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FCA recognizes that the dissemination of individual experiences, the reporting of public information, and linking to other sites can help further our mission of educating the public on their funeral rights and options. However, FCA's limited resources and the nature of the Internet make it impossible to verify the content of personal experiences that are supplied by others or to verify the content of linked sites. FCA accepts no responsibility for these. Comments on the contents of personal reports and linked websites should be directed to the author(s).



Veterans Scams

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Veterans Beware!

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
By This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , 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 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it '; document.write( '' ); document.write( addy_text25011 ); document.write( '<\/a>' ); //--> This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
 

Two for One

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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.

Come again?

We're not even sure this is legal. Here are some definitions of the legal concept of an "adhesion contract"

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.
 

Preneed Casket Bait and Switch

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One of the most common complaints FCA receives regarding prepaid funerals is that the customer picked out and paid for a specific casket, while the family is told (at the time of death) that "this casket is no longer available . . .you'll have to pick out another one." Of course, the family usually has to pony up more money for the "new" casket.
But sometimes, the funeral director apparently decides that if the pre-selected casket is "not available" at the time of death, then the best solution is to pawn off a cheaper, flimsier version on the grieving family:
"Dear FCA,
My mother passed away last week. We had already made the pre-funeral arrangements. We had selected a casket. When the time came that we were in need of the casket, they told us that they did not have that casket available and could not be ordered in time. They gave us a choice of 3 other caskets, we were not really happy with the choices but what could we do.He said they had no place to store them and therefore it was not available [EDITOR's NOTE - This seems an unlikely excuse to us. Most funeral homes keep only a limited number of caskets in stock, and routinely order them from local distributors on an as-needed basis] I informed him that what was the use of selecting a casket if chances are years from now they would not have it available.
After the funeral, the cemetery personnel tried to sell me the preplanning funeral arrangements. It was a different company. I then discovered that the casket my mother was buried was 1,000 less than the one we had pre-selected at the time of the funeral arrangements. The one we had selected was 18 gauge steel and the one she was buried in was 20 gauge steel. Therefore, I feel they were not equal in quality. When I asked the funeral director about it, he tried to give me different reasons for it. I was still not satisfied. "
Aurelia Rivera, Brownsville Texas"
We've encouraged Ms. Rivera to file a complaint with the Texas Funeral Service Commission, and we'll post updated information on her complaint as it becomes available.
 

ICFA Blasts CBS

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FCA responds to the International Cemetery and Funeral Association

Following a two-part broadcast on CBS February 11 and 10 on funeral fraud ,the National Funeral Directors Association and the International Cemetery and Funeral Association sent CBS letters of protest. Both accused the network of airing sensationalist stories of funeral fraud, stories taken out of context.

The February 10 CBS Evening News broadcast did feature a guest who dispensed the absurd "consumer advice" that customers should check a funeral home's toilet paper to assess the overall service quality. In addition, the piece could have been done less heavy-handedly.
FCA executive director Joshua Slocum appeared live on CBS' Early Show February 11 to talk briefly with Harry Smith on how consumers can protect themselves while shopping for a funeral.
ICFA responded immediately to these segments in their typical fashion. You might call their approach "accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative."
FCA sent a letter below  response, then  ICFA sent us a letter of rebuttal on February 25. All three letters are below, in chronological order.

 

February 11, 2004 

Mr. Leslie Moonves
Chairman, President and CEO
The CBS Television Network
51 W. 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019

Re: 2/10 CBS Evening News Broadcast,
"When Death Knocks, Bereaved Beware"

Dear Mr. Moonves:

The Tuesday, February 10th broadcast of CBS Evening News with Dan Rather contained a segment warning your viewers about funeral scams, especially the preservative claims of so-called "sealer caskets." We agree that if there is one thing all consumers should remember in making funeral arrangements, it would be that human remains cannot be preserved for any extended length of time. A "red flag" should immediately be raised when any seller claims to have a product or service that will preserve human remains over the long term. However, CBS represented as "news" the experience of a consumer, Barbara Osborne, who had already persuasively testified to her experience almost two years ago before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in April 2002. While the passage of time does not make her experience any less heartbreaking, it does remain a singular event that CBS News failed to place into any context such as the fact that there are over 5,000 funerals and burials in the United States each day.

