The Funeral Rule: Protecting Death’s Grieving Survivors

TL;DR

The Funeral Rule protects death’s grieving survivors as they shop for funeral services. The federal government conducts periodic checks for compliance. But personal knowledge of the Rule provides a preemptive strike against zealous funeral directors.

Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes

Ignorance of the Funeral Rule Gifts Bliss to the Funeral Parlor

Death quakes surviving loved ones. Emotionally devastated by a new reality, these same survivors soon stumble to a building emblazoned with a “Funeral Services” sign. Their goal: arrange a fine send-off for a treasured soul. The scenario, ripe for abuse, triggers The Funeral Rule.

Our state and federal governments each present a set of funeral industry mandates. The moment of inquiry sparks the Funeral Rule’s operation. Unlike many legal obligations, funeral industry members encounter scant difficulty interpreting the rules. But many persist in deliberately neglecting the duties imposed by the Funeral Rule. Reason? They remain confident most Americans remain unaware of the Rule’s existence. End result: those suffering intense heartache incur unwarranted financial grief, at the hands of those flouting this law.

How to Help the Grieving

The grief instilled by death saturates the senses, drowning the common sense accompanying standard purchases. Death travels with its BFF, guilt. Convinced they coulda woulda shoulda done something more while the loved one still breathed, survivors zero in on perceived personal failings. Guilt masters immunity, ignoring educational degrees and life experience. As those closest to death’s recent claim view the last-journey offerings, guilt infects decisions. Assuaging the guilt translates into no expense spared, courtesy of the subtle yet effective machinations of the funeral director’s manipulation of that guilt.

The grief instilled by death saturates the senses.
The grief instilled by death saturates the senses, drowning the common sense accompanying standard purchases. (Ring-Billed Gull, Virginia Beach)

You want to help, but stand powerless to sandbag the waves of tortuous pain. This post provides your weapon: vital information. Understand: lecturing those on the front lines of Nature’s handiwork will exacerbate rather than resolve the dilemma confronted. My technique: I accompany these folks during the funeral parlor visit. With a tone of respect, I interject questions designed to forewarn funeral personnel:we know our rights.

What is “The Funeral Rule?”

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a U.S. government agency, enjoys power to create and enforce assorted rules. Lawyers call these agency rules/laws regulations. A group of regulations sometimes yields a short naming reference. Here, that name is the Funeral Rule.

In a nutshell, the Funeral Rule demands certain information be made available to every consumer of funeral services, at the point of inquiry. The goal: instill awareness of purchase options, to the penny. Example: funeral parlors love bundling, presenting an “all-inclusive” package “designed to save money.” But bundling typically includes embalming. As the FTC clarifies:

No state law requires routine embalming for every death. Some states require embalming or refrigeration if the body is not buried or cremated within a certain time; some states don’t require it at all. In most cases, refrigeration is an acceptable alternative.

The Federal Funeral Rule

A Brief Review of the Rule’s History

In 1963, Jessica Mitford published her investigation of America’s funeral industry: The American Way of Death. As the book gained iconic status, studies of the industry ensued. Following hearings and commentary, the FTC authored the Funeral Rule, establishing an April 30, 1984 effective date. As a 1984 Washington Post article notes:

In its decade of study, the FTC found consumers were unaware that no state requires embalming except in rare cases of infectious disease or long waits for disposition.

Cliff Notes version: a litany of horror stories coaxed redress by the federal government.

Subsequent hearings in 2000 present detailed evidence of the import of the Funeral Rule. Numerous articles reflect a similar focus (next section).

The Particulars of the FTC’s Funeral Rule

The FTC devotes a number of web pages to its Funeral Rule. Combined, they present a plain language review of aspects of the Rule. The tutorials begin with a page entitled The FTC Funeral Rule. That page links to related FTC pages, such as Shopping for Funeral Services which lists the following rights:

