A Stroll Down Mortuary Lane
by Nancy Herin, FCA of Maryland and Environs
. This article is taken from her Winter 2005 Newsletter
I am inviting you for a stroll down Maryland's Mortuary Lane to see for yourself the extent of industry compliance with the 20-year-old Funeral Rule. For a full appreciation, you must first review a few of the Rule's requirements, which, as you will see, aim to foster honest, accurate information during the funeral transaction. The intent here is to allow consumers to purchase that which they wish, without pressure to buy unwanted or unneeded goods or services.
Among other things, the Funeral Rule says:
- At the beginning of a discussion about caskets-before showing them-a mortician must offer consumers a Casket Price List (CPL), which should contain the retail price and description of each regularly offered casket.
- with viewing," a mortuary may consider embalming "necessary." Consumers may instead choose "an arrangement that does not require…[embalming], such as direct cremation or immediate burial."
- Only one fee, the "Basic Services Fee," for basic mortuary staff services and overhead, is non-declinable; charging a second non-declinable fee violates the Rule.
- The Rule prohibits morticians from claiming that funeral goods or services will "delay the natural decomposition of human remains for a long-term or indefinite time."
So join with me as I recount my recent visits to several funeral homes-all esteemed, upstanding pillars of their communities.
I approached each funeral director with the following question: Could you tell me what the costs would be for prepaying my funeral?
A Casket of Gold…
The first funeral director, chic and smartly dressed, began by handing me a General Price List (GPL) and stating: "I am required by law to give this to you." She answered a few preliminary questions, then placed before me a thick book of casket photos. (The Rule allows for caskets to be displayed in this way.) Here follows part of our exchange ("FD" stands for "funeral director"):
Me: Are the prices of all of the caskets in your book listed somewhere?
FD: Well, this is the entire Batesville (a casket manufacturer) collection. (She thumbs through the book.) Do you like pink? Look at this beautiful wood. The tones are rose and beige. Here's the one that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis bought for her husband. Here's one in 24K gold… We only carry a selection. But of course I could order any of them for you.
Me: Which are the ones that you carry? What are their prices?
FD: I'm re-doing our Casket Price List. Let me get you a copy. I'll have to find one because I'm re-doing it…
She leaves for a few minutes, then returns with a Casket Price List (CPL).
Me: I'd be interested in something simple. What is your least expensive casket?
She thumbs through her book, and lands upon a cloth-covered casket. She shows it to me and grimaces.
FD: It's basically for immediate burials… where there's no service… you know, it's for the indigent.
Me: Actually, I like it. How much does it cost?
FD: Oh, around $600. (It is not listed on her CPL, but I see on her General Price List that caskets begin at $595.)
Comment: This mortician not only flunked her Funeral Rule exam-though she began correctly by handing me a General Price List (GPL)-but she also showed an abject disregard for my wishes. First, she tried to dissuade me from selecting the least expensive casket by stating that it is normally not used-which may be true if she tells this to everyone wanting to buy it. Second, she failed to list her $595 casket on her Casket Price List (CPL). Third, she violated the Rule by failing to show me her CPL before luring me to a casket of gold….
Embalm or Die!
I told the next funeral director that I wished an immediate burial, without a viewing or funeral service; after my burial, I explained, my relatives would hold a memorial service, which they would conduct on their own without a mortician. Here follows our conversation:
Me: Some funeral directors have told me that they don't normally do immediate burials…they said it's only for the impoverished. But an immediate burial is really what I'd like.
FD: Oh, that would be no problem.
Me: Wonderful. Just so I understand this…An immediate burial means I'd simply be buried…no funeral service, no viewing, no embalming.
FD: Yes…oh…umm…you would have to be embalmed.
Me: Really? Why is that? There's no viewing with an immediate burial.
FD: Well, you'd still have to be embalmed. A person deteriorates in 24 hours. Who knows what I could pick up from a deteriorating body…maybe AIDS.
Me: Couldn't I just be refrigerated?
FD: There's no law requiring embalming, but a funeral home can set its own rules. This is our rule. Embalming is required. Unless you choose cremation. Then you wouldn't have to be embalmed.
Me: But it says here on your General Price List that I could choose an arrangement like immediate burial which would not require me to pay for embalming.