Indeed, the segment's opening claim that "there are many horror stories" in the funeral industry suggests that fairness was not a priority in the report, so let's look at the record. Consumers have filed almost 550 complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against funeral-related businesses during a 29 month period between 2001 and 2003 for an average of about 19 complaints per month compared to about 167,000 funerals per month. This results in the statistically negligible complaint rate of one-hundredth of one percent. Regardless, funeral-related complaints are emotional in nature and we do not trivialize them. It is significant to note that none of the FTC complaints involved "sealer caskets."1 Many complaints dealt with the failure of funeral homes to provide written price lists, an issue that the CBS News segment dramatically illustrated by use of an undercover camera at three Washington, D.C. area funeral homes. Ironically, the national headquarters of the FTC that enforces the price disclosure requirements of the Funeral Rule is located on Constitution Avenue, probably not more than a mile or two from these funeral homes. CBS is no doubt aware of this proximity, which leads to an interesting question: Is CBS News concerned with helping consumers or just frightening them?

A related report on this morning's The Early Show featured a consumer advocate urging consumers to shop in advance of need, to obtain a copy of the price list upon entering a funeral home, to leave if they don't get one, and to bring along a friend who may be less emotionally involved in the transaction. We concur with this advice but were disappointed when the advocate repeated the flawed "wisdom" about preplanning "but not prepaying." Similar to all consumer purchases, prepaying for a funeral well before it is needed has advantages and risks that can be evaluated prior to payment. We believe it is more helpful to warn that prefunding is not for everyone, but telling consumers never to prepay and to instead save for their funeral expenses on their own can be the most hazardous plan of all.

The overwhelming majority of prepaid funerals are performed as intended, and many have price guarantees that are written into the contract. These funds are also protected from creditors of both the consumer and of the funeral home. Prepayment is recommended when consumers must "spend down" their assets to qualify for government assistance. However, funds privately saved by consumers in bank accounts or certificates of deposits are not generally shielded from creditors' claims. The loss of these funds prior to the funeral most commonly occurs due to the expenses of the final illness including services not covered by insurance or by insurance co-pay obligations. To the best of our knowledge, nobody can advise consumers on how to pay for a funeral after their savings have been depleted. Prepayment can and does work.

Finally, there are an increasing number of funeral and burial information resources for consumers to consult that are easily accessible through the Internet. We urge consumers to check several different web sites to neutralize the "private agendas" common to many sites both from the industry and its critics. Among the sites, we urge consumers to visit our association's Consumer Resources section at www.icfa.org that we believe offers the most comprehensive information of all in a user-friendly Question-and-Answer format. Best of all, no salesman will call.

Very truly yours,

Robert M. Fells
External Chief Operating Officer
and General Counsel


1 Two casket retailers questioned whether the term "sealer casket" is prohibited by law, but there were no consumer complaints involving the product. *********************************************************************************************
 

February 19, 2004

 

Robert M. Fells Chief External Operating Officer and General Counsel
International Cemetery and Funeral Association
1895 Preston White Drive, Suite 220
Reston, VA 20191

Dear Mr. Fells,

As you know, the February 10 and 11 CBS News segments relating to consumer problems in the funeral industry provoked consternation among funeral service's two largest trade associations.

I concur with some of the criticisms leveled at the network. Yet I'm troubled by some statements contained in your February 11 response to CBS. These statements continue ICFA's pattern of downplaying very real problems in the funeral and death services industries.

Clearly, Ed Markin's advice to consumers to check the thickness of a funeral home's toilet paper in order to assess the business's quality of service was ludicrous. CBS News did its viewers no service, nor did it burnish its image as a network of serious journalists, in airing this laughable piece of "advice."

The segment did, however, touch upon serious and substantive consumer issues. The problem was not so much what CBS chose to air, but what it did not. As you have no doubt experienced, television news is produced at a frenetic pace that often precludes in-depth discussion.

As the unnamed consumer advocate to whom you referred in your letter, I was disappointed that I was unable to elaborate on the benefits and dangers of prepaying for funerals during my February 11 appearance on the CBS Early Show. But warning consumers of the risks of funeral prepayment, as I did, was hardly "flawed 'wisdom.'" With so many players in the funeral field wooing consumers into unfair, usurious, and expensive prepaid contracts, it was vital that I offer a counterpoint.

While you rightly asserted in your letter to CBS that consumers facing Medicaid "spend-downs" may shelter funeral funds through prepaid contracts, you glossed over the egregious problems endemic to "preneed" nationally. I found it disingenuous — to put it kindly — for you to sum up your argument with the statement, "Prepayment can and does work."

