Dead reckoning: Require funeral costs online, consumer groups say

funeral jpegAlmost every industry has been transformed by the Internet, but funeral homes are out of step in an important way, consumer groups say — and this week they called for the Federal Trade Commission to require funeral homes to disclose costs online.

“Especially for such an expensive purchase by vulnerable consumers, quick access to price information is vital,” said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.

Three out of four funeral homes do not provide prices online, a survey by consumer groups found. Yet costs for a full-service funeral can vary hugely across the country, from $2,580 to $13,800, their research showed.

“Consumers expect to get information online, which is why we undertook this survey and are urging the FTC to update the rule,” Brobeck said.

In West Palm Beach, Tillman Funeral Home & Crematory owner Brad Zahn said he has posted prices online in the past, but decided to take the information down. He is happy to provide it by phone, email or in person, he said.

“If you take Palm Beach County funeral homes as a whole, very few providers are putting their general price list online,” Zahn, 56, said. “I don’t think a price list tells the whole story.”

He could live with a requirement to put prices on the web, he said, but he is not sure the government needs to be in the business of forcing all funeral homes to do it.

“It’s a sensitive time,” Zahn said. “Families need more than a price. They need to speak to someone.”

The Funeral Consumers Alliance and CFA said they are petitioning the FTC to update 1980s-era rules that require disclosure of costs by phone or in person but not online. They called for the agency to amend rules by the end of 2016, instead of waiting for a scheduled review by 2019.

Between now and 2019, Americans will spend an expected $50 billion on funerals, the consumer groups said.

The National Funeral Directors Association believes federal rules need to be “redesigned and redrafted to address the realities of the funeral market in 2016,” spokeswoman Jessica Koth said.

The association does not take a position on an accelerated review, and leaves it to individual business owners to determine whether to post prices online, she said. She noted an exception for the state of California, where posting prices online is a requirement of state law.

Her group hopes the review “will result in positive changes,” Koth said.

Only 25 percent of 150 U.S. funeral homes surveyed by the consumer groups fully disclosed prices online, and 16 percent failed to reveal the full costs even after follow-ups by email and phone, officials said.

Not knowing the true costs can be expensive for grieving families, especially at a traumatic time when many find it difficult to shop around, the advocacy groups said.

“The Federal Trade Commission should update antiquated disclosure rules developed in the pre-Internet 1980s,” said Josh Slocum, executive director of Funeral Consumers Alliance. “Almost all funeral home websites feature stories on how the funeral home has been providing caring, compassionate service since the days of the horse and buggy but nothing about how much it actually costs.”

 

 

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