a hospital as well as a funeral home), a copy of the funeral home’s General Price List.