Business of funerals sometimes jolts consumers

Your Money

September 10, 2006|By McClatchy-Tribune

DALLAS -- When Patty Jacobs' 33-year-old son, Jeff, died in a boating accident in March, she was thrust into a major and immediate financial decision that most Americans are unprepared for - purchasing funeral services.

"This was such a shock," said Jacobs, 66, of Dallas. "You never expect that your 33-year-old son was going to die, and I had no idea what to do and hadn't even considered a funeral home."

Jacobs was fortunate in that her friend Joe Tinnin accompanied her to the funeral home to make arrangements for her son.

If it weren't for Tinnin, a board member of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, she would have spent far more money than necessary, Jacobs said.

The average cost of a funeral is $6,500, excluding burial expenses, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, which represents the $11 billion-a-year industry. That makes a funeral the third-largest lifetime purchase for many consumers, after a home and car, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

If you're in the market for funeral services, you're probably in a terrible emotional state and under strict time pressures.

"We just wait for it to happen," said Tinnin, whose group, the Funeral Consumers Alliance, seeks to educate the public.

The unique nature of the funeral-buying process prompted the Federal Trade Commission to institute the so-called Funeral Rule. Among other things, the rule requires funeral directors to give you itemized prices in person and, if you ask, over the phone.

If you're shopping for funeral services, it's a good rule to know.

Most funeral providers will meet your needs in a caring, professional way. But don't kid yourself: The death industry, like any business, seeks to maximize its profits. And just like in any other business, some providers are less than honest. They may take advantage of you through inflated prices, overcharges, double charges or unnecessary services.

In Jacobs' situation, she said she never felt pressured by the funeral home she went to, but it was clear they wanted to show her the most expensive caskets.

"They were like $3,000 or $4,000," she said.

Tinnin asked if the funeral home had anything less expensive.

The funeral home then "rolled out the cheaper one unceremoniously," he said.

Jacobs eventually selected a metallic gray casket, which cost about $1,500.

Jacobs was grateful for Tinnin's presence.

"If Joe had not been there and asked to see something less expensive, I wouldn't have known," she said. "I would probably have bought a more costly coffin."

"Don't ever go alone, because another person will think of other questions to ask and will have more objectivity," Tinnin said. "You can see the vast difference in prices that a person will pay."

Not everyone is as fortunate as Jacobs to have a friend familiar with funeral regulation.

A group of Texas consumers has filed a class action lawsuit against Houston-based Service Corporation International, the largest funeral home company in North America.

The suit accuses the company of failing to disclose that it had purchased goods and services from third parties and marked them up to consumers. "Flowers were routinely purchased from third parties," said former Texas Rep. Steve Wolens, who represents the Texas consumers. "The funeral home received a 40 percent commission, which was not disclosed to the purchaser."

In another example, the funeral home paid third-party embalmers $185 and charged the purchaser $525, "never disclosing that the body was sent off-site, nor the difference in the price," said Wolens, an attorney at Baron & Budd in Dallas. "We have alleged that they violated federal law, state law and general contract law."

The case suffered a setback when a Court of Appeals in El Paso ruled that the plaintiffs couldn't seek monetary damages as a class. But that's not a final judgment by the court, said Alan Rich, Wolens' colleague and the appellate lawyer on the case.

They will ask the appeals court to revisit its ruling, "because we think they made an error," Rich said.

Service Corp. officials said the court's ruling vindicates its position.

The suit serves as an example of what consumers need to do when shopping for funeral services.

"They need to ask a lot of questions," Wolens said.

The best circumstance - although it's uncomfortable for most consumers - is to research funeral services before your loved ones die.

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