Bait and Switch
Price Gouging at Palm Mortuary
May 13, 2001
1325 North Main Street
Las Vegas, NV 89101
Dear Mr. Wright:
I am writing this letter to register my dissatisfaction regarding my experience at Palm Mortuary in handling the funeral arrangements for my brother, Martin A. Milley. My concern relates specifically to the way in which Palm Mortuary's charges were explained to me in advance compared to how charges were imposed at the time of signing the necessary paperwork. In essence, I believe that I have been subject to "bait and switch" tactics.
In writing this letter, I am not primarily seeking an adjustment of the charges. Rather, I want you and every one in the funeral industry to understand how short sighted and counter-productive these practices are. If this letter contributes to more effective regulation, or better yet, higher ethical standards observed throughout the funeral industry, the result would be far better than a simple adjustment after complaint.
Marty's daughter, Michelle Milley, made our family's first contact with Palm Mortuary via telephone late in the week of Marty's death. Michelle spoke with Virginia Baltier (my apologies if Virginia's name is not spelled correctly) and got details on an "ID viewing" and "direct cremation." The discussion included reference to a "Simplicity" cremation container ($125). At that time, the costs under discussion were slightly over $1,000. [Palm Mortuary's General Price List (GPL) offers Direct Cremation at $955 if the customer supplies the container and at $980 with an alternative container, a difference of $25. Apparently, over the telephone, Mr. Milley's family was going to be charged $100 more for the alternative container.]
I first spoke with Virginia via telephone on Saturday. At that time, I indicated that we wanted to invite one of Marty's friends and have a more formal viewing. Virginia told me that embalming ($440) [consistent with the GPL] and the use of a Mortuary viewing room ($325) [$180 on the GPL] would be necessary. With the understanding that total charges would be less than $2,000, I gave Virginia verbal authorization for the embalming. [Per phone quote: $955 + $125 + $440 + $325 = $1,845] Family members then committed to travel arrangements for a Tuesday, March 13 mortuary viewing. The important point here is that I was led to make these commitments with an understanding that total costs would be less than $2,000. I believe that my conversation with Virginia was very explicit in this regard.
When Michelle and I arrived at Palm Mortuary Monday morning March 12, Rick VerPlanck handled the necessary paperwork because that was Virginia's day off. Very much to our surprise, Rick insisted that rather than assembling individual charges as Virginia had quoted over the phone, we were required to start with the "CREMATION WITH VISITATION AND FUNERAL CEREMONY" package ($3180) and to delete the "USE OF FACILITIES/STAFF FOR MEMORIAL SERVICE IN CHAPEL" (-$725). While I explained to Rick the basis of my understanding with Virginia, he absolutely refused to extend the pricing that I thought that I had agreed to with Virginia before committing to the embalming and travel schedule.[It is a violation of the FTC Funeral Rule not to let the consumer pick and choose the services and merchandise wanted.]
In addition, Rick stated that the "Simplicity" cremation container ($150) that had been discussed for the "ID viewing" was not permitted in the mortuary viewing rooms. The least expensive container that he would allow in the mortuary viewing room was the "Minor - Flat (cloth)" cremation container ($295). [Again, it is a violation of the Funeral Rule to tell consumers what they must buy, regardless of which room is used for viewing.] Even after we were able to see the various cremation containers in the Mortuary show room, this remained a point of considerable contention in our conversation. However, Rick remained firm. He simply would not permit use of the "Simplicity" container. Payment in full was made via my charge card in the amount of $3,003.27 on March 12, 2001.
Finally, when I explained to Rick that the Veterans Administration told me that there was a VA death benefit, Rick handed me VA form 21-530 titled "Application for Burial Benefits (Under 38 U.S.C., Chapter 23)". When I mentioned that the VA had lead me to believe that the funeral home would help me with the form, Rick used words similar to "We don't do that anymore."
In summary, I am not very satisfied with my experience at Palm Mortuary. It seems obvious to me that I was given low price information as long as I was still in a position to take my business elsewhere. Once, as a result of travel and schedule commitments, I no longer had this flexibility, the prices suddenly changed.