Surely you are aware of the tangle of confusing and unfair preneed statutes and regulations existing among the 50 states. Does prepayment "work" for all Indiana consumers when it automatically becomes irrevocable 30 days after purchase? Does prepayment "work" for Florida consumers who can lose two-thirds of their investment when they decide to back out of a contract for fear their graves have been resold? Does prepayment "work" for families in Pennsylvania, where the Commonwealth Court recently ruled that preneed sellers do not have to transfer the customer's funds if the family moves?

Expanding on the theme of ICFA's January 6, 2004, report on funeral-related complaints at the Federal Trade Commission, you wrote to CBS that the number of complaints against funeral-related businesses lodged with the FTC in a 29-month period amounted to a mere 1/100th of one - percent of all complaints received. While this number may indeed be "statistically negligible," your argument takes no account of the widespread consumer ignorance of the Funeral Rule and state regulatory protections of which consumers may take advantage. How else can we explain the dearth of complaints to the FTC in light of the Funeral Rule violations FCA groups document nationwide?

ICFA's January 6, 2004 report — part of a transparent attempt to derail plans to expand and codify the Funeral Rule — stated:

". . . the complaint tabulation establishes that consumers will file complaints when they believe they have been treated unfairly by industry members, contrary to assertions by industry critics that 'consumers don't complain.'"

I assume Funeral Consumers Alliance is among those unnamed "industry critics." As FCA's executive director, I assure you that far fewer consumers actually complain to the FTC than the number who have a right to do so. Daily correspondence and telephone calls arrive at my office from citizens who relate deceptive practices in the funeral transaction, only to say they had no idea the Funeral Rule existed, or that any regulatory board existed in their state.

The January 6 ICFA report also states:

"The new tabulation confirms, however, ICFA's long-held position that consumers experience only isolated incidents of potential funeral rule violations by sellers such as cemeteries that are not covered by the rule."

Taking these two statements together, ICFA seems to be making an argument that goes like this: If a tree falls in the forest and no one reports it, then the tree never fell.

A recent survey by the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Central Ohio found that among 19 Columbus funeral homes, none of their General Price Lists complied with the Funeral Rule. Eight funeral homes, for example, failed to offer FTC-mandated service options or the prices for these.

Assume that each of these 19 funeral homes performed a conservative 50 services in 2003, and that each customer was given the same General Price List we collected for our survey. By my calculations, this results in 950 potential consumer complaints — almost double the number ICFA found in the Federal Trade Commission's nationwide files.

Does this mean that simply because these consumers didn't "believe" (or didn't know) they were mistreated, that the mistreatment didn't occur? This example comes from but one mid-sized American city — could anyone credibly claim that problems in the funeral industry come from "a few bad apples?"

Of course, consumer groups and industry associations will not see eye-to-eye on every matter. I would hope, though, that we all have the consumer's best interests in mind. While FCA does not agree with all the policy decisions made by NFDA, the organization did have the courage to plainly acknowledge the widespread problems with preneed in no fewer than three editorials last year in its magazine, The Director.

ICFA, by contrast, continues to ignore, obfuscate, and rationalize away the troubles plaguing the funeral transaction. This reflects very poorly indeed on its members and constituency. I urge ICFA to abandon its efforts to stall increased consumer protection, and to instead join with like-minded organizations to promote fair and honest business practices that benefit the consumer and the industry alike.

Sincerely,

Joshua Slocum
Executive Director
Funeral Consumers Alliance
33 Patchen Road
South Burlington, VT 05403

cc:
Leslie Moonves, Chairman, President and CEO, CBS
The Honorable Christopher J. Dodd, U.S. Senator
The Honorable Mark Foley, U.S. Representative
Carole Danielson, Funeral Rule Coordinator, Federal Trade Commission
Allen Hile, Division of Marketing Practices, Federal Trade Commission
Christine Pepper, CEO, National Funeral Directors Association
Susan Simon, Editor, Funeral Monitor
Ron Hast, Editor and Publisher, Mortuary Management
Doug Hernan, Editor and Publisher, Funeral Service Insider
Edward J. Defort, Editor, American Funeral Director
Jim Miller, Editor and Publisher, Savvy Senior

 


February 25, 2004

 

Mr. Joshua Slocum
Executive Director
Funeral Consumer Alliance
33 Patchen Road
South Burlington, VT 05403

Dear Mr. Slocum:

We have received your letter, dated February 19, 2004, which was written in response to ours, dated February 11, 2004, to Mr. Moonves, CBS Television Network. We agree that television news reporting lacks nuance but your letter provides a good example of the ICFA's ongoing concerns over how consumer protection issues are mischaracterized.

