I am sure that everyone has heard the story of a poor little lady who lost her husband and when making arrangements at the local funeral home was talked into a funeral and casket that she really couldn’t afford. She was convinced that she wanted the very best for her dearly departed and encouraged to purchase a funeral package and casket way beyond her means.
Invariably, most of these stories are either not true or are dramatically exaggerated. Most funeral directors provide a high quality service and do their utmost to provide the support needed within the constraints of the grief stricken customer. Like any other business, however, there are always a few “bad apples on the tree” who sully the reputation of those who are honest and reputable. Because of these few bad characters, the Federal Trade Commission initiated the Funeral Rule in 1984.
Let’s take a moment and look at what the Funeral Rule provides on behalf of the consumer. It was created to make sure that the interests of the consumer were protected at a time when he or she is grief stricken and therefore likely to be most vulnerable to a smooth sales pitch.
Now I have to admit that as a former businessman I have personally never been a big fan of stringent rules and regulations that often stymie initiative and stifle business efficiency, but I can see some real value to the Funeral Rule. When people are grieving they are often not thinking as clearly as they might under other circumstances. Fearful of the future, they often just want to get the situation resolved so that they can try and find some inner peace.
The Funeral Rule requires a number of actions by the funeral industry that are designed to insure consumers are fully aware of what their options are and what those options cost. Four particular requirements are especially noteworthy and deserve attention. They include the requirement to provide a service price list, pricing for caskets, a provision precluding casket purchase as a requirement for other services, and funeral provider inspections with corrective actions needed for violations. Let’s take a quick look at each of these.
+ Services price list. The rule mandates that before starting discussion with funeral planners and service providers, the customer requesting information must be provided with the detailed price list of services available. The idea here is to insure that the person who has suffered the loss of a loved one fully understands the financial side of any agreement reached.
+ Casket pricing. Similar to above, caskets are not to be shown to the customer until the casket price list has first been provided. This accomplishes a similar result as above; the customer will know the costs before viewing the many options which can range from quite basic to highly ornate. This is one area where many people create financial problems for themselves because, of course, we all want the very best for our departed loved one. The key here is to make sure that any decision made is well understood.
+ Services tied to casket purchase. The rule also forbids a provider from requiring casket purchase from that provider as a condition of service. The customer has the right to procure a casket from any vendor he likes without negating his use of a particular funeral home or service provider.
+ Inspections and corrective actions. Finally, the Funeral Rule has established a methodology for reviewing compliance by funeral service organizations and subsequent financial penalties for serious violations. Under this provision, the FTC has agents who are assigned to spot check funeral industry providers with no advance notice required. While only a small percentage of active vendors are inspected on a given year, the idea is to keep them honest and transparent in their business practices, thereby protecting the consumer at a time when he or she is usually facing a highly emotional decision. Significant violations found subject the vendor to corrective action which normally includes entry into the Funeral Rule Offenders Program, a three year program to insure future compliance. Failure to enter the program may results in a lawsuit being filed by the FTC with potential civil law penalties of up to sixteen thousand dollars for non-compliance.
Since the program was started in 1984, over 427 out of 2700 violators have entered and successfully completed the program. In the last year, 27 violators have been found out of 123 which have been inspected. Of the 27, all but one has entered the program with that one still being reviewed. This most recent year’s inspection process has resulted in 18% of providers inspected being found in non-compliance. It is important to note, however, that since this is a small percentage of active providers, the result certainly does not show that violations are widespread in the industry. It does mean, however, that for those few that do violate accepted procedures, a change in the way they do business is necessary.
I would like to make one more point about individual responsibility that I think is important and will greatly assist anyone dealing with funeral planning. This particularly applies to the individual who is actually the subject of the service, each of us who at some later date will be laid to rest or cremated. Take the time to do some advance planning for your own finale. Any decisions you make yourself will make it easier on those left behind as well as the funeral professionals whose services will be needed. They want to provide what you want at the price you want and no one knows better than you yourself what that might be.
Even if you choose not to do this, it is at least a good idea to have someone designated, preferably a good, trusted friend as opposed to a family member, to assist your significant other in meeting and dealing with funeral professionals at the time of need. This will insure that an unbiased and clear-thinking mind is available to provide counsel on the details. It removes a lot of pressure from a grieving soul.
While the Funeral Rule provides some sound guidelines to avoid problems, remember that the overwhelming preponderance of funeral professionals do a wonderful job with a caring touch. Their long term business success depends on their honor and integrity and they guard it religiously. Also remember that the final decision rests with the one left behind and therefore it is important to insure that they know what is wanted and what to expect in this stressful time that all must face someday. No one else can ultimately be responsible for making the decisions needed. Being prepared in advance will be of invaluable help.
I hope this is helpful in the event that you must personally deal with this tough situation. God bless us all; give each of us the strength to do the right thing in these delicate matters and may God always bless America.