This misleading sales tactic keeps popping up. Just in time for Veterans Day, several cemeteries in the Kansas City, Missouri, area are advertising "Veterans Specials" in the local newspaper. Offering a "free burial certificate" and "free casket info," these ads are full of the stars and stripes and patriotic images. But just exactly how much does a veteran have to buy to take advantage of the "free" offers? According to one Kansas City Veteran family, more than $7,000!
All Veterans should know the burial benefits they are entitled to from the federal government and their states before they fall prey to the costly "free" burial offers in the story below! For the the most complete list of Veterans' burial benefits, go to our frequently asked questions page.
From the Kansas City Star, November 11, 2004:
Funeral ads draw scrutiny
Veterans commission says aggressive marketing can be misleading
"Burying veterans is what we are most known for. It's the reason we are a cemetery, period.” Robert Boyles, funeral director for Chapel of Memories Funeral Home, which is associated with Swan Lake
To Lloyd Campbell, a Korean War veteran, the advertisement seemed like a great deal: free burial plot, honor guard and "free casket info.” But the deal wouldn't last forever. "Space is limited!” warned the ad for Swan Lake Memorial Gardens. So in August, Campbell and his wife, who live in Kansas City, drove to the Grain Valley cemetery, signed a contract and put down $50.
"But after listening to the salesmen, it didn't add up,” he said.
What did add up were extra expenses: $7,000, to be exact, for things like a grave marker and a crypt for both him and his wife. An added $4,000 for discounted funeral packages for the couple brought the total bill to about $11,000.
The "free casket” info turned out to be the use of a reusable oak casketduring the service. Other added service costs included opening and closing the grave, which experts say can add $500 or more. The Campbells asked for and received their $50 back.
Swan Lake officials say they offer unique benefits and value to veterans.
But while no one alleges the deals at Swan Lake and other private cemeteries are illegal, the Missouri Veterans Commission says they mislead veterans into paying for what they can get for free at state and federal veterans cemeteries.
"They're taking advantage of our veterans and their families at a tough time in their lives,” said Carson Ross, vice chairman of the Missouri Veterans Commission.
Missouri veterans who choose any of the four state veterans cemeteries or the one federal cemetery in St. Louis are entitled to free burial services. The same is true in most other states, officials said.
Those free services include free burial space for the veteran and spouse, a free granite memorial and marker for the veteran and spouse, and a free burial crypt. In addition, opening and closing the grave are provided free.
"People can save thousands of dollars if they choose us over a private cemetery,” said Jess Rasmussen, director for the State Veterans Cemetery at Higginsville, about an hour's drive east of Kansas City. "There are no fees whatsoever for what we provide.”
The problem is, Rasmussen said, many veterans simply aren't aware of their burial privileges.
"When most people get up in the morning, they aren't thinking of acquiring a cemetery plot,” he said. "It's easy to overlook us.”
And that's why ads decked out with flags and strong-jawed, uniformed figures are appealing, experts say, especially when they create a sense of urgency. The Swan Lake ad, for instance, advertises huge savings on funeral costs. It states: "Reply now while you're thinking about it.”
Calls to Swan Lake were referred to Robert Boyles, funeral director for Chapel of Memories Funeral Home, which is associated with Swan Lake and on the same grounds. He acknowledged that the cemetery's advertising "is aggressive,” but said it is no different than any business ad that offers inducements.
Boyles, a veteran, said Swan Lake offers value that veterans can't get at state or federal cemeteries. He said veterans get more personal service and an opportunity to choose a cemetery near home, where other family members might also choose to be buried.
"We offer an alternative to people in the Jackson County community who don't want to have to drive an hour away to be buried,” he said. He said veterans have long been a focus of the cemetery, which he said buries 80 or more veterans per year.
"I'll put my prices, dollar for dollar, against any other private cemetery,” Boyles said. "We have people who say we treat veterans better than anyone else.” He provided more than a dozen letters from families testifying to the cemetery's kindnesses.
"Burying veterans is what we are most known for,” Boyles said. "It's the reason we are a cemetery, period.”
Swan Lake calls its veterans section the "Jackson County Veteran's Field of Honor,” though it doesn't claim to be associated with any government agency.Swan Lake isn't the only cemetery or funeral home that aims ads at veterans. Consumer groups say it's common around the country.
New Orleans-based Stewart Enterprises , the nation's third-largest funeral home corporation, which owns D.W. Newcomer's Sons locally, this week rolled out a national ad campaign to get veterans and their families to take advantage of a "free burial certificate.”
The certificate is worth up to $995 in discounts. But final costs vary, depending on whether veterans go with the cheapest package or choose an upgrade, a spokeswoman said.
The offer, which also appeared Wednesday in The Kansas City Star, urges veterans to act fast to ensure space, because the offer is limited to the first 25 respondents. While the ad doesn't specifically say this, the offer is available to the first 25 respondents at each of the national funeral company's seven area cemeteries — which adds up to 175 spaces set aside for veterans, explained spokeswoman Georgiann Gullett.
"We do limit it to create a sense of urgency,” Gullett said. Still, she said, "we don't want to mislead people.” She noted that the ad for the free burial certificate states that the offer does not include professional service fees, which are charged extra.
Consumer groups challenge the come-ons to veterans.
"Of course, it is misleading,” said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. "It's salesmanship. They create a false sense of scarcity.
"Look at these ads, these models, dressed in full regalia. What they want is the veterans' business. What they aren't going to do is steer veterans to a cemetery where they get benefits for free.”
Ambrose and Theresa Massman of Lee's Summit agree.
"Everything is done up with all this red, white and blue. It looks like official veterans information,” Theresa Massman said, explaining why she and her husband, a Vietnam veteran, bought a lot at Swan Lake in 1996.
"You get the plot free. But you cannot use the plot unless you buy one of their crypts and the stone. They give the veteran their marker, but you have to buy the marker for the spouse,” she said.
The Massmans, whose two sons are in the Air Force, paid nearly $7,000 to Swan Lake for burial services. They rejected an offer of 12.5 percent financing through the Bank of Odessa that would have added $2,193 to the total cost.
Only this year did they learn that almost everything they were paying for at Swan Lake they could get for free at nearby Higginsville. They hired an attorney and worked out a settlement with Swan Lake and recently got 80 percent of their money back.
They also sent a copy of their refund request to the Missouri attorney general. An official with the Missouri Veterans Commission also said that agency has asked the attorney general to investigate burial offers to veterans. But a spokesman for the attorney general said it was not aware of any investigation requests, although he said the office would be open to complaints.
Boyles, of Swan Lake, said he also was unaware of any veteran complaints. He said he'd be happy if the commission came to the cemetery for a tour of the grounds.
As for the Massmans, they say they are happy to be out of their contract.