The main thrust of your letter takes issue with our reporting on the relatively low number of funeral-related consumer complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission during the 29-month period between 2001 and 2003. We do not claim or imply that the number constitutes the entire universe of consumer complaints in the United States. However, instead of providing additional statistical data, you indulge in sheer speculation, to quote: "Assume each of these 19 funeral homes performed a conservative 50 services in 2003, and that each customer was given the same General Price List we collected for our survey. By my calculations, this results in 950 potential consumer complaints - almost double the number ICFA found in the Federal Trade Commission's nationwide files." Well, Mr. Slocum, as long as you're just speculating, why stop at 950? Why not make it 9,950? You see my point: the ICFA is attempting to quantify documented complaints from a federal agency while you rely on your imagination for the data.

Like yourself, we receive daily phone calls and correspondence from consumers with inquiries and complaints through our volunteer complaint-resolution arm, the Cemetery Consumer Service Council. However, at the end of each year we tally up our data and circulate it to federal agencies, state consumer protection offices, the Better Business Bureaus, and the media. Through industry volunteers, not only from the ICFA but from other trade associations as well, we are able to resolve many of these problems. In fact, the only complaints where we cannot assist are the ones we don't hear about. As a result, we would welcome a cooperative effort with FCA to assist with consumer complaints that you are receiving.

The wisdom of prefunding is very much a sore point with your organization and we definitely would want to pursue this issue if you are so inclined. The ICFA has consistently cautioned that prepayment is not for everybody, but in this country where many people don't even save for their retirement years, is it wise to assume that people will save for their funerals? Even the FTC encourages consumers to purchase the cemetery property of their choice well in advance of need. However, the blanket condemnation of prefunding is a disservice to consumers who wish to prudently plan for their final expenses.

Another aspect of your letter concerns "the tangle of confusing and unfair preneed statutes existing among the 50 states" and that many consumers seem unaware of the FTC Funeral Rule and state regulatory protections. You ask, "How else can we explain the dearth of complaints to the FTC...?" One plausible explanation was provided recently by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress. In September 2003, the GAO published a report on state funeral and burial laws observing, "It must be noted that a low number of enforcement actions taken by a state may not be indicative of lax enforcement efforts, but rather could be reflective of a general lack of problems involving the death care industry in that state." The point is that we need more documentation, not "the sky is falling" speculation.

It is regrettable that you chose to end your letter by making inflammatory accusations that ICFA "continues to ignore, obfuscate, and rationalize away the troubles plaguing the funeral transaction. This reflects very poorly indeed on its members and constituency." You are evidently unaware that since 1998 the ICFA has published a series of Model Guidelines for State Laws and Regulations, which currently number twenty-eight. These guidelines cover such topics as prepaid contract trust funds, insurance-funded prearrangements, authorization to control final disposition, handling of remains in conjunction with the cremation process, solicitation, consumer guarantee funds, and written price disclosures prior to purchasing, among many others. We provided a copy of the guidelines to your predecessor, Mrs. Carlson, and we assume it remains the property of FCA. We were also contacted by one of your board members who wished to purchase a copy of the Model Guidelines but we provided this material without charge as a professional courtesy. It is interesting to note that Senator Chris Dodd and Representative Mark Foley incorporated much of the language of our model guideline on prepaid contract disclosures in the legislation they introduced into Congress in November 2002. Contrary to your assertions, we believe the Model Guidelines for State Laws and Regulations reflect very responsibly on ICFA's members and constituency.

The ICFA does not fear new laws, but we are very concerned with bad laws, especially "laws by anecdote." These are proposals made in response to isolated events that serve neither consumers nor the industry. We seem to share a mutual concern that some states require stronger laws and better enforcement, two goals that led to the creation of the ICFA model guidelines project in the first place. We also want to see more uniformity among state laws, but the mere fact that laws differ from state to state is not in itself necessarily a "red flag," a point made in the GAO report.

In closing, if your letter was meant to initiate a dialogue between our two organizations, then we welcome the opportunity to meet with you and discuss issues of mutual concern, paramount among which is consumer education.

