In 1964, Sen. Philip Hart first convened congressional investigations about consumer complaints against the funeral industry. But not until 1984 did the Federal Trade Commission finally adopt its Funeral Rule, the first national regulation on funeral homes.
The rule was to be reviewed after four years. That process began in 1988, but it is still unfinished. Last fall, after lengthy hearings and time for public comment, the FTC's staff made its recommendations for changes and modifications in the rule. Until the commission announces a decision, which could be any time in the next several months, the provisions of the original rule are still in effect.
The staff recommendations center on three major changes, one of which was welcomed by funeral directors, but two of which have aroused much criticism from the industry. The change they would welcome is a recommendation to do away with one part of a regulation governing price disclosure over the telephone. The provision requires funeral homes to tell a caller early in conversation that prices can be provided, regardless of whether they ask about cost.
Funeral directors protested that injecting financial considerations into the early stages of every conversation gave callers the impression that they were primarily interested in money at a sensitive and painful time. Since the Funeral Rule clearly calls for price disclosure at some point in the discussions, the staff concluded that softening the requirement governing how early that information must be made available would not harm consumers.
The FTC staff differed with the funeral industry on two key issues. It did not agree that funeral homes should be allowed to charge handling fees for caskets not purchased from the funeral home, and it refused to recommend that the provisions of the Funeral Rule be extended to related businesses, such as cemeteries or casket stores.
Robert Harden, executive director of the National Funeral Directors Association, explains that funeral directors derive much of their profit from the sale of caskets. Not allowing funeral directors to impose handling charges for caskets bought elsewhere would, he says, be somewhat like requiring a restaurant to allow patrons to bring their own lettuce for their salads. Moreover, he says, if the FTC accepts this recommendation, it will be moving beyond its mandate into the murky area of setting prices.
Despite these objections, it is not likely that the change will heavily damage the industry. Those people who insist on using caskets obtained elsewhere probably will be a small minority. Moreover, most funeral homes will make up the cost someplace else, perhaps raising other charges while offering "discounts" to people who buy caskets there.
Funeral directors were also upset by the FTC staff's refusal to extend the regulations to cemeteries and other related businesses. Although these businesses, especially cemeteries, do produce consumer complaints, the FTC's Carol Jennings says that those complaints were not frequent enough to warrant extending the rule's coverage.
From the beginning, many funeral directors fought the adoption of the Funeral Rule, just as most businesses resist government regulation. But by setting up government oversight to curb abuses, the rule has provided funeral homes with some protection against the kind of criticism that Jessica Mitford leveled at them in her landmark book, "The American Way of Death."
Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.