As there are no other immediate family members residing in Las Vegas or within the region served by Palm Mortuary, my dissatisfaction is not likely to directly impact future business for Palm Mortuary. However, I assure you that my experience at Palm Mortuary will impact my future dealings with the funeral industry. Specifically, I expect that I will be handling the final affairs of both of my parents. In addition, shortly after finishing this letter, I intend to amend my own will to be very explicit about how I want my own affairs to be handled in this respect. I have already had a number of candid conversations with both family and friends on the subject of their personal arrangements. Palm Mortuary's short-term gain will ultimately become the funeral industry's long-term loss.
I look forward to your response.
May 23, 2001
Dear Mr. Milley:
I have received your letter regarding your unsatisfactory experience with Palm Mortuary. I want to apologize for the way you were treated. Your experience is not the way we try to do business. I will not defend what our staff told you: Rick was mistaken on several issues. Suffice it to say that we did not intend to mislead or deceive you.
I am enclosing a refund check in the amount of $183 which represents the difference between the $125 casket price you were initially quoted and the $295 casket you did purchase (with sales tax adjustment).
Be assured that your letter and your experience will be used to insure that what you experienced will not happen to someone else. [How might that be?]
[FCA's executive director, Lisa Carlson, wrote to the president of Palm Mortuary pointing out the FTC violations and indicated that we were considering posting Mr. Milley's complaint on our web site. The letter asked if any of Mr. Milley's facts were in dispute. The following reply was received.]
May 31, 2001
Dear Ms. Carlson:
We received your FAX regarding the complaint of Michael Milley regarding his treatment at our funeral home. Attached is a copy of our May 23rd written response, apology, and partial refund to Mr. Milley.
We are aware of the FTC rules, and we apologize for the inappropriate way our staff handled his funeral arrangements. As Mr. Wright, our general manager, responded to Mr. Milley, it was a mistake and we are taking appropriate actions to prevent a similar situation from happening in the future.
[Not finding this a very inspired response, we called Mr. Kreml: "What actions are you taking to make sure this won't happen in the future?" He replied, "We're going back to the basics with both funeral directors and how they pass the baton between one staff member and another dealing with the same family." That hardly seemed sufficient, so the problems with the General Price List were mentioned. He seemed totally unaware. We also noted that the "partial" refund of $183 was rather gratuitous when Mr. Milley had been charged $1,000 more than anticipated. Mr. Kreml didn't have much to say to that.]
The lesson to be learned:
Palm Mortuary apparently has priced its "Direct Cremation" to compete with area funeral homes or at least keep it within a few hundred dollars of what is charged at other local mortuaries. It is perfectly reasonable for a consumer to assume that, if additional goods or services are wanted, the price for each will simply be added to a package price.
But Palm Mortuary insisted on charging Mr. Milley a la carte prices that resulted in a total that was more than $1,000 over that.
How can that be, you might ask? Palm Mortuary is a prime example of funeral homes that are abusing the nondeclinable "Basic Services of Funeral Director and Staff" fee -- a sort of cover charge you must pay. This fee is for those services common to ALL funeral arrangements (meeting the family, getting the death certificate information, obituary information, and any required permits--a couple of hours work as a rule). It was never anticipated that it would be a large portion of the funeral bill. In fact, this fee--per the FTC--is supposed to be small enough to be included in package prices such as "Direct Cremation" or "Immediate Burial."
On the Palm Mortuary GPL, however, this nondeclinable fee is $1,025. Hard to see how it could be "included" in a package price of $955 that also provides significant other items. Some funeral directors claim they "discount" the "Basic" fee in the immediate disposition packages. But that is NOT what the FTC Funeral Rule says. If that were permitted, families choosing more services would pay a penalty--an extra fee--simply for wanting more services, IN ADDITION to paying for the services themselves. This is the opposite of most business practices. Of course, more elaborate services are more work and require more overhead than minimal options. But the additional recompense for the funeral home should be captured in the price of each offering, not in a nondeclinable fee that holds the consumer hostage to the tune of $1,000 or more.
Any funeral home with a nondeclinable fee of more than $400 or so certainly creates the appearance of gouging the public. FCA wants the FTC to eliminate ANY nondeclinable fee whatsoever.
April 17, 2001
600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20508
Apparently, Service Corporation International (SCI) is now selling funerals to veterans via mail. See the enclosed sales material being sent to California vets.