FD: Well, I hate to say this, but a deteriorating body is like…well…it's like an animal …it has an odor….so you'd have to be embalmed. Of course you could always choose cremation….
Comment: Though this funeral director understood enough to admit that embalming is not required by law, she was flat-out wrong that "a funeral home can set its own rules." The Funeral Rule permits only one nondeclinable fee-the basic services fee--but she had a second, an embalming fee.
Assuming this mortician believed in protective qualities of embalming-and didn't insist on it purely for the profit--she was in sore need of enlightenment: Not only have pathogens causing smallpox, anthrax, tetanus, and AIDS been found in embalmed bodies, but embalming fluid may actually keep one fatal illness, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, alive! Naturally though with an attitude like hers it's no wonder that the U.S. has become the only nation where embalming is customary.
Beware the Backhoe!
I told the next funeral director that I wished an immediate burial.
Me: Some funeral directors have told me that an immediate burial is only for the indigent, others have said that I'd have to be embalmed. Would you be able to provide just a plain immediate burial?
Me: Wonderful. Just so I understand this… I'd simply be buried…no funeral service, no viewing, no embalming.
FD: Correct. Of course you had better check with the cemetery to be on the safe side because there's dangerous equipment at the gravesite…a backhoe…your family members could get hurt if they stood too close when your body is lowered into the grave.
Comment: Later that day I consulted a representative of a large, nearby cemetery, who looked at me in amazement when I asked about this. "Dangerous equipment? Well, yes, a backhoe is used to dig the grave-before anyone arrives-and to fill in the grave-after the burial."
Hail to the Wilbert!
I discussed with the next funeral director my choice of an outer burial container, an enforced box into which the coffin is placed to prevent the gravesite from sinking once decomposition sets in. Outer burial containers are of two types: a multi-piece concrete slab assembly, called a grave liner, and a one-piece vault. Both serve the same purpose, but the vault costs much more.
Me: I understand that most cemeteries require an outer burial container. I'd like to purchase the least expensive.
FD: Didn't you say you wanted a wood (as opposed to a metal) casket?
FD: Well, then, I'd strongly recommend that you purchase a steel vault.
Me: Why is that?
FD: (She shows me a mock-up of a vault on the wall behind her.) A vault doesn't just prevent the gravesite from sinking, it also…look, I'm a funeral director and see interments…and believe me, you'd really want a Wilbert (the name of the company which manufacturers the vault). It's the best. I saw a disinterment of a body after 20 years in a wooden casket inside a Wilbert. The seal has a shelf life of a billion years! And you wouldn't have to worry about it being hit by a backhoe which happens a lot.
Me: So you mean it's protective?
FD: (She smiles.) I'm not allowed to use that word. (She pauses.) You could purchase a grave liner instead. (She shows me a mock-up on the floor behind her.) But it can be cracked by a backhoe and gets full of mud and water. I wish I didn't have to sell grave liners. They're only for cemetery maintenance, not for aesthetics or anything else like the Wilbert.
Me: What is the difference in price?
FD: The Wilbert costs $1795, the grave liner, $595.
Comment: This funeral director was a superb saleswoman. Had I not known the ins-and-outs of outer burial containers and the Funeral Rule, I would have believed her-and spent nearly three times more than necessary! Her performance was stellar, particularly her crafty maneuver around the Funeral Rule, which forbids morticians from telling consumers that funeral goods will preserve or protect human remains.
The Risk of Liability-always a good excuse!
To return briefly to the first funeral director:
Me: I'd be interested in purchasing a lower priced cremation casket for burial.
FD: Oh, no. You couldn't do that.
Me: Why not?
FD: Because cemeteries wouldn't allow it. There's too great a risk of liability.
Comment: The cemetery representative whom I had consulted about the danger of a backhoe eyed me again with amazement: "Well, I don't know about other cemeteries, but we don't care what you're buried in! As far as we're concerned, you could be buried in nothing. Our only requirement is an outer burial container because it keeps the gravesite neat."
Don't Ask, Don't Tell…
Several funeral directors saw the following problem with immediate burial:
"Your family wouldn't know when your burial would take place because we'd take your body to the cemetery at our convenience…when we'd have free time…between arrangements…we wouldn't tell your family."
