Thanks to Joshua Slocum and the Funeral Consumers Alliance, the media have jumped all over the “funeral-prices-are-so-hard-to-find” bandwagon. From there it’s a short ride to believing that mandatory posting of prices on funeral home websites is an easy solution for simplifying funeral options and costs. Can it really be that easy? Do funeral professionals want to make access to information difficult?
Granted, back when the Federal Trade Commission introduced the Funeral Rule, some funeral professionals acted as if they’d been forced to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls. A few holdouts still do. Many of the early provisions were difficult for funeral professionals to implement, but over the years, subsequent opinions issued by the FTC smoothed out many of those problems. For example, a funeral director who is mowing her front yard is no longer in violation of the Funeral Rule if she doesn’t immediately provide a price list when a neighbor asks what a funeral costs. Now our funeral director can simply tell the neighbor to visit her at the funeral home during regular office hours. Materials for compliance are also improved. Printed copies of the FTC’s Complying with the Funeral Rule can be ordered or downloaded at no cost.
So why did about one-fourth of U.S. funeral homes violate the Funeral Rule between 2015 and 2016? Most violations occurred not because funeral directors failed to provide prices, but because they failed to provide them quickly enough. There’s no evidence to suggest any funeral director willfully violated the Funeral Rule or intended to withhold information from families. Even at the funeral homes cited, most families received the information they needed. The trouble is that the Funeral Rule requires funeral directors to provide price lists the moment a discussion begins. That can be extremely awkward at the moment when a widow tells you her husband died unexpectedly only hours ago. Funeral professionals are, after all, compassionate people first and service providers second.
Will requiring funeral homes to publish prices online be the silver bullet for educating families about funeral options and costs? Not likely. Funerals offer individuals unique ways to honor their lives and provide experiences that help loved ones say goodbye. It’s not like ordering a washing machine that has a finite list of its specifications. The most memorable, rewarding and healing funeral—and its cost—is the result of a creative process of identifying people, music, rituals, symbols and activities that are most meaningful to the guest of honor–the deceased–and his or her loved ones. That’s not something that’s easily priced on a website or over the telephone.
Would you call Sears and demand to know “the price” of a washing machine without first indicating which features you want? Would you call a wedding planner and demand to know “the price” of a wedding?
Families often call funeral homes and demand to know a dollar amount for “a funeral.” Would you call Sears and demand to know “the price” of a washing machine without first indicating which features you want? Would you call a wedding planner and demand to know “the price” of a wedding? Too many factors are involved to be able to narrow the total cost down to an accurate dollar figure before knowing what families want and need.
Given the complexities of pricing funerals, the Funeral Rule already does a pretty good job of helping funeral professionals distribute information to families. Every funeral home must provide a General Price List when a discussion of funerals begins, provide a Casket Price List before viewing caskets, and hand out an Outer Burial Container Price List before showing vaults. A family’s choices must be recorded in a Statement of Funeral Goods and Services Selected. Every funeral home staff member can be taught to provide helpful, concise information about funeral options and costs without posting them online.
The FTC is likely to give serious consideration to the question of whether posting funeral prices online will help consumers when they begin to overhaul the Funeral Rule. No plans have been announced, but many people who have insights about government regulations predict a review will begin sometime in 2018. It is unknown if Donald Trump’s election as President will delay or eliminate this review.
Until a review of the Funeral Rule is completed, the debate over requiring funeral homes to post prices online will continue. In the meantime, requirements in the Funeral Rule spell things out pretty well.
By Mark Allen
Executive Director & CEO