FUNERAL AND MEMORIAL SERVICES
One consumer service that almost everyone will need is assistance at the time of death. This will be true even if you decide on immediate burial or cremation with a memorial service in your church. Although it is possible for families to handle disposition of the remains of loved ones without commercial assistance, few choose to do so. Depending on the amount of advance planning the individual has done the last rites can be expensive but impersonal, or reasonably-priced and comforting to loved ones. Planning ahead cannot only personalize the result but can save hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars.
Costs associated with funerals and cemeteries have escalated in recent years. People in this country pay many times what those in other developed countries pay to lay loved ones to rest with respect. Although there are ethical business people involved in the death industry who aim for good service at a fair profit and who contribute to the communities in which they operate, there are a growing number whose apparent goal is to maximize profit. There are few times when families are easier to manipulate, and too many funeral and cemetery providers have been quick to take advantage of that. This has been a huge consumer problem for decades, not only in Alabama, but around the country. Americans typically spend far more for final rites that those in other developed countries.
Although there have long been federal rules to protect funeral consumers, until recently Alabama offered no consumer protection at all The Alabama Preneed and Funeral Act, passed in May of 2002, was the first Alabama law protecting consumers from unethical funeral providers. Amendments were added in 2008, effective in January 2009. The Act requires those who sell funeral or cemetery merchandise pursuant to pre-need contracts to obtain a “Certificate of Authority” .There are reporting obligations for certificate-holders, and requirements to set aside or purchase insurance to cover a portion of consumers’ pre-need contract payments. Critics contend that regulations remain inadequate, but they do provide significant protection for Alabama consumers. The Alabama Department of Insurance is responsible for compliance with this law. Cemetery operations remain largely unregulated.
Mortuaries are heavily regulated as regards health-related matters, but the Board that regulates them, all of whose members are funeral home owners, may not have enough funds to assure that all operators are following the rules. Cemeteries are largely unregulated.
Like any business, a funeral homemust be paid for the services it renders and the merchandise it sells l. Some are concerned about their customers and try to give the kind of service that good business operations of any kind do. But large chains have bought many formerly community-owned funeral homes, often keeping the name of the original owner. Businesses survive through making a reasonable profit, but unconscionable levels of profit are not unusual in the death industry. You can help to assure that your transaction returns a fair profit for the establishment and good services for your loved one.
While planning ahead is always wise, paying ahead may not be, especially if the likely need is far in the future. In a mobile society people of any age often move, and funeral providers are not always helpful in arranging for refunds or transfers of pre-paid funds to a provider in the new location.
Even when funds are put into escrow there can be problems for the consumer. What if you move? What if the decisions made years ago do not fit present circumstances? Can you get all or part of your money back or transfer the contract to another funeral home? Do not sign a “pre-need” contract without understanding what would happen if your needs change.
Get a price list. Visit at least three funeral homes, and ask for price lists of services and products. Federal law requires funeral homes to provide such lists on request; if they refuse to do so, leave. If a funeral home will not even comply with the law and show you what it charges, it is not likely to be a business you can trust to provide the best value for your money.
Caskets and cremation containers. When ground burial is chosen, the casket is usually the single most expensive item involved in the last rites. Caskets can be purchased anywhere, at the best price you can find. The funeral home must accept a casket or urn from another source and may not charge “handling fees’ or any other fee for doing so. This is one good reason for obtaining a price list. You need to see what a funeral home is charging for “overhead”. Funeral
homes are allowed to charge a flat fee for overhead, over and above what they make from products and services. Before you negotiate, you need to know what that charge is.
There are other sources for caskets, urns and cremation containers. Independent suppliers often charge far less for exactly the same product and still make a profit. There is tremendous markup on these products, which are, after all, boxes. Ask around to see if your city has an independent provider; many do. It may be part of another business. Funeral Consumers Alliance is a consumer advocacy organization that may be able to provide the names of some ethical providers in your area (see reference at the end of this article).
It is possible to buy a casket, urn or cremation container on the Internet, but this also requires time and careful inquiry. You can pay too much on the Internet just as you can in your home town. You can research on the Internet and learn what wholesale prices are for items you are interested in. You can insist that the funeral home’s profit be a fair and reasonable one and not the inflated markup so common in the industry.
Embalming. Embalming is not required by law except in unusual circumstances such as shipping out of state. It provides no public health protections; it only delays decomposition somewhat. (We are all going to end up the same way it will just take longer if the body is embalmed.)
Although not required by law, for obvious reasons embalming is usually insisted on by funeral homes if there is to be an open casket service or the funeral will not occur for several days. For direct burial or cremation, embalming is not required or usually needed and in many cases is primarily a source of income for the funeral home.
Vaults. The purpose of a vault is to prevent the ground from sinking and to make upkeep easier for the cemetery. Ask about a grave liner instead; it protects the coffin and provides the same benefit for the cemetery, and costs less.
Sealer Caskets. No casket or modern process will preserve a body forever. Several hundred dollars added to the price of a casket for a “sealer” cannot guarantee that, and in fact in this hot climate a sealer can actually cause a body to deteriorate to a disgusting soup, rather than dehydrating naturally. That is not what consumers have in mind when they pay many times the cost of a gasket for a “sealer”.
Cremation. Cremation is becoming more and more popular, not just because of cost, but also because of flexibility. Most religious groups approve of cremation (one exception is the Jewish faith) and an increasing number of churches provide columbariums. The body is cremated directly and the ashes are given to the family or sent to the church. There is a service in the church following which the ashes are placed in a niche topped with the name, birth and death dates of the loved one. Placement in a columbarium is not necessarily an inexpensive alternative to ground burial, but cremation generally can be considerably less expensive. It also provides flexibility regarding what is done with remains; they can be placed in a garden, scattered over a much-loved piece of land or body of water, or even buried at the gravesite of a loved one. There are few restrictions on disposition; Alabama has none.
There are a number of crematoria around the state, and if possible, it is likely to be less expensive to make direct arrangements with them than to pay a funeral home that simply ships the body to the crematorium. It is not necessary to purchase a casket for cremation; this is done in a much less expensive “cremation container”. If there is a service with the body present you may want to purchase a casket, or you can ask about renting one for the service only. Most of those who opt for cremation, however, prefer direct cremation with a memorial service at a place that has meaning for loved ones. Pictures of the deceased may be placed around the site, and perhaps food is catered or brought by friends. Some sort of ceremony is desirable, along with an opportunity to laugh, cry and reminisce.
These are only a few of the things you should investigate ahead of time. Make your decisions and plans now, instead of leaving them to be made by a grief-stricken (and vulnerable) family and friends after your death.
The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) provides free brochures explaining the Funeral Rule. Write Public Reference, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580, and ask for: Funerals: Consumer Rights Under the Funeral Rule. You can also copy the brochure from online at http://www.ftc.gov/funerals/., or telephone 202-326-2222 (TDD 202-326-2502 in Washington; 404-347-4836 for the Atlanta regional office. The web site for obtaining information or making a complaint is www.ftc.gov
Funeral Consumers Alliance is the only national funeral consumer advocacy group and it offers many helpful publications at minimal cost. The web site is www.funerals.org. . Telephone 800-765-0107 to join or order materials. One helpful brochure is "Common Funeral Myths."AARP, a non-profit, non-partisan organization of and for seniors, has information about pre-need planning on its web site: www.aarp.org.