It would appear that this promotion is in violation of the FTC Funeral Rule. While it is fairly clear that an insurance vehicle is being used to fund the plan (and a General Price List is not required to sell insurance), the package as promoted is for a funeral or cremation, not insurance. Furthermore, if you will note the text by Step 10 of the "Prearrangement" form, only after a payment is made does the company plan to send out "a Statement of Goods and Services [and] the VFW/Ladies Auxiliary Dignity Memorial Plans General Price List. . . " In that order, no less, but no casket price list.
For those of limited means, there are much better choices out there. Undoubtedly, SCI is expecting that those with more funds at their disposal won't settle for a bottom-of-the-line "light metal" casket. Because "no substitutions" are permitted, an a la carte funeral could easily double the cost, even with a 10% discount. But, of course, no GPL is being made available to disclose that fact. Consumer Reports found, as we have, that prices are significantly higher at the chains. It's hard to understand how the VFW could consider this a good deal for their members.
That "plan components are subject to change without notice" strikes me as having a potential for consumer fraud. If one buys a funeral plan now, can the company later offer a chipboard casket for the "wood" instead of "poplar"?
I am not sure what, if any, federal regulations there are regarding cancellation or default disclosures for insurance purchases, but nothing in the paperwork indicates what would happen if a family couldn't keep up the payments on a time-payment plan.
I am concerned that consumers will not be well-served by this promotion and would appreciate your feedback.
Funeral Consumers Alliance
Beware of anything called funeral "insurance."
INSURANCE - A formal social device for reducing risk by transferring the risks of several individual entities to an insurer. The insurer agrees, for a consideration, to assume, to a specified extent, the losses suffered by the insured.
Unlike homeowners or life insurance, there is NO risk for the "insurance" company selling funeral insurance. If you plan a $5,000 funeral, you will be expected to pay the full $5,000 for the funeral insurance, whether you pay it all at once or make time payments or whether your survivors end up paying the rest after your death. (The income that the company makes by investing your money pays the company, pays the commission, and should cover funeral inflation.)
Buying funeral insurance is like giving away your money to the insurance company in exchange for an IOU that is usually made out to one of their funeral-home-owning buddies. IT IS NO LONGER YOUR MONEY!
Here's the sad experience Anna Jones had with Fortis Family, a group of so-called "insurance" companies, that specializes in preneed funeral "insurance." She first wrote the FCA office on March 4th, 2001:
Ten years ago when my husband died, I paid for his funeral. I also paid
for mine at the same time. [$2,481.60] I was terribly devastated, even was
considering suicide because of my loss at the time. Thank God I didn't,
because life is good again. I have moved from the area, will not be
going back. I also want to donate my body to science so there will be no
funeral. I have been told I can not get any of my money back from the
funeral home where I purchased the contract. They said the policy has
been sold several times to different companies, I don't even know who has
it. I was under the impression when I paid for it that it was with the
funeral home in DuQuoin, Il. where I took it out. I don't understand how
this works, but it is MY money and it seems like even if I took a loss on
the interest that has accumulated by now, that since my plans have
changed, why can't I get my money back. I can really use it now, and
what will happen when I die, with my money if I can't get it back. Like
I said, I won't have a funeral. Please let me know who I can contact to
get this information. Thank you. Anna Jones
We gave Anna some suggestions, including the address of the Illinois Comptroller who is supposed to be monitoring preneed funeral issues in that state. On March 28th Anna e-mailed:
I wrote to the funeral home as you suggested, he wrote me back
and told me that I would have to contact the Fortis people who hold the
policy to see if I can cash it in. I received a letter from them a few
days ago, and they said that the Funeral Home is the beneficiary. They
said the funeral home is the one who has the discretion as to what to do
with the policy. I sent the funeral home another letter yesterday,
telling them what the Ins. co. wrote me.
I told him once again, that there will be no funeral. Also there is a
chance I will be leaving here even farther and going to California where
my son and daughter in law are living. Even now I live too far from the
area, that if I died they would not be here to take care of me. Surely
there is something that can be done. Would the funeral home get all the
money when there is no funeral? My kids were supposed to get any money
that wasn't spent on the actual funeral but if there is none, what
happens? I just wish I hadn't been in such a crazy state when he died
ten years ago. Then I wouldn't have made such a dumb decision. But the
Searby's were local people where I lived for many years. I trusted them
I guess. Now I just don't know.
