Since 1984, Washington has tried to provide some protection. Under the Federal Trade Commission's Funeral Rule, funeral homes must provide itemized prices of all goods and services before actual discussions begin. They may not insist on services the family doesn't want or that aren't required by law (such as embalming). Nor may they demand that the casket be bought from the home or raise the service fees if the family gets it from a less expensive place such as Walmart or Costco.
To find out whether these rules are honored, FTC officials each year pose as potential customers at funeral homes across the country. The good news is that, in recent years, almost six in seven homes have been found to comply, says the FTC's Craig Tregillus, Funeral Rule coordinator. The not-so-good news is that leaves one in seven that don't. "They're not all necessarily bad apples" who knowingly try to deceive customers when they're most vulnerable, he says. "Some may just be ignorant apples."
In the latest round of undercover visits, 23 of 102 homes were found to have "significant" violations — typically, not providing the required price lists, the FTC says. Thirty-three others had "minor" infractions, which Tregillus says usually entailed changes in the mandated language of the rules.
The National Funeral Directors Association says it takes violations seriously. The FTC offers first-time offenders a three-year training program — essentially a probation period — conducted by the association, and participants make "a voluntary payment" to the U.S. Treasury in place of a civil penalty. Infractions after completing the program can result in fines of up to $16,000 per violation.
What does this mean to you? Most funeral homes don't deceive, "but when planning a funeral, you still need to be cautious," says Tregillus.
Here are four ways to do that:
• Preplan, but don't prepay. The FTC and AARP recommend caution before prepaying for a funeral, which may benefit the funeral home more than the customer. But preplanning a funeral pays off. You can at least confirm the wishes of the person who's likely to soon pass away. And in talks with the funeral home, "you're less susceptible to the pressures of upgrading everything," says Tregillus.
• Consider cremation. It generally costs much less than a traditional burial.
• Expect three price lists. Under the Funeral Rule, you should get one for all goods and services during your initial contact with the home, another for its caskets before you're shown photographs or in-stock inventory, and a third for "outer burial" containers before discussions begin about these vaults that prevent cave-ins as soil settles.
This FTC Web page provides sample lists.
• Rethink extras and upgrades. A public viewing (which costs extra) may not really serve any purpose, depending on your family's wishes.
For more FTC advice about funerals, read Paying Final Respects: Your Rights When Buying Funeral Goods & Services and Funerals: A Consumer Guide.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.