Too Much of a Good Thing…
Funeral directors with whom I spoke used every argument imaginable to stress the importance of identifying the body at the funeral home before cremation-even if an I.D. had already been made at the place of death. For sure, there's no disputing the fact that identification is necessary (and required by Maryland law). But as a friend once asked: "Does a body's identity change between the place of death and the funeral home?" Here follow several exchanges:
FD: Most people die at night…that's when we use a removal service-not a licensed mortician. So an official ID would have to be made at our funeral home.
Me: How about if I die during the day?
FD: Most people come to the funeral home to identify the body!
FD: We require a funeral home ID because…well…you must have heard what happened in Georgia!
Comment: The case in Noble, Georgia , of a crematory operator who tossed bodies onto his property instead of cremating them, had nothing to do with appropriate body identification.
FD: We require an ID in our funeral home because the crematory we use insists on it.
Comment: I phoned the crematory, and here's what transpired:
Me: I'm planning my funeral, and a funeral director told me that you'd require an ID at the funeral home even if my body had already been identified at the place of death. Is that correct?
Crematory Person: Each funeral home has its own regulations…identification must comply with state law…a body must be properly identified as in a hospital.
Me: Oh, so you mean, if my next-of-kin identified me at home, where I died, that wouldn't be a proper identification?
Crematory Person: No, I couldn't say that.
Finale: You might wonder the reason for such insistence on having a family member come to the funeral home for an identification. One theory is this: There's profit in it--perhaps the cost of a "nicer" cremation casket for the ID viewing; perhaps a charge to spruce up the appearance of the deceased; perhaps a fee to shelter remains if the visit to the funeral home will be delayed.
In case you think I made all this up, you're wrong. My imagination isn't so vivid. My ability lies in reporting facts, not inventing them. But I will say this: I'm grateful to the first mortician I called on, the one who set me straight: "I have to earn a living like anyone else!"
Last Updated ( Sunday, 01 September 2013 15:26 )
Funeral Consumers Alliance
a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation
celebrating 41 years of protecting a consumer's right
to choose a meaningful, dignified, and affordable funeral
January 4, 2005
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Joshua Slocum, Executive Director
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Consumer Group Files Brief in Casket Monopoly Case
South Burlington, VT. - Funeral Consumers Alliance, the nation's oldest and largest funeral watchdog group, has filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the United States Supreme Court in support of a challenge to an Oklahoma law that gives funeral directors the sole right to sell caskets. FCA hopes the High Court will hear this case and rule that the law is invalid, which would overturn similar laws in many states around the nation.
"Oklahoma's law banning casket sales by anyone but funeral directors is a transparently protectionist piece of legislation designed to insulate funeral directors from any real competition," said Joshua Slocum, FCA Executive Director. "It has shut down choices for consumers and forced grieving families to pay the often outrageous markups funeral homes slap on caskets. It's high time funeral directors were forced to compete in the open market instead of being coddled by monopolistic laws that harm consumers."
On August 23rd, 2004, a three-judge panel for the 10th Circuit of the Federal Court of Appeals upheld the state's ban on the sale of caskets by anyone but licensed funeral directors. The Federal Trade Commission had filed an amicus brief criticizing the law, and the Court's opinion noted that the law "may extract a needless, wasteful requirement in many cases." But the Court said changing the law is up to the legislature, not the judiciary.
This ruling is in direct contrast to a 2002 decision by the 6th Circuit of the Federal Court of Appeals. That decision upheld an earlier ruling that overturned a similar casket sales ban in Tennessee. In its decision, the Court noted that Tennessee's justifications for the ban "come close to striking us with 'the force of a five-week-old, unrefrigerated dead fish.'"
The Institute for Justice , the Washington, D.C.-based law firm that successfully litigated the case in Tennessee, has asked the Supreme Court to overturn the 10th Circuit's decision upholding Oklahoma's law. FCA hopes the High Court will hear this case and finally put an end to the indefensible use of state laws to boost funeral home profits at the expense of American families. For more information or interviews, contact FCA Executive Director Joshua Slocum at 802-865-8300.
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
, The Kansas City Star
"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.
"I would not do it again,” Ambrose Massman said. "We will be going to Higginsville. To reach Paul Wenske, consumer affairs writer, call (816) 234-4454 or send e-mail to
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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.