The FCA office decided to ask Fortis directly what their policies were. The following letter was faxed to the president of Fortis Family on March 30, 2001.
Alan Feagin, President
via fax: 888-232-9835
Dear Mr. Feagin:
I am writing to find out your official policy for consumers who might wish to cancel their Fortis funeral "insurance." While prepaying for a funeral has been a blessing for some, for others it has been a disaster when a change of plans is desired or necessary. Specifically, I'd like to know:
May consumers contact Fortis directly to determine the present value of their policies?
What is the rate of growth on a funeral policy with Fortis?
May consumers contact Fortis directly for a refund?
If not, what recourse do consumers have if a funeral home won't request a refund?
What is the rate for determining cash value for a canceled policy?
Funeral Consumers Alliance
On April 3rd, Anna wrote:
In keeping up with my problem, I received another letter from the funeral
home yesterday. They wrote:
Dear Mrs. Jones
You can forward a copy of this letter to Fortis Family Insurance. As far
as the funeral home is concerned you can cash in your policy with the
company. This will make your pre-paid funeral void at that time.
As far as the beneficiary, the funeral homes are the beneficiaries so they
can get paid for the funeral that has been pre-paid.
If Fortis Family Insurance needs more information from us tell them to
contact us. You will have to request the forms to cash in the policy.
David H. Searby
An e-mail from Anna on April 30th:
Hi. It's me again. Just wondered if you had ever heard back from Fortis? It has been several weeks and I still haven't heard from them. [No response from Fortis to the FCA letter either.] I sent them the copy of the letter from Searby funeral home, stating that as far as he was concerned I could cash the policy in. I sent a second letter about 8 days ago, and still I have not received any reply either by phone or letter. I just thought I would keep you up to date on what is going on. I recently got a call from the Comptrollers office in Chicago. He also left a message on the answering machine with Fortis and he didn't get a reply either. As you said, it will be interesting. Thank you once again for all your help. I will e mail you if I get any kind of answer. I may try calling again. Thanks.
This e-mail from Anna on May 1st:
Hi again. I received a letter from Fortis today. They sent a cash
In the letter it says:
Type of plan: Sp Series 15
*Death Benefit: $5,350.
Outstanding Loan: $.00
Loan Value: $2,804.76
Net Cash Surrender Value: $2,827.ll
Beneficiary: Searby Funeral Home
*May Include any additional coverages.
Which of these amounts will they send me? I am not sure as to what this
really means. I thought that you could tell me. Will the funeral home
get the rest and will I get the Net /Cash Surrender Value? I will be
waiting to hear from you before I do anything. Thanks again for all your
Hoping that Anna Jones at least had a sense of humor, we sent her the following e-mail:
Ironically, I was on the telephone with a fella I know in our state Banking and Insurance Dept. when I down-loaded your last e-mail. I read it to him. His advice is to take the loan money, making sure that not repaying the loan won't cause the policy to lapse. Then change the beneficiary any time you want to another FH where you live now or where you're moving to when you do. Most med schools require that the family pay to have the body delivered to the med school (tho' it DOES vary from med school to med school). Anyway, you'd surely have enough left in the policy to get your body there and still have $1,500 or so left over for a hellova reception your kids can ask the FD to pay for.
Because I'd never gotten a response from the Fortis president, Sue Simon, editor of Funeral Monitor,managed to chase down a live person to talk to there, and guess what she learned: Fortis is going to charge Anna 8% interest on the "loan." Charging Anna interest to borrow her own money? Yikes! At that rate, the balance of Anna's death benefit money will vaporize in less than 12 years, if the interest is charged against her account; then the policy WOULD lapse. Yes, Fortis has been growing Anna's money at about 8% a year, much faster than most other funeral "insurance" schemes, and Anna didn't have to declare the interest on her income tax. But if Anna had put her money in a long-term CD, she'd have over $4,000 today. Fortis should be ashamed for swiping almost 10 years of interest. m
But Fortis isn't the only company running a funeral "insurance" scheme. Forethought (owned by the folks who make Batesville caskets) estimates about 4% annual growth on their "policies," depending on age and mortality rates among other things. This isn't quite enough to keep up with funeral inflation in most cases, so you'll want to see what is guaranteed and what happens if the casket you picked out is no longer available. (A substitute casket needs to be of equal quality and construction, not equal "value"-price--which is constantly going up from what you paid). And will you get all your money back from Forethought if you cancel after a few years? Only if you live to be 100, I was told by the customer service rep.