  • Buy only the funeral arrangements you want.
  • Get price information on the telephone.
  • Get a written, itemized price list when you visit a funeral home.
  • See a written casket price list before you see the actual caskets.
  • See a written outer burial container price list.
  • Receive a written statement after you decide what you want, and before you pay.
  • Get an explanation in the written statement from the funeral home that describes any legal cemetery or crematory requirement that requires you to buy any funeral goods or services.
  • Use an “alternative container” instead of a casket for cremation.
  • Provide the funeral home with a casket or urn you buy elsewhere.
  • Make funeral arrangements without embalming.
Learn about the Funeral Rule, so you can lift a few clouds engulfing grieving loved ones. (Rocky Mount, NC)
Learn about the Funeral Rule, so you can lift a few clouds engulfing grieving loved ones. (Rocky Mount, NC)

Note the right sidebar appearing on the FTC pages, linking to pages presenting details underlying the listed items outlined above. Among the sidebar-links address:

  • Funeral Costs & Pricing Checklist (a must read)
  • Types of Funerals
  • Choosing a Funeral Provider
  • Buying a Cemetary Plot
  • Planning Your Own Funeral
  • Funeral Terms and Contact Information

In a nutshell, consumer protections instilled by the Rule require, e.g. precise price disclosure. Funeral personnel must provide a written itemized price list (GPL, General Price List), yours to keep. If inquiry is made by phone:

Funeral directors must give you price information on the telephone if you ask for it. You don’t have to give them your name, address, or telephone number first. Although they are not required to do so, many funeral homes mail their price lists, and some post them online. (Source: see previous linked FTC resource)

Do make the time to review each of the pages appearing in the right sidebar of the FTC pages. Vigilance requires nothing less.

The FTC performs annual spot-checks to determine the level of compliance with its Rule. Example: FTC Undercover Inspections of Funeral Homes in Nine States Prompt Compliance with Funeral Rule Disclosure Requirements.

Additional articles offer further enlightenment.

✧︎︎︎ National Public Radio (NPR)

Earlier this year (2017), NPR detailed its investigative findings regarding funeral pricing. Both a two-part posting and audible recording are available: Despite Decades-Old Law, Funeral Prices Are Still Unclear. Translation: those unaware of the Rule fall financial victim to the soothing voice of a “helpful” funeral director.

✧︎︎︎ National Care Planning Council

This stellar resource informs How the Funeral Rule Helps Consumers. Midway down this page, you’ll notice Common Misrepresentationsmandatory reading, folks!

✧︎︎︎ Funeral Consumers Alliance

Your Funeral Rights include securing a casket —perhaps the most expensive commodity hawked by funeral homes— from a third party. That includes online purchases. One comparative illustration: the average cost of a funeral home’s casket runs from $2000 to above $10,000. The pricing of similar caskets, when purchased online, dwindles significantly. Read: your jaw will drop. See, e.g. OverNightCaskets.1

✧︎︎︎ Time Magazine

When Putting a Loved One to Rest, Avoid These Misleading Sales Tactics. Dated November 9, 2012.

✧︎︎︎ IRE: Investigative Reporters and Editors

While the articles ferreted by a “funeral industry” search at this site are not linked, the blurbs provided, together with detailed source, provide ample information for further exploration.

The Companion Funeral Rules of the States

(Norfolk Botanical Garden, Virginia)
(Norfolk Botanical Garden, Virginia)

The federal Funeral Rule reigns supreme. 50 states and numerous possessions form the United States of America. Empowered to pass their own laws, each state can add to the protections afforded by the Feds. But none can subtract from the federal protections. Detailing the nuances of each state’s law requires a book. But resources abound addressing the what about my state question.

Before listing meaty articles, know: interpretive caselaw (opinions explaining decisions, written by the deciding judge) clarifies nuances of the Funeral Rule.

✧︎︎︎ FuneralWise

This page opens with a questionable declaration:

The funeral home industry is regulated on a state-by-state basis.

The funeral home industry is regulated first by the federal government, through the FTC’s Funeral Rule. Companion state regulations may impose additional duties on funeral services personnel.

Consider this page a broad overview of the impact of the Funeral Rule, from the funeral industry’s perspective. My intent in listing this resource: give you an overall flavor of the various issues involved.

✧︎︎︎ 9News: Colorado’s News Leader

The title of this page cements its informational purpose: 7 lies your funeral home director might tell you.

✧︎︎︎ FuneralPlan: State Laws for Funeral Service Providers

Presented by a funeral industry member, the linked listing transports you to the applicable law of each state.

✧︎︎︎ Cremation Laws by State

Cremation.com provides this listing