The Federal Trade Commission recently issued opinions on charging customers extra for refrigeration, casket storage, trash disposal, and running errands in cars. Read all about what it means for funeral consumers.
Staff Opinions from the Federal Trade Commission
Well, three out of four ain’t bad. The Federal Trade Commission recently addressed four issues concerning the Funeral Rule and what it does and doesn’t allow funeral directors to charge consumers. FTC staff decided three of these in a way favorable to families and their wallets. But one opinion is a step backward and opens the door to abusive, unfair charges for customers who refuse embalming. Bad news first:
Issue 1: Refrigeration Charges for Unembalmed Bodies
FCA has noticed many funeral homes charging cremation families or others who don’t want embalming extra to refrigerate the body. SCI funeral homes have been the most aggressive about this, levying charges of up to $300 per day starting as fast as six hours after receiving the body. In the end, many cremation customers end paying just as much as embalming customers simply because they exercised their right (under the Funeral Rule) to refuse embalming.
We’ve always considered refrigeration “ordinary sheltering” of the body for unembalmed customers. The Funeral Rule states that services “common to virtually all” funeral arrangements, such ordinary sheltering of the body, should be included in the basic services fee, not billed extra. Since the basic fee itself is included in the cost of a direct cremation, we think extra refrigeration charges amount to double-billing.
The FTC disagrees. In a staff opinion on March 21, The FTC stated that since some funeral homes may not routinely refrigerate all unembalmed bodies, refrigeration would not be common to virtually all funeral arrangements. Therefore, funeral homes should not include it in their basic services fee, but should charge for it separately, and only charge consumers whose dead are refrigerated. While this sounds reasonable on the surface, it has the perverse consequence of allowing funeral homes to charge anything they want (and often as much as they charge for embalming) to merely wheel the body into the refrigerator rather than embalm it. So much for controlling costs by refusing embalming.
There is a silver lining, though. The FTC opinion also acknowledges that “a provider can only assess a non-declineable charge for refrigeration where refrigeration is required by law, by a particular cemetery or crematory, or where leaving a body unrefrigerated would be impossible, impractical, or excessively burdensome under the circumstances.”
Plain English Translation: if your state doesn’t require refrigeration, or doesn’t require it for the first 24 or 48 hours, consumers can refuse to have the body refrigerated and refuse the extra fee. And no, the funeral home’s “policy” of requiring refrigeration after, say, six hours, doesn’t take that right away. Most bodies are fine for two days in temperatures of about 70 degrees (there are exceptions). Leaving them in a cool room, unrefrigerated, is not “excessively burdensome.” Of course, it would be reasonable for a funeral home to insist on refrigeration in cases where decomposition sets in rapidly, when the weather is quite hot, or when there will be a long delay before disposition. Read the full staff opinion below (attachment).
Issue 2: Extra Charges for Automobiles
In the same opinion, the FTC stated that funeral homes may not charge consumers extra for the cars staff use to run ordinary errands, such as filing death certificates. In recent years, we’ve seen many funeral homes tack on this extra fee, which we believe should be included in the basic services fee. Once again, SCI has been at the forefront of this practice – many of their price lists include a $95 charge for a “service vehicle.” This is especially galling considering SCI funeral homes routinely charge thousands of dollars for their “basic services.” If those “basic” services don’t even include filing the death certificate, then what are they? The FTC agreed with FCA’s position, writing:
. . .it is staff’s opinion that that if using an automobile to obtain necessary permits and death certificates is common to virtually all forms of disposition or arrangements, then the charge for that service should be part of the basic services fee.
For the full staff opinion, see the link above.
Issue 3: Charging Extra for Taking Out the Trash
Ever since the FTC ruled in 1994, funeral homes can’t charge “handling fees” to accept caskets bought from outside their funeral home, some greedy enterprising funeral directors won’t give up looking for loopholes. In response to a request from Joseph DellaVechia, Jr., of DellaVecchia, Reilly, Smith, and Boyd Funeral Home (can we have another surname please?) of West Chester, PA, the FTC said this:
. . . when a customer purchases a casket from a third party, a funeral provider is prohibited from requiring that the customer purchase any other good or service, or pay “any fee” other than those permitted by the Funeral Rule. Requiring customers who use third party caskets to pay a casket handling fee would violate that section of the Rule. Likewise, it is staff’s opinion that requiring customers who use third party caskets to pay a shipping container disposal fee or a casket storage fee would violate the same provision of the Rule.
Yes, you read that right. Mr. DellaVecchia wanted to know if it was legal to charge customers extra to throw out the wrapping the casket arrived in. Good grief.
Issue 4: Charging Extra for “Sheltering” a 3rd-party Casket
The ever-creative Mr. DellaVecchia, Jr., also asked what the FTC thought of charging customers extra to store the caskets they purchased from a casket dealer. We’re not talking about long-term storage here; funeral homes aren’t your local U-Stor-It and customers shouldn’t expect them to be. We’re talking about holding on to the casket for several days before the planned funeral. Now, what funeral home doesn’t want the casket to arrive early enough to make sure they can put the deceased in it and get the body presentable before the funeral? (Answer: funeral homes that are sore about losing the casket sale and willing to take it out on a grieving family).
The FTC put it plainly: storage fees for 3rd party caskets are nothing more than plain-old, already illegal casket handling fees:
Thus, when a customer purchases a casket from a third party, a funeral provider is prohibited from requiring that the customer purchase any other good or service, or pay “any fee” other than those permitted by the Funeral Rule. Requiring customers who use third party caskets to pay a casket handling fee would violate that section of the Rule.
See the above link while for the whole opinion.
And while you’re at it, surf on over to the lovely web page of the DellaVecchia et al funeral home. You’ll learn about their illustrious history – “The home was the very first in West Chester to have steam heat” – the various DellaVecchias (Jr., the 3rd, and more), their distinctive services – “many options to help our families in their time of need” – and you can even give them a boatload personal information (name, DOB, military serial number) and ask them to “help” you prepay for your funeral. Oh, but you won’t learn how much any of this costs. Heaven forbid a funeral home actually discuss prices on the Web (the very reason shoppers look you up in the first place).