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If you’ve had problems arranging a funeral, tell the FTC as it looks at changes to its Funeral Rule

Coffin-1177014_1920In Tuesday’s email, I received a notice from the Federal Trade Commission that outlines its proposal to reexamine the Funeral Rule. The rule, adopted in 1984, protects consumers from unfair and deceptive practices in the sale of funeral products and services.

My heart sank when I read the email. With the Trump administration destroying laws on pesticides, clean water, consumer protection, and many others, I worried this is another attempt to hurt consumers.

My first prize-winning article as a journalist was on funeral costs. I’m including the article in the book I’m writing on my journalism career, “Follow the Money: My Life as a Financial Journalist.”

When I set out to write the article in 1981, all the funeral directors I interview in Spokane, Washington, where I lived at the time, said they always told consumers about the costs of goods and services. They also said they didn’t disparage cremation, a less expensive alternative to the traditional funeral.

Complaints about these issues led the FTC to investigate funeral costs and adopt the Funeral Rule.

Since I hadn’t received much information from funeral directors for my article, I did a telephone survey of consumers about their experiences arranging funerals. It showed about a quarter of them didn’t understand or weren’t aware of the cost of funeral goods and services they’d purchased.

The leader of an organization dedicated to protecting people’s rights to a meaningful, dignified, and affordable funeral said he’s excited about the FTC’s updating the Funeral Rule.

“We’ve been pushing for it for quite a while,” Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, said in a telephone interview.

The alliance wants to see a requirement that funeral price lists be included on the websites for funeral homes. Now, consumers can only get a price list when they go to a funeral home.

Slocum doesn’t think the FTC’s look at the Funeral Rule is an attempt to gut it. The FTC’s examination includes a provision on whether the Funeral Rule is too expensive for funeral homes.

It would be quite difficult for the FTC to weaken or eliminate the Funeral Rule, Slocum said, adding he didn’t think there’s a danger of that.

The alliance also would like to see changes in how funeral homes who violate the Funeral Rule are handled.

Currently, funeral homes that violate the price list disclosure requirements for the first time can enter the Funeral Rule Offender’s Program, a training program run by the National Funeral Directors Association to increase compliance with the funeral rule. That way they avoid possibly penalties of up to $40,654 per violation. Funeral homes that take part in the program make a voluntary payment to the U.S. Treasury in place of a penalty and pay annual administrative fees to the NFDA.

Slocum said the names of the “bad actors” aren’t included in the news release about the number of violations found by undercover FTC investigators. “The names are being kept from the public,” he said, “which is ridiculous.

“The FTC refuses to tell the public so they’ll know which [funeral homes] to avoid,” said Slocum.

Price lists also need to be more clear, he said. Slocum’s been “grading” them for compliance for years and about 50 percent have Funeral Rule violations.

Consumers have 60 days from the publication of the notice in the Federal Register to give their opinions on updating the Funeral Rule. The FTC said it will be published soon.

“It’s time for you to speak up and use your voice,” Slocum said, adding the FTC does pay attention to consumers’ comments.

If you’ve experienced high-pressure sales tactics at a funeral home or had problems understanding the price list, let the FTC know.

Slocum advises consumers to know their rights when it comes to funeral costs. They should figure out how much they can afford, set a budget, and shop around. See Don’t Know Where to Begin? Start Here on the alliance website for more information.

The FTC is seeking comments on whether:

  • Consumers have benefited from the Funeral Rule.
  • The rule imposes any significant costs on funeral providers.
  • Changes in technology or the economy require changes to the rule.
  • New unfair or deceptive industry practices exist that could be addressed by changes to the rule.
  • Providers should be required to post their itemized price lists online.
  • Itemized price lists should have a standard format to help consumers compare prices between providers and help providers comply with the rule.

The Funeral Rule requires funeral providers to give consumers itemized price information up front, and to provide additional information about the price of caskets and burial vaults when discussing or showing those items.

It also gives consumers the right to buy just the funeral goods and services they want and need from the provider. Funeral providers are required to allow customers to purchase caskets elsewhere, and can’t charge “handling fees” when customers do.

The rule also prohibits funeral providers from making misrepresentations, such as stating that embalming is required when it isn’t, and prohibits funeral providers from embalming remains for a fee without authorization from the customer.

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