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Funeral price lists required by law

Dayton-area funeral homes vary in their compliance with the Federal Trade Commission's Funeral Rule, but two homes stand out in the scope of their violations

By Anthony Gottschlich

Staff Writer

Sunday, June 03, 2007

With an average price tag of $6,500, a funeral might be the third most expensive purchase a consumer will make in a lifetime, right behind a home and car.

But unlike other industries, funeral homes aren't likely to post their prices on billboards and storefront windows, or even on Web sites or in newspapers.

Extras

You'll have to look at the funeral home's General Price List for that information, a shopping guide of sorts required of all funeral homes by the Federal Trade Commission's Funeral Rule.

The rule requires funeral homes to provide customers the list prior to discussing arrangements and to anyone else who requests the list, customer or not.

The list is supposed to detail complete, accurate, itemized price information and other disclosures about the funeral home's goods and services so consumers can make informed decisions and buy only what they want.

"There should be no surprises — no surprises of omission or commission," FTC spokesman Frank Dorman explained. "You got to put everything on the table."

Among several items, "everything" includes the embalming fee, plus the disclosure that embalming is not required in Ohio; charges for a visitation, funeral and memorial service; the charge for a hearse and limousine (if offered) and a non-declinable "basic fee" for the funeral director's services and overhead.

The Dayton Daily News reviewed more than 30 general price lists from Dayton-area funeral homes to check their compliance with the Funeral Rule. Most appeared substantially compliant, although formats varied. Some disclosures lacked the precision the FTC requires and a few appeared outdated.

When errors or violations were found — Belton-Stroup Funeral Home in Fairborn combined its visitation and funeral charges, for example — the Daily News provided the funeral home the FTC manual, Complying with the Funeral Rule, and the funeral directors corrected their price lists.

While most were in good shape, two funeral homes stood out: the House of Wheat Funeral Home, 2107 N. Gettysburg Ave., and McLin Funeral Home at 2801 N. Gettysburg Ave.

Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit watchdog group based in South Burlington, Vt., called Wheat's price list "one of the worst I've seen."

On McLin's list, Slocum remarked, "This is pretty bad, which is really too bad because the prices themselves ... there aren't many I'd quibble with."

House of Wheat

In the spring of 2006, House of Wheat founder Wayne L. Wheat refused to provide the Daily News his price list, which in itself is a violation of the FTC's rule.

When reminded of the rule, Wheat replied, "... As I said before, I don't know where you're going with your story or anything and I just have a little problem with the Dayton Daily News, so I'm not going to provide a price list."

Wheat, 63, provided his price list later last year after the Daily News reported his refusal to the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, which is charged with enforcing Ohio's funeral laws.

Funeral rule violations can carry FTC penalties of up to $10,000. Among Wheat's violations, according to Slocum of the funeral alliance:

• The list does not disclose that embalmings are not required by law. It simply states "Embalming" and a price ($575), which could lead consumers to believe embalming is required.

• Instead of itemizing, Wheat charges a flat $500 for "use of all necessary equipment and facilities."

"This is a totally bogus charge and it's illegal," Slocum said.

Missing prices include: preparing the body for viewing and use of staff and facilities for visitation hours, funeral ceremony, memorial service and graveside services. Each should be itemized, according to the FTC.

Wheat lists a price for direct burials and direct cremations, where no visitation or ceremonies are involved, but fails to note that consumers may purchase a burial or cremation container other than one sold by the funeral home. Instead, Wheat bundles a "minimum" casket into the $1,250 price for direct burial, an FTC violation.

"This is so sloppy and bad, it immediately tells me they're trying to take advantage (of consumers)," said Slocum, whose organization and chapters review price lists from around the country.

At Wheat's request, the Daily News sent him a list of the violations on May 1. It included the FTC guidelines and asked Wheat for his response. He did not respond.

The FTC and Ohio funeral board would not comment on Wheat's or any funeral home's price list.

But the state board sent Wheat a letter on May 25 asking for a revised price list within 30 days. While the board doesn't regulate price lists, it can cite funeral directors for "unprofessional conduct" when they violate the Funeral Rule.

FTC spokesman Dorman said his agency conducts area "sweeps" of funeral homes to check for compliance. In lieu of penalties, violators can participate in the FTC' Funeral Rule Offenders Program, a five-year compliance training and monitoring program run by the National Funeral Directors Association.

McLin Funeral Home

Slocum called McLin's prices "very, very reasonable," but noted several FTC violations.

Under "Services of the Funeral Director and Staff," for example, commonly referred to as the non-declinable basic fee, the $1,000 charge covers transferring the remains to the funeral home, dressing the remains, supervision of all arrangements, thank-you cards and other supplies plus a half-hour visitation for the family.

Most of these services are optional, Slocum said, and some of the same services are itemized and listed elsewhere on the list.

Also, visitation and funeral should be separate items, but they're packaged together under a "one-day service" or "two-day service" plan.

McLin's direct burials and direct cremations do not disclose that consumers may purchase a burial or cremation container other than one sold by the funeral home. Also, a casket is bundled into the $1,200 direct burial fee.

When told of the violations and provided a copy of the FTC's guidelines, McLin funeral director Scherrie McLin, sister of Dayton Mayor Rhine McLin, said, "We're making the changes... you're exactly right."

"It's not that we're trying to take anybody," she said.

Another funeral director at McLin, Roland Miller Sr., called the violations "oversights" and said he would provide the Daily News a corrected price list.

More than two weeks later, however, the list had not arrived.

Shopping around

Twenty-three years after the FTC adopted the Funeral Rule, "there's still a lot of work to be done," Slocum said.

"The majority of the price lists I see are in pretty poor shape," he said. "Many of them are lacking the required disclosures to consumers. Many of them are lacking the basic stripped-down options for burial and cremation. And even those that are free of violations, they're frequently written very confusingly."

One exception, according to Slocum: Newcomer Funeral Home, which operates in six states and has three locations in the Dayton area.

"Their price lists are some of the best in the country," he said. "They're very clear and very straightforward. That's a model others should follow."

Funeral directors are mixed on the price lists' value.

"The General Price List has made the funeral industry a better industry for the public," said Tom Harris, whose family founded Harris Funeral Home, 49 Linden Ave., in 1898. "The list makes families generally feel more at ease and confident with the funeral director."

Other funeral directors cautioned that price lists don't tell the whole story.

"Funeral directing is far more than what shows up on a price list," Bill Kindred of Kindred Funeral Home in Englewood said. "It's very difficult to understand, there's a lot of things that go into it."

Decrying the "WalMartization" of the funeral industry, John Stroup of Belton-Stroup Funeral Home in Fairborn said, "Prices alone can't show the service we offer."

Tommy Routsong, owner of Routsong Funeral Home, said discount prices are sometimes designed just to get customers in the door, where the funeral home can pull a "bait and switch" — pile on goods and services to the point where no real savings are achieved.

"It may say 'discount,' but you're not necessarily getting the best value," Routsong said.

Slocum's advice: "Consumers really need to shop around ahead of time. Pick these price lists up from four or five funeral homes, bring them home and look at them side by side, jot your questions down. Anything you don't understand ask a funeral home, ask a funeral consumers group who's familiar with funeral pricing practices."

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