Very truly yours,

Robert M. Fells
External Chief Operating Officer
and General Counsel


cc:
Leslie Moonves, Chairman, President and CEO, CBS
The Honorable Christopher J. Dodd, U.S. Senator
The Honorable Mark Foley, U.S. Representative
Carole Danielson, Funeral Rule Coordinator, Federal Trade Commission
Allen Hile, Division of Marketing Practices, Federal Trade Commission
Christine Pepper, CEO, National Funeral Directors Association
Sue Simon, Editor, Funeral Monitor
Ron Hast, Editor and Publisher, Mortuary Management
Doug Hernan, Editor and Publisher, Funeral Service Insider
Edward J. Defort, Editor, American Funeral Director
Jim Miller, Editor and Publisher, Savvy Senior
*********************************************************************************************

 

 

 

FTC "Sweeps" NYC Metro Funeral Homes

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Funeral Rule Violators

The Federal Trade Commission announced the results of a "sweep" of metropolitan New York City homes on December 29, 2003. The FTC press release stated that 12 of 29 funeral homes were found by test shoppers to have violated the Funeral Rule. From the paperwork we obtained from the FTC through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, it appears these violators either didn't produce the required price lists, or didn't offer them at the required time.

FTC test shoppers visited these funeral homes twice. Among the violators, many were found to break the rules on both visits. Others were caught violating the rules on only one occasion.

While the FTC has promised not to release the names of Funeral Rule violators to the press when the violators enter the Funeral Rule Offender Program ("FROP", run by the National Funeral Directors Association - more on this to come), these names are public record and we release them as soon as the FTC responds to our FOIA requests.

Below are the violators found during the fall, 2003 "sweep." For each, we've noted the violation(s) found on each visit, and the remedial actions taken. See the bottom of this page for a key to abbreviations.


Baker Funeral Service, Bridgeport, CT

Violations, 1st visit

  • No CPL
  • No OBCPL

Violations, 2nd visit
  • No violations
Remedial Action: FTC sent letter asking for Funeral Rule compliance

Blair Mazzarella Funeral Home, Brooklyn, NY

Violations, 1st visit
  • Late GPL
  • Late CPL

Violations, 2nd visit
  • Late GPL
  • No CPL
  • No OBCPL
Remedial Action: Entered FROP

Daniel George Funeral Home, Brooklyn, NY

Violations, 1st visit
  • No CPL
  • No OBCPL

Violations, 2nd visit
  • No CPL
  • No OBCPL
Remedial Action: FTC offered option of entering FROP

Dougiello Funeral Home, Bridgeport, CT

Violations, 1st visit
  • No GPL

Violations, 2nd visit
  • No GPL
  • No CPL
Remedial Action: Entered FROP

English Brothers Funeral Home, Brooklyn, NY

Violations, 1st visit
  • No GPL

Violations, 2nd visit
  • No significant violations
Remedial Action: FTC sent letter asking for Funeral Rule compliance

George Peterson Funeral Home, Bridgeport, CT

Violations, 1st visit
  • No CPL

Violations, 2nd visit
  • No CPL
Remedial Action: Entered FROP

Green Funeral Home, Fairfield, CT

Violations, 1st visit
  • No CPL
  • No OBCPL

Violations, 2nd visit
  • No GPL
Remedial Action: Entered FROP

Guido Funeral Home, Brooklyn, NY

Violations, 1st visit
  • No GPL

Violations, 2nd visit
  • No violations
Remedial Action: FTC sent letter asking for Funeral Rule compliance
LaBella Funeral Chapel, Brooklyn, NY

Violations, 1st visit
  • Late GPL
  • No CPL
  • No OBCPL

Violations, 2nd visit
  • No GPL
  • No CPL
Remedial Action: Entered FROP

Lesko Funeral Home, Fairfield, CT

Violations, 1st visit
  • No CPL
  • No OBCPL

Violations, 2nd visit
  • No CPL
  • No OBCPL
Remedial Action: Entered FROP

Lester Gee Funeral Home, Bridgeport, CT

Violations, 1st visit
  • No GPL

Violations, 2nd visit
  • No significant violations
Remedial Action: FTC sent letter asking for Funeral Rule compliance

McDonald Funeral Home, Stratford, CT

Violations, 1st visit
  • No OBCPL
Apparently only one visit was performed

Remedial Action: FTC sent letter asking for Funeral Rule compliance


Key to Abbreviations
  • GPL = General Price List
  • CPL = Casket Price List
  • OBCPL - Outer Burial Container (vault) Price List
  • NFDA = National Funeral Directors Association
  • FROP = Funeral Rule Offenders Program
  • FTC = Federal Trade Commission
 


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