Funerals are among the biggest expenses most families will ever incur, according to two consumer groups that are petitioning the Federal Trade Commission to require funeral homes to disclose their prices online.
The Consumer Federation of America and the Funeral Consumers Alliance issued a joint news release on the petition Tuesday, when Amazon.com was hosting its "Prime Day" sales. "Prime Day serves as a reminder that we are now firmly a nation of online shoppers," the release said, noting that consumers compare prices and consider purchases so they'll recognize a good deal and can snap it up.
"However, the most vulnerable consumers in the marketplace must spend thousands of dollars on a funeral and still cannot compare prices online," the consumer groups said. "Today, the Funeral Consumers Alliance and the Consumer Federation of America urged the FTC to change the Funeral Rule so consumers can make an informed decision on one of the largest purchases they will ever make."
The Funeral Rule requires those providing funeral services disclose basic price information "in a meaningful fashion." But it refers specifically to funeral cost disclosure done face to face or over the telephone.
According to the FTC, besides address pricing disclosure, the rule says that "the funeral provider may not refuse, or charge a fee, to handle a casket bought elsewhere, and a provider offering cremation must make alternative containers available. The FTC conducts undercover inspections every year to make sure that funeral homes are complying with the agency’s Funeral Rule."
In a letter to FTC secretary Donald S. Clark on behalf of the two consumer groups, attorney David Balto wrote that funerals should be handled differently than transactions where people have time to price shop and ponder their decisions at their own pace. "The Funeral Rule is an essential piece of consumer protection because 'normal' consumer behavior is not guaranteed in this transaction, due to the immense stress caused by the death of a loved one. Normally, when making a large purchase ($500 or more), consumers take an average of 68 days from the start of their research until the purchase is made."
He wrote that those shopping for large purchases typically "begin online but most ultimately buy in-store," adding that "neither of these luxuries are available to funeral consumers. The FTC cannot give consumers the ability to take their time when shopping for a funeral, but it can protect consumers who use the Internet. By adding an Internet provision to the Funeral Rule, the FTC ensures more transparency, facilitating competition in an industry marked by information asymmetry. Mandatory price disclosure is the cornerstone of the Funeral Rule and it should be upheld regardless of how consumers first come into contact with funeral homes."
Among other things, the groups suggest that listing prices online will help lower funeral costs overall.
The groups reported in October on a survey they conducted of 150 funeral homes — 15 each in 10 different large communities around the country. "The survey revealed significant price differences — for example, from $2,580 to $13,800 for a full-service funeral — and the failure of most funeral homes to disclose their prices adequately: Only 38 of the 150 homes (25 percent) fully disclosed prices on their websites, while 24 (16 percent) failed to fully disclose prices both on their website and in response to an email and a phone call."
The New York Daily News reported recently that more Americans are choosing cremation than burial these days, in part because it costs about a third less.
A list of seven ways to save on funeral costs by MarketWatch in 2014 noted, among other things, that people can provide their own caskets or urns. In the case of cremation, it may be cheaper to opt for a simple wooden box or cardboard container.
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