NOTE: In some states, funeral directors can take your prepaid funeral money and convert it to funeral "insurance" WITHOUT YOUR PERMISSION, pocketing a commission in the process!
Sales tips from one of the big-three, anonymously leaked to the FCA office:
How often do you ask a prospect for the order? The answer, "One more time." You should be prepared to ask at least four to five times.
•46% ask once and quit
•24% ask twice and quit
•14% ask three times and quit
•12% give up after the fourth attempt.
•60% of all sales are made only after the fifth attempt at closing, yet 96% of the sales people give up before the fifth attempt.
•DO NOT ask a customer to sign anything--ask him to okay it or initial it.
•DO NOT use the word contract. Substitute word: agreement.
•DO NOT use word: pay, payment, down-payment, monthly payment, or cash price. Substitute word: investment, monthly investment, total investment.
How to answer a customer's objections:
Want to think it over
When a man says to you: "I want to think this over."
(You say) "That's fine, sir, obviously you wouldn't take your time thinking this over unless you were really interested, would you?
"I'm sure you're not telling me this just to get rid of me, so may I assume that you will give it very careful consideration?"
(Begin Summary Closing) "Just to clarify my thinking, sir, what phase of this program it is that you want to think over?"
(Do Not Hesitate at this point)
"Is it the integrity of CMS West Inc. and cemetery name?"
"Is it my personal integrity?"
"Is it the concept of our cemetery?"
"Is it our location?"
"Is it ________etc.?"
(This will allow you to get a final objection. What you have to do is take "I'll think it over" and reduce it to a specific objection. You cannot answer "I'll think it over" because it is an intangible.)
I'm going to have my ashes scattered
Mr(s). _____, before you make a final decision to have your cremated remains disposed of in that manner, please let me explain what happens when a person is cremated. The cremated remains are really not ashes, as most people think, but actually calcium flakes about the size of your fingernail. Because the calcium flakes have nutritional value, if they are scattered about the ground the birds or insects eat them. If they are scattered in the water, the fish will eat them. [Really?]
Experts who have studied this subject advise us it is very important that we have a final resting place where our loved ones can come to visit and pay their respects to us; and to deprive our loved ones of this opportunity can result in their having serious emotional problems.
I want to be buried back home.
Sir, I talk to many men that tell me they want to be buried back home until they find out the problems it creates for their families. First, it's more expensive because (a) two funeral directors are required. . . (b) The body must be accompanied by an escort, by plane or train. The person traveling with the body must carry a ticket marked corpse for the deceased. [false] . . . Mr. _____, why don't we take care of the problem for the family now so that they won't have to worry about this matter-- then if you decide to go back to _______ you can always give your property to one of the children. Or we do have a lot exchange opportunity whereby you can transfer ownership of what you purchase from us to all areas in the United States. . . .[This is out-and-out consumer fraud. One has to use only those cemeteries that are signed up with the "lot exchange" program; a town or religious cemetery is not a likely prospect. Furthermore, you get credit ONLY for the original purchase price, NOT the current value. There is no exchange, lot-for-lot.]
Donating Body to Science
Mr(s). _____, I can understand why you would want to donate your body to science and that's very commendable on your part. In discussing this subject with most people I find that what they really are interested in doing is to make available the vital organs of their body such as their eyes or kidneys, to help another person, and that's wonderful. That can be accomplished with little difficulty by simply contacting the hospital or organization of your choice and in the event of your accidental death and assuming your death occurs in the area where the organization can remove very soon after your death the vital organs you wish to donate, this is a workable idea. . . .
