(This is a reprint of an article that appeared in the FAMSA Newsletter, Spring 1999)
Last Updated ( Monday, 14 July 2008 14:41 )
by Lisa Carlson
The "Body Farm" it's been called—the brain-child of Dr. William Bass, a forensic anthropologist—and the only location of its kind in the country. Several out-of-town acres owned by the University of Tennessee (UT) in Knoxville have been set aside to study body decomposition and the relevant stages of insect development.
The bodies there have been donated for scientific study, and—for the most part—will end up in the university's collection of skeletons that make up a large database of body-types. With a growing collection, forensic experts are charting the differences between male and female, old and young, black and white, tall and short, heavy and thin. The skeletal studies provide a basis for computer whizzes who can then reconstruct likely features as an aid in identification.
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!