Two-for-One Special from Dignity Memorial (nee Service Corporation International)
UPDATE 10/25/04 — We love to hear happy endings! Mrs. B writes to us, “Funeral Consumers Alliance to the rescue! I sent [FCA] all the things I had, contracts, etc., and [FCA] went to work. Just this month, I received my money back — in full — from these deceiving people. . . Thank God for the Funeral Consumers Alliance.”
Mrs. B, a 70-year-old widow from Virginia, wrote us in June of 2004 to say she’d been “taken in” by a supposed grave “special” at National Memorial Park in Northern Virginia. The cemetery is owned by Service Corporation International.
Responding to a direct mail circular advertising a “SPECIAL PROMOTION: Burial Package for 2” sent by SCI, Mrs. B. agreed to let a “Family Service Counselor” visit her in her home in December, 2001. Mrs. B ended up making an appointment at the cemetery sales office and signing a contract.
The advertisement proclaimed that National Memorial Park and its sister graveyard, King David Memorial Gardens, are the METRO AREA’S MOST PRESTIGIOUS CEMETERIES. The circular offers:
- Two graves
- Two graveliners
- One 44″ x 14″ bronze marker on a granite foundation
for the “special” price of $5,446. So why did Mrs. B end up paying $8,002.42? Well, it seems the friendly Counselor charged Mrs. B. separately for every item (and some more) offered in the ad, to come up with a considerably more expensive total.
Mrs. B writes:
I went [to the office] and they showed me lots of pictures, etc. I honestly did not understand that I was going to pay for two burial plots. Much talk later, I thought they were good people with a hard job . . . .
Under the strain of talking of my own death I didn’t understand — let alone take in all the words and pictures. I paid it off as soon as I could get the money together. I’m 70 years old, and I guess I got taken in!
In all fairness, Mrs. B. should have been more careful about the specifics of what she was buying, especially if she responded to an ad that promoted two burial spaces. But we have to ask — did the saleswoman ever question who would be buried in the extra spot since Mrs. B.’s husband is already dead?
When we called Mrs. B. on the phone, she told us she asked the saleswoman at the cemetery for the simplest type of burial. “I didn’t want a lot of folderol,” she said. “So I asked if I could be buried in the pine boxes [wooden graveliners] they used next door at King David Memorial Gardens,” instead of the polypropylene graveliners offered at National Memorial.
“They told me the federal government wouldn’t let me be buried in a pine box — ‘that was only for the Jews,'” said Mrs. B.
Not only is this a blatant lie (there are no state or federal laws prescribing or prohibiting any type of burial container), but it makes no sense. If the “federal government” were alarmed enough to prohibit that sort of burial container, would it make a special dispensation for Jewish people?
Lying about state or federal laws is a violation of the Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule. This is an excellent example of why cemeteries should be covered under the Funeral Rule, just as funeral homes are.
Mrs. B’s story gets more tangled. On examining the contract she signed, we found these gems buried among 22 “Additional Terms and Conditions” in 6-point type on a piece of paper 14 inches long:
- 10. Liquidated damages. The parties agree that it is impractical and extremely difficult to fix the actual damages, if any, which may result from the breach or cancellation of this Agreement by Purchaser. If this Agreement is cancelled, Seller may retain as liquidated damages all monies paid hereunder to Seller allocable to the Interment Rights, which shall be Seller’s exclusive remedy against Purchaser. Upon such cancellation, all rights, title and interests of Purchaser under or by virtue of this Agreement shall terminate.
Translation: Because we could never prove that a customer who backed out of this deal would cause us any harm (after all, we can just resell the grave), we’ve come up with another way to make an excessive profit. You, the customer, agree that we get to keep all the money you paid toward the actual grave [in this case, $995] if you decide not to be buried in it. That way, we can resell the grave to another customer and make a double profit. That’s our “remedy” against you.
and . . .
- NOTICE: BY SIGNING THIS AGREEMENT, PURCHASER IS AGREEING THAT ANY CLAIM PURCHASER MAY HAVE AGAINST THE SELLER SHALL BE RESOLVED BY ARBITRATION AND PURCHASER IS GIVING UP HIS/HER RIGHT TO A COURT OR JURY TRIAL AS WELL AS HIS/HER RIGHT OF APPEAL.
Translation: In order to do business with us, you have to sign away your rights to use the United States court system to sue us if you believe we have committed any wrong against you.
We’re not even sure this is legal. Here are some definitions of the legal concept of an “adhesion contract”
1. n.(contract of adhesion) a contract (often a signed form) so imbalanced in favor of one party over the other that there is a strong implication it was not freely bargained.
2. A contract drafted by one party and offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis or with little opportunity for the offeree to bargain or alter the provisions. Contracts of adhesion typically contain long boilerplate provisions in small type, written in language difficult for ordinary consumers to understand.
and the related concept of “substantive unconscionability,” defined as:
” so one-sided as to ‘ shock the conscience. ‘”
We contend that this contract signed by Mrs. B. fits these definitions. No, Mrs. B. isn’t restricted to this one cemetery, but the confusing manner in which the information was presented to her, the lies she says she was told about her options, and the special inequality that exists between the seller and buyer of death goods and services surely make this an unequal bargain. And if requiring a widow to sign away her rights to a trial in court doesn’t “shock the conscience,” what does?
And what of the prices Mrs. B paid? We still can’t figure that out. The “special” advertised by SCI clearly states the price of $5,446 is good until December 31, 2001. Mrs. B. signed her contract on December 28, 2001, for a total of $8,002.42. But what’s even more interesting — the contract signing date of December 28, 2001, is crossed out. In handwriting, the date “January 6, 2002” is substituted. Hmm. . .
We’ll be interested in what SCI, the Virginia Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, and the Federal Trade Commission have to say about this complaint. Check back for updates.