Most people, once they understand what takes place, are not interested in donating their body to a medical school for experi-mentation. 1. Many schools are now rejecting bodies because they have more bodies than can be used. 2. The usual policy is to store bodies in a frozen locker room for a period of one year before using the body. By the way, this isn't a very pleasant thought but they put a large screw type apparatus into your ears and hang you up on a conveyor belt with a room full of other frozen bodies. 3. Perhaps most important of all, the family is deprived of having a fitting burial for you. . . . Mr(s). _____, in view of these facts would it be okay if we were to plan on your donating just your vital organs and allowing the family the opportunity to provide the customary burial for you--that would please everyone involved, okay?
I don't sign anything without
thinking about it.
Mr. and Mrs. _____, aside from the fact that you would like to take some additional time to think about this . . . is there any other reason that you are aware of why you would not want to go ahead and solve this problem? Isn't it true that all of the important possessions that you now have required your signing your signatures? A. To be married you had to sign a marriage license. B. Before the hospital would allow you to take your children home you had to sign a release document, giving them their legal names. C. You had to sign forms for you and your children to receive medical help from a doctor or for them to go to school. D. To buy a car, you had to sign the forms to take delivery. E. Before you could own this lovely home, you had to sign mortgage papers. Mr. and Mrs. _____, when you stop to think about it, wouldn't it be correct to say that virtually every worthwhile possession that you own today required you to sign your name to some kind of document and that had you refused to sign your name you would not today have the beautiful things you do? Folks, you can add to that wonderful collection by simply signing your names to this agreement and gaining the priceless benefits of this program today . . .
We do not feel there is any need to make this decision now.
Mr. and Mrs. ______, I can understand how you feel about going ahead with this decision at this time. . . but, may I ask each of you a very important question? Let's assume you each knew for certain that you only had a few remaining hours of your life to live . . . what would you each do? (NOTE: Encourage husband and wife to discuss their loved ones and how important their welfare is to them.)
Mr. and Mrs. ______, with all of these things you have just said, not once did you mention that you were going out and spend money on having a good time. Your total concern was for doing those things that would help and protect your loved ones. Doesn't it make a lot of sense to not wait until our time has run out to do those things that we know are important to protect our loved ones?
Parents already have property for us.
Mr. and Mrs. ______, if I could demonstrate to your satisfaction that it would be in your best interest both financially and otherwise that our program was the best for your family, you would definitely want to do business with us -- wouldn't you? May I raise these points--
1.Has the deed for the property been made out in your name so that you would be guaranteed the use of the property? Do you have brothers and sisters that would have first choice if there was a need in their family first?
2. Would there be enough property available for your children and possibly your grandchildren or would you end up with a situation that would make it impossible for your children to be buried with you in the years to come? And, would this be fair to your children?
3. You are aware, I'm sure, that you could be no longer entombed in a dry lawn crypt--but would be buried separately in conventional vaults.
4. Most likely you would end up buying your vaults from a funeral director and your monument from a monument dealer after the death occurs. You would still be paying more money just for those two items than our whole program costs.
5. You would also have to give up all of the protection we provide for you and your children under our Family Protection Plan.
Mr. and Mrs. ________, in view of these facts wouldn't it be a lot better to solve this problem for you and your children with our program?
Grave of Sorrow or the Shrine
Mr. & Mrs. ___________, do you know the difference between a Shrine and a Grave of Sorrow? Well let me tell you the difference. Perhaps 75% of the families out here purchase the Grave of Sorrow . . . 75 out of 100 times it is the widow who makes this purchase . . . through lack of foresight she is forced to go out . . . to a strange cemetery . . . on the arm of a relative or friend . . . to make a business transaction concerning a subject she knows nothing about . . . when her mind is clouded with Sorrow, broken hearted . . . and perhaps financially broke . . . in any type of weather . . . 10 inches of snow . . . sleeting rain . . . a blowing gale . . . or a very beautiful day . . . it is a very dark one to her, yet she must make a selection alone.
On the day of the services, she rides through the cemetery . . . to this Grave of Sorrow . . . her loneliness is increased because she has an uncertain future ahead. On the day of the service as she stands here at the graveside . . . for committal . . . she finds this day to be the loneliest and darkest of her life . . . she has lost her husband, sweetheart, father to her children, and income, and they are gone forever. Each time that she returns to this grave . . . for visitation, her mind goes back to the loneliest hours of her life. The hours spent when she purchased this grave . . . and left her sweetheart to rest. It all comes back now . . . broken hear, broken pocketbook . . . broken spirit . . . and an uncertain future ahead . . . her mind goes back to a time . . . when a consultant stopped by their home . . . she is reminded of the excuses that were used that evening . . . to evade or postpone or put off . . . a most important decision . . . the selection of the Family Estate . . . excuses such as cannot afford, want to see it, recession ahead . . . but oh how she knows now that that was a time of great opportunity.
Is SCI's Marketing Plan
Set to Gouge the Poor?
In press articles that appeared in Phoenix, Arizona and Louisville, Kentucky papers on October 19, 1999, SCI launched a new marketing plan—"Dignity" funeral packages. These plans run from about $2,000 to over $9,000 and can be financed at the rate of 12.9% to 21%, or so the article implied. The following was posted on our web site a day or two later:
Finance charges on a lay-away plan before they lay you away?
And while they're collecting additional interest on YOUR money in THEIR bank?
The working poor will be hit the hardest by this tactic. Socialworkers, Agencies on Aging, Community Action groups, TAKE NOTICE! As for the "lock in prices now" ploy that many preneed salespeople use? Prices may go DOWN in the future. We're seeing a lot more discount or affordable funeral operations opening up these days.
Until it's necessary to set aside assets for Medicaid eligibility, it is FAR safer to keep your money in your own bank. It always pays to plan ahead, but it rarely pays to pay ahead. Be sure to take advantage of our local nonprofit consumer groups to find the best deal around and one without any finance charges. Or call the FAMSA~FCA office to see if we know of low-cost providers in your area: 800-765-0107.
The following letter was e-mailed to the FAMSA~FCA office the day after the above message was posted:
SCI Management Corporation
October 21, 1999
Ms. Lisa Carlson
Funeral and Memorial Societies of America/Funeral Consumers Alliance
P.O. Box 10
Hinesburg, VT 05461
Re: Defamatory Statements
Dear Ms. Carlson:
On Wednesday, October 20, 1999, you posted a page on your organization's web site with the headline "Is SCI's Marketing Plan Set to Gouge the Poor?" You then proceeded to criticize the company for charging finance charges on prearranged funerals sold by its affiliates. In addition, at 10:29 a.m. on the same date, you posted a message on a message board hosted by YAHOO! expressing the same sentiment and claiming the "it makes [you] sick to [your] stomach" that SCI allegedly charges 12.9% to 21% finance charges on prearrangements. Unfortunately, your anti-industry bias has seriously diminished your objectivity and any credibility you might have been able to claim with respect to this matter.
Had you bothered to do even the slightest amount of research, such as calling any affiliate of SCI in Phoenix or Louisville, or contacting anyone in the company's home offices in Houston, you would have learned that the finance rates to which you make reference apply only to at need arrangements. The entire premise of your attack is incorrect. To provide more options for its consumers, SCI made arrangements with a third-party lender, which is the only company that receives payment for the loan, to provide financing for families to purchase funeral goods and services in honor of their loved ones in connection with at need funeral arrangements. Notwithstanding your pronouncements that consumers have no desire for such remembrances, many families want to pay tribute and homage to their departed loved ones in ways that do not conform to your minimalist approach.
It is apparent that your obsession with attacking SCI and its affiliates, as well as other organizations within this industry, has completely overcome any pretense of honesty or accuracy. Many of the consumers that you claim to represent find great value and comfort in the services provided by Service Corporation International and its affiliates and are pleased to know that the company can assist them both professionally and financially in achieving their goals of remembering their loved ones. You certainly have the right to hold and express your own opinions, however misguided they might be, but you do not have the right to publish lies about SCI's efforts to be more responsive to the families that it serves.
In the past you have made other defamatory statements about SCI and its affiliates that were not challenged. These statements, however, are simply too inaccurate, offensive, and unfair to be ignored. We believe that your libelous falsehood that the company gouges the poor is defamatory per se and constitutes grounds for a successful lawsuit against you and your organization. However, if this happened to be an honest mistake arising from lack of information, SCI and its affiliates would consider this matter concluded in return for full retractions and apologies posted on your website and on the YAHOO! message board in question by 5:00 p.m. C.D.T. on October 22, 1999.
