In this column, we usually discuss ways to avoid scams and make smart choices for ourselves and our families regarding day-to-day decisions. But it’s important to talk about things that are difficult too, and nothing is more difficult that losing a loved one.
Most of us would rather not think about funerals, and as a result, we may find ourselves at a disadvantage when we must do so. Forced to make decisions about final arrangements quickly can make us vulnerable to scams.
Knowing our loved one’s wishes beforehand can help us make more informed choices when it comes time to make these difficult decisions. And knowing what is available before those difficult decisions must be made can help us navigate the confusing details.
Knowing your options and the laws that affect funeral homes will help you decide what is best for your family.
The “Funeral Rule”
The Federal Trade Commission requires funeral homes to provide three price lists to consumers when they call or visit for the first time:
- An itemized (detailed) list of all products and services offered
- Casket prices
- Grave liner/outer burial containers prices
It also forbids funeral homes from forcing customers to purchase unnecessary services. This ruling was put in place in 1984, before the internet. That means it doesn’t require these funeral homes to list their prices online. This makes it easier for funeral homes to scam customers – talking them into purchasing more expensive caskets and funeral packages, or convincing them to purchase an “add-on” that is already included in their package.
Insist on seeing these lists.
Common Funeral Home Scams
- Requiring unnecessary services or products
Some funeral homes will try to convince consumers to purchase extra services or products, calling them “requirements”. The two most common services and products they try to force on consumers are:
- Embalming; this is used to preserve the body, mainly for open-casket funerals.
- Protective caskets; these are supposed to preserve the body for longer and protect from water.
Long-range planning for a funeral is always a wise choice. It allows you and your family to compare prices and ensure that arrangements are exactly as you want them. It also can relieve your remaining family members of the financial burden of a funeral.
A few years ago, the FBI uncovered a prepaid burial plan that scammed 97,000 people in 16 states who lost more than $450 million dollars in goods and services that were never provided.
It may be a good idea, but ask yourself a couple of questions first- if you retire out of state, are those prepaid funds honored? Will the funeral home still be in business?
- Purchasing a casket when cremating
If you choose to have your loved one cremated, you are not required to purchase a finished casket – what would be the point? Some funeral homes require consumers to do so when it is not necessary, but if the body of your loved one needs to be held before cremation, you can choose to purchase an inexpensive unfinished or simple casket for that short period of time.
Like a casket, a funeral home should not charge you for embalmment when you are cremating as the body won’t need to be preserve for public viewing.
- “Grief counselors”
On-site “grief counselors” are supposed to help consumers and loved ones understand choices when planning a funeral and burial. However, many times these grief counselors will take advantage of you. They may try to convince you that the expensive options are “best for your family.” Only you can know what is best for your family, and it is most likely not to go into unnecessary debt.
What you can do
Plan before you need to act– Whether the planning is for yourself or a loved one, it’s always best to plan when you are not under stress. By planning ahead, you can avoid buying services you don’t need. Be sure to contact DCP if you find the funeral services or products provided do not comply with your contract, whether the services provided are for pre-paid or at-need purposes.
Get all agreements in writing – This is very important, even if a funeral home is legitimate and trying to do the right thing, and isn’t out to scam you; it is always a crucial to have written contracts to avoid miscommunication.
Ask for an itemized price list – You are entitled to see an itemized (detailed) price list when planning for a funeral, so make sure you ask for one before making any decisions or purchases.
Bring a family member or a friend – that person can help keep you rational and objective. Being with someone you trust will help you avoid scams. There are many things we must consider when losing a loved one; arranging for the service and the burial should not cause more suffering.
If you have a complaint against a funeral home or believe you’ve been scammed, you can:
- File an official complaint with the funeral home
- File a complaint with the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection: http://www.portal.ct.gov/DCP/Complaint-Center/Consumers—Complaint-Center
- File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission: ftc.gov/complaint
This article was written by Catherine Blinder, chief education and outreach officer of the Department of Consumer Protection of the State of Connecticut. To learn more about how the Department of Consumer Protection can help, visit us online at www.ct.gov/dcp.