Have you ever visited a family grave only to leave all...

Coping/Mortal Matters

September 28, 1992|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,Universal Press Syndicate

Have you ever visited a family grave only to leave all steamed up about the trash and weeds ignored by the cemetery staff?

Do you know someone who has been victimized by cemetery sales practices that concealed fees and requirements or promised one thing and delivered another?

Or have you simply given up in frustration when trying to get pricing information from a cemetery or a clear explanation of rules and regulations governing burials, plots or maintenance standards?

When complaints against the funeral industry get public attention, the focus is usually on funeral directors. But plenty of people have bad experiences with cemeteries and memorial parks as well.

Their recourse is usually legal action. But in many cases, people simply don't have the time, money or knowledge of their rights to undertake a lawsuit. So in 1979, three industry groups -- the American Cemetery Association, the Cremation Association of North America and the Pre-Arrangement Association of America -- joined together to sponsor an alternative to going to court.

The result was the Cemetery Consumer Service Council, a non-profit group that offers dissatisfied customers help in attempting to resolve disputes with cemeteries.

Participation is voluntary and the assistance is free. While CCSC cannot resolve every complaint, it does provide consumers some recourse short of legal action.

Since 1979, other industry groups have joined in sponsoring CCSC, and the organization has established local committees in 40 states that investigate complaints and supervise the resolution process.

In 1990, the most recent year for which figures are available, the CCSC processed 177 complaints and inquiries, resolving 163 of them.

That year, as in past years, the largest number of cases -- 80 -- dealt with maintenance issues. There were 32 complaints about cemetery rules and 19 cases dealing with deceptive sales practices. Nine complaints centered around truth-in-lending and other contractual issues. Another 32 cases covered a variety of issues, including cases in which cemeteries or memorial parks failed to fulfill basic requests for information.

The pattern for 1990 did not differ greatly from the previous year. In 1989, CCSC handled 167 cases, of which the largest category -- 70 complaints -- dealt with maintenance concerns. In 15 cases reported in 1989, the parties failed to reach an agreement by the end of the year.

A national office in Washington, D.C., coordinates the project and serves as a central contact point for consumers who want to lodge a complaint. These cases are then forwarded to the appropriate state committee.

Since this is a voluntary process for both sides, any decisions the CCSC comes to are merely advisory; the organization has no enforcement powers. But if the CCSC issues a decision and the cemetery owner refuses to comply, the council is willing -- if asked -- to assist the consumer as well as local, state or federal authorities in any proceeding or legal action that may be undertaken against the cemetery.

The CCSC is not a perfect mechanism for disgruntled consumers. Sometimes a voluntary arbitration process is just not adequate for resolving a dispute. But it can serve a useful purpose in a number of cases.

If you have a complaint about a cemetery or have found it difficult to get accurate information about cemetery practices, you can contact the CCSC's national office by writing to: The Cemetery Consumer Service Council, P.O. Box 3574, Washington, D.C. 20007.

Or you can telephone the organization at (703) 379-6426.

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