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Most people are uncomfortable with discussing their own death and fewer still take the time to make the necessary final arrangements prior to their demise. After a sudden unexpected death, the decedent’s spouse or family is then left with the task of making hasty burial arrangements at a time when they are most vulnerable and seeking comfort.
What could be worse than later discovering that you or your family have been ripped off or overcharged by an unscrupulous service provider? While most are honest and honorable business owners providing valuable service and products to their clients, others use less than honorable tactics to make big commissions on products and services customers don’t need.
Connecticut’s Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, conducted The Connecticut Funeral Home Investigation, (published March 1997), in cooperation with the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group (CPIRG). AG Blumenthal and the CPIRG found the funeral business is a $14 billion dollar a year industry and it enjoys a unique position in that it has a guaranteed demand for its goods and services and has limited competition. The fact that many consumers generally select and purchase goods and services at a very emotional time gives the industry a distinct advantage over the consumer. In the investigation, it was found that the majority of such business customers are elderly individuals making arrangements for the burial of their spouses. Older consumers can be targets for fraud because they have a difficult time seeing that they are being conned, over charged or sold goods they don’t need by someone who appears to them to be trustworthy. It was also found that older people are reluctant to seek advice or ask for assistance from others about financial matters.
It is for this reason that consumers, elderly and otherwise, are talked into buying products or services they do not need. AG Blumenthal explains it this way: “The consumer being toured through a casket showroom usually is not as wary as when toured through a car showroom, although the sales techniques to convince the consumer to purchase a high end model are the same.” For this reason, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) first proposed rules for the funeral trade in 1975. However, due to industry opposition, the laws were not adopted until 1982. The laws governing this trade are found in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and are found in 16 CFR 453. The main purpose of this federal statute is to regulate the pricing and sales practices by such service providers.
The provisions of section .453 requires service providers to disclose the following:
- When a customer calls to inquire about services and products, the staffmust disclose that prices are available over the telephone and then provide them as requested.
- When a customer inquires in person, the service provider must provide a general price list describing the cost of each good or service available.
- The customer must be informed that embalming is required by law only in certain circumstances and that direct cremation and immediate burial are options that do not require embalming.
- The service provider may not imply that embalming or sealing the casket will preserve the remains indefinitely.
- If the service provider adds a service fee to the price of cash advance items or receives a refund, discount, or rebate from a supplier, that information must be disclosed to the customer.
- The customer has a right to purchase only the goods and services they desire. A written statement of the goods and services selected that includes an explanation of any items required by law must be provided.
THE COMMON SCAMS:
1. Sealed Casket Scam. AG Blumenthal’s investigation revealed that 19% of the businesses investigated implied that the decedent’s remains would be protected indefinitely by a sealed casket. The investigation found that while some service providers did emphasize the fact that a sealed casket would not actually preserve the body for longer than a standard casket, most of the service providers did not disclose this fact. Obviously, a “sealed” casket implies more protection and hence validates the much higher price tag.
2. Mandatory Embalming Scam. “Mandatory” embalming is a myth. Embalming is a procedure that temporarily preserves the body for a short period of time. Embalming is required only in certain instances, for example, when the remains are to be transported to another funeral home by air or when the service includes an open casket viewing of the deceased. Embalming is also necessary when the remains are to be held longer than 48 hours.
Embalming is mandatory only in these situations. The scam occurs when the service provider informs the customer that embalming is required by law in other circumstances such as direct cremation, immediate burial or a closed casket funeral with no viewing and refrigeration is available and when state or local law does not require embalming.
The FTC regulations regarding embalming states: (1) the customer has a right to choose a burial without embalming and (2) the provider may not embalm for a fee unless it is required by law or expressly approved by the customer.
3. The Pay-in-Advance Scam. Pre-paid services are becoming more common. When a customer enters into a pre-paid contract with a service provider, the customer pre-selects goods and services they desire and gives the funeral provider money equal to the value of the goods and services selected at the current rates with the understanding that the service provider will use those funds to provide the goods and services upon the death of the customer.
However, many things can go wrong with pre-paid service arrangements. Service providers may later choose to provide only some of the goods and services selected by the customer to compensate for the effect of inflation on prices years later. Service providers can go out of business and take the customers money with them. In worst-case scenarios, the funeral provider may simply embezzle the customer’s funds, disappear, and leave the decedent’s family to pay a second time for funeral arrangements.Consumers can protect themselves by doing some homework before ever calling a service provider or setting foot in a funeral home. The most important things to do are:
- Research prices of basic goods and services.
- Push aside the inhibition of talking about death and select the goods and services you desire in advance of discussing your needs with a service provider.
- Remember that under the Federal Trade Commission regulations, the service provider is required to provide a price list on any customer inquiry about funeral arrangements. If they don’t supply a price list, simply walk out.
- Importantly, bring a friend, one who is not as emotionally affected by the circumstances as this person can help separate the financial issues from the emotional issues.
- Do not spend the extra money for a “sealed” or “protective” casket, as they do not preserve the body any better than a regular casket.
- Before buying any goods and services, think about what is truly needed and purchase each item individually. Package deals are often padded with high end products and services such as access to a “grief library” and other services that won’t be used. FTC regulations prohibit funeral providers from forcing or pressuring customers into package deals.
- Avoid paying in advance. If you are insistent on pre-payment, ask a lot of questions and satisfy yourself that the money you pay will be in a fund that is protected and traceable. In conclusion, the best investment you can make into planning your arrangements is to take the time necessary to investigate your options and become informed as to the goods and services available from service providers and decide what your needs are. Check with friends and family members that have used particular service providers and investigate their reputation in the community.
In addition, there is a National Funeral Directors Association website, you can go to for further information regarding various topics of interest. I visited the website and found a lot of useful information.
CREDITS: The basis and substance of this information was obtained from an article entitled Scamming the Elderly, A Look into Funeral Fraud by Tracy E. Smith a 2006 graduate of the University of Kansas School of Law published in the Probate & Property journal March/April 2007 issue.
Also, Connecticut Funeral Home Investigation, A Consumer Guide to the Prices, Practices, and Regulations of the Funeral Industry. Investigation conducted by Attorney General of Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal and the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group. Published online March 1997 and can be obtained at: