"Burial Only" . . ."Cremation Only"
Some funeral homes are wisely expanding their offerings to suit an increasingly choosy public. A certain segment, though, wants to have its cake and eat it too. These mortuaries offer choice in only one direction: up (in price). The latest incarnation of this is the shameful practice of applying a double standard to caskets. Here's a letter we received from a lady in Indiana:
I work in parish management and I am trying to develop some funeral alternatives for our parishioners. One of our parish families went to purchase a casket for burial and was told that they could not purchase a wooden cremation casket. There were forced to buy a "burial casket" that cost $1,500 [while] the cost of the cremation casket was $500. Was this legal? I know that there are air emission guidelines for cremation caskets but I did not think there were legal guidelines that would prevent the use of cremation caskets for burial.
This woman is more perceptive than many; she smelled something fishy. There are no laws anywhere in the country that prevent you from using a "cremation casket" for burial. We know of no laws anywhere that prescribe or prohibit any particular kind of casket for ground burial.
Most crematories, on the other hand, will not accept a metal casket because it can be difficult to burn, and it can cause damage to the retort (cremation chamber). If a family wants a casket (as opposed to a simple cardboard box) before cremation, most crematories require a casket of all-wood construction and a minimum of synthetic materials. The synthetic materials often used in "burial" caskets can release toxic gases as they melt, and can damage the crematory.
But there is no similar concern with cemeteries. It simply doesn't matter what type of box you use for burial. Why then would the funeral home tell this family they had to buy a "burial casket" just because the family wanted the body buried, not cremated? It seems to be greed, plain and simple, --- and here's where the double standard comes in. Funeral homes know that although some families will want to buy a more ornate casket even if there is to be a cremation, they'll balk at paying the grossly inflated "traditional" casket prices for a box "that will just get burned up anyway." So, the funeral homes stock a range of wood coffins suitable for cremation (many are quite attractive) and price them lower than they do their "burial caskets." Even though the mortuary may make a lower profit proportionally on these "cremation caskets," they're still making more money than they would if the family opted for a cheap cardboard "alternative container." But rest assured some funeral homes would have no qualms about selling you a $6,000 African Mahogany casket destined for cremation, and would probably compliment you on your "good taste."
The danger in offering these lower-priced caskets, from the undertaker's point of view, is that families just might buy them. And clearly, this family wanted to. Loath to lose the profit from a more costly "burial casket," the funeral home took advantage of this family by forcing them to buy a $1,500 casket under the false premise that only certain caskets are "suitable" for burial.
Our advice? If you wish to have a burial, and you see a casket that fits your taste and budget, insist on buying it. Let the funeral director know that you know there are no laws preventing you from using a "cremation casket" for burial, and that you don't intend to be put over a barrel. If the funeral director doesn't relent, tell him you'll find an outside casket seller. He can then choose between angering you and losing the casket sale completely, or treating your family with dignity and building good will for future business.
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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