The coronavirus pandemic may help push the funeral business into the internet age.
Funeral homes must give a detailed price list to anyone who requests one in person, but they aren’t required to post prices on their websites.
Consumer advocates and members of the public are urging the Federal Trade Commission, which is reviewing its 1984 funeral rule, to make online pricing mandatory. They’re also seeking other updates, such as rewriting language used in the price lists, to clarify when embalming is required by law; in many cases, it isn’t.
The rule, adopted to protect consumers from unfair and deceptive practices, also requires funeral homes to answer questions about prices over the phone.
“Had it been written in the internet era, online pricing would have been mandated,” said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit group that promotes price transparency.
About 18% of the 90 funeral homes inspected since 2018 failed to disclose “timely itemized pricing information,” the FTC reported last week. The inspections covered 13 homes in Georgia, 20 in Louisiana, 23 in Nevada, 11 in New Jersey and 23 in Texas.
The failure rate was about the same in 2012 but rose to as high as 27% over the next few years before falling back again, according to the FTC.
The agency is also examining how to address new alternatives to cremation and traditional burial, like alkaline hydrolysis, sometimes called “flameless” cremation.
The rule is “showing its age” and needs updating to protect “uniquely vulnerable” consumers, an FTC commissioner, Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, said in a statement about the review.
An itemized list can help consumers choose services, Slocum said. For example, families often don’t know that they don’t have to hold a formal viewing or can choose a less expensive coffin bought elsewhere. A minister in Kentucky, for instance, wrote to the FTC describing how she helped a young man save $3,000 by directing him to Costco to buy a coffin for his deceased mother instead of buying one through the funeral home.
Visiting funeral homes for price lists was burdensome even before the coronavirus outbreak, but it has put the need for change in sharp relief, Slocum said. Online pricing, he said, would allow families to consider options and compare prices in the safety of their homes without feeling pressured.
A coalition of nearly two dozen attorneys general also voiced support for online pricing and updates to the funeral rule. “As our states’ residents continue to face the immense challenge and staggering loss of life from the coronavirus crisis,” they wrote the commission, “it is ever more important to provide greater protections to consumers making funeral arrangements.”
The median cost of a full funeral with burial was $7,640 in 2019, according to the National Funeral Directors Association; cremation, which is increasingly popular, can be thousands less.
Prices vary widely, however. In their letter, the attorneys general cited a 2017 survey of funeral homes in the District of Columbia, which found a price range of $5,795 to $125,000 for the most expensive coffins.
But the industry opposes mandatory online pricing and said the decisions should be left to individual businesses. California is the lone state that requires online price disclosure, but loopholes allow some funeral homes to avoid doing so, according to the alliance.
Scott Gilligan, general counsel for the funeral home association, said many businesses posted prices online voluntarily. But he said its research suggested that most consumers based their selection of a funeral home on its location and reputation and their familiarity with its director rather than primarily on price. Those who want to explore costs online can try independent price-comparison tools, like Funeralocity.com, he said. And consumers can choose less formal options, like do-it-yourself memorial services at home or alternate locations, to hold down costs.
The FTC is also seeking comments on a possible alternative to online pricing, like requiring funeral homes to offer an email address on their websites that consumers can use to request a price list electronically.
Advocates also want changes to the FTC’s offenders program, intended to retrain funeral homes that don’t disclose prices, because it doesn’t appear to significantly reduce violations, Slocum said.
Violators can be fined more than $40,000, but first-time offenders can instead participate in training by the association. They must still pay a fee based on a percentage of the home’s revenue, an amount that is typically less than a fine.
Rohit Chopra, an FTC commissioner, said in a statement this year that he was “particularly interested” in reviewing the offender program, including its policy of withholding the names of the “lawbreaking funeral homes” from the public when announcing violations.
Here are questions and answers about the funeral rule:
Q: Does the funeral rule apply to pricing at cemeteries?
A: No. As part of its review, however, the FTC is asking whether it should include cemeteries, which may add costs for burial containers known as vaults, headstones and other services.
Q: Where can I complain if I can’t obtain pricing information?
A: You can report a funeral home to the FTC through its online complaint portal.
Q: Can I submit a comment about the rule?
A: The FTC is accepting comments through Monday; the deadline was extended because of the pandemic. You can comment online and read others as well. More than 700 people, groups and companies have submitted comments.