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Georgia is Peachy Keen...If You Own a Cemetery

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8/8/06 — Once again, state lawmakers are treating the body politic as their personal playground by serving up citizens as grist for the burial industry's mill. Georgia's lawmakers gave commercial cemeteries a gift at the expense of consumers this year with a bill that gutted some of the consumer protections enacted in 2000. HB 910 wrests control of most cemetery practices away from the Secretary of State's office and gives it to — guess who? — owners of for-profit cemeteries.

"It was all political," said an employee of the Secretary of State's Office. Secretary of State Cathy Cox is a Democrat. "We fought it, we went to hearings — the Secretary of State even sent letters to the Senate on the last day."

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 04 December 2007 16:29 ) Read more...
 

Cadillac Prices for a Vault

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"Here's the problem - she's just tryin' to save a little money," said Jim Goodman, manager of Cadillac Memorial Gardens East, a cemetery in Michigan.

Well, yes, she is, I replied. What's wrong with that?

"Well, I have to make sure what she's got fits my specifications. . . I'm liable," Goodman said.

Liable for what?

"I have to make sure the urn vault will fit [in the grave]," he said.

A little background:

Lucy Smyth called FCA in May, 2006, to complain. She was scheduled to bury her mother's ashes the next day in Cadillac Memorial Gardens, in a grave occupied by another family member. She tried to cut costs by ordering the polystyrene urn vault (a totally unnecessary box for the urn cemeteries insist on supposedly to prevent sinkholes) directly from a manufacturer for $50.

Smyth claimed cemetery manager Goodman wouldn't let her use that vault, that he insisted she buy a vault from the cemetery for $275.

"He said my vault couldn't withstand enough pounds per square inch," Smyth said.

This sounded fishy to me, so I called the cemetery. Goodman told a different story. He said he'd never told Smyth she couldn't use the vault she bought outside, only that he had to see the specifications.

"I have to make sure it has a tensile strength of 3,000 pounds per square inch," he said.

Why is that necessary, I asked. Given the small volume of earth displaced in the grave by about 5 pounds of cremated remains, I said, are sinkholes really such a dire problem?

"All it would take was one back hoe to go over [the urn] and it would crack and open right up and sink in," said Goodman.

I'm still having a hard time believing a gaping sinkhole could result from a cracked urn the size of a flour canister buried underground. Do the cremated remains somehow just vanish, leaving an empty hole for the dirt to cave into?

Well, what about Smyth's vault, I asked.

"As a matter of fact, I just got the specs by fax from the manufacturer," Goodman said.

And?

"It's a Triple-H vault, the same one I use. It's fine."

Then why did you tell Ms. Smyth she couldn't use her vault if it's the same one you were trying to sell her?

"I never told her that," Goodman said.

After getting his assurance there wouldn't be any further problems with the Smyth burial, I called Ms. Smyth back.

"He's such a liar," she said. "I told him right upfront that I bought a Triple-H polystyrene vault. This is the same one he was going to sell me for $275? Incredible."

There's always two sides to a story, but Mr. Goodman's just didn't ring true. Ms. Smyth had the good sense to spend as little as possible on what was, let's face it, an unnecessary purchase. Goodman's irritation at his customer "trying to save money" really sums it up. It seems he was miffed about losing a $275 sale because a customer had the temerity to shop around. This attitude is common; I've come to think of it as the Divine Right of the Death Industry. Americans love a bargain and will move heaven and earth to find a good deal on most items. For many reasons, fewer do it when it comes to death purchases. But those who try to cut costs at the grave often confront indignant funeral and cemetery salespeople, literally outraged that anyone would haggle with them.

Goodman's credibility fell further when I did a little digging of my own. Cadillac Memorial Gardens had a familiar ring, so I went through my files and found a Detroit News article from 2004 describing allegations of fraud at the cemetery:

The Detroit news reported that consumers were refused refunds on contracts they signed for burial crypts in a proposed mausoleum that was never built at the Cadillac Memorial Gardens East Cemetery in Clinton Township . . . . At the controversial Cadillac Memorial Cemetery East that was the subject of the News' investigation, auditors said more than $2 million in sales were recorded for an unbuilt mausoleum project. The auditors said the cemetery failed to establish a construction trust fund as required. They said $454,839 was spent on preliminary plans for the project.

Perhaps the cemetery was trying to replenish that missing money $275 at a time.

I suggested to Smyth that she find another cemetery. Maybe she should cancel the burial and find a more reputable business. She agreed that would have been best, but too many family members were already buried there.

"They really have you in a bind," she said.

CONSUMER TIP - It seems the Triple-H Company is willing to work directly with consumers to give them fair prices. You might want to give them your business if you find yourself needing a cremation vault. Let them know you appreciate how they do business, and that consumers appreciate having reasonably priced options. Let's hope Cadillac cemetery doesn't put pressure on Triple-H to stop selling to the public!

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 30 January 2008 00:12 )
 

An Afternoon with the FTC

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The Federal Trade Commission held a conference in April to teach funeral homes how to comply with the Funeral Rule. The highlight? They tried to eject a Funeral Consumers Alliance board member from this public meeting! Read all about it [LINK TO watchdogsleeps.pdf]  Click [LINK TO ftcenforcementhistory.pdf] for a brief history of the FTC's "regulation-light" approach.
 

Mississippi Beefs Up Preneed

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While it's not enough to truly protect consumers from problems with prepaid funerals, Mississippi's House Bill 1046 is a good first step. The bill was signed into law, and it requires funeral homes to deposit 85 percent of consumers' prepaid funeral money into a trust account --- up from 50 percent, which was the lowest requirement in the country.

 

You Can't Do That in Wisconsin

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Wisconsin Assembly Bill 984 would have give consumers the right to determine how their bodies will be disposed of after death, and the right to name an agent to make sure their wishes are carried out. For more information. But as of May, 2006, the bill had never made it out of committee.

 


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