J. Christopher Couch
In response: October 22, 1999
J. Christopher Couch
SCI Management Corporation
P.O. Box 130548
Houston, TX 77219-0548
Dear Mr. Couch:
I am delighted to learn that SCI is not levying any finance charges on its new preneed funeral packages, only at need services. I'm sure you'll be pleased to find enclosed copies of my letters- to-the-editor of the respective papers where I had also made accusations about what I thought were SCI's outrageous finance charges. I am happy to let others know there will be no finance charges at all on preneed with SCI, if SCI is the funeral home of choice. I will certainly post an equivalent message on our FAMSA~Funeral Consumers Alliance web site and will make a similar disclaimer on the Yahoo stockholders bulletin board, starting with a copy of your letter to me, of course, followed by a copy of this.
While I know that you can't control what the pesky media report, I trust you do realize that I was responding to news articles that appeared to parrot SCI press material. In the Louisville paper, the term "preneed" never appeared, but your spokesperson, Rybarski, is cited in reference to funeral "planning." That is preneed, is it not? And these plans are "transferable between SCI's 1,300 North American homes [and] can be financed at rates from 12.9 percent to 21 percent." One doesn't usually "transfer" a body once it's buried at need. How did the paper get the idea it might be?
Because it is often hard to collect the bill once a body has been buried, many funeral homes are reluctant to finance funeral charges (though small-town funeral homes have done so for years). This is, indeed, a revelation if SCI is launching at need financing for the needy in two major cities. That being the case, those reading your press materials obviously missed the point. Perhaps you should re-contact the papers, as well, to straighten them out.
I think all Americans are accustomed to paying interest on money they borrow to purchase items and services they use now—a home, a car, a meal at a restaurant or a pair of shoes paid for by credit card. So the idea of financing at need arrangements will be appreciated by many. But the idea of paying a finance charge on services and merchandise that will be used sometime in the future without even knowing when does defy economic logic, does it not?
I know I'll need another car in a few years (just like people know they re going to die). The 1993 Geo I drive was "used" when I bought it, but I certainly am not going to go to a car dealer and say, "Gee, I'll need a car within the next few years—maybe one year, maybe five—would you do me the favor of letting me pay you for a new car now . . . and by the way, I'd be glad to add a little extra in finance charges if you'll lock in the price . . . at least for most of what I've ordered." I trust this makes the point about how usurious any finance charges appear to be for prepaid funerals.
So, if you can assure me in writing that there will be no finance charges—at any rate, 21% or otherwise—for prepaid SCI funeral arrangements—in Louisville, Phoenix, or anywhere else—I'll be happy to post a retraction on our web site, on the Yahoo stockholders' bulletin board, and anywhere else you request.
cc: FAMSA legal committee
Mr. Couch responded later that day:
"This letter will confirm that there are no finance charges imposed on Dignity Memorial Plan prearranged funeral agreements."
I guess I was wrong about that part and, per my agreement with SCI, do hereby apologize if I misled the public in any way in earlier statements.
However, I do not rest easy. The laws are very different for financial transactions with a funeral home and financial transactions with a cemetery even though a consumer thinks of a "funeral" as involving both. I would caution consumers who might be purchasing such a plan to see if the entire purchase is written on a "Dignity" funeral home contract. Or is the casket (and any other merchandise such as a vault or cremation urn) written up on a cemetery contract not labeled "Dignity," with a finance charge added? Is the family also considering cemetery space and services for which there will be a finance charge?
SCI owns its own funeral insurance company. Consumers may be offered payment terms for purchasing this insurance to pay for the "Dignity" plan. It may or may not be a good idea. If you can't afford to pay for the whole thing at once and are making monthly payments, what happens if you can't keep up the payments? Will you get anything back? How much compared to what you paid? Are you being pressured to purchase more insurance than the funeral contract calls for? Are the casket and other items included? Do all the figures on the paperwork match?
It always pays to plan ahead. It rarely pays to pay ahead. People change their minds for any number of reasons—moving, divorce, remarriage, death while traveling, changing from body burial to cremation, or coming upon hard times and deciding to spend less. Maybe even deciding to use a different funeral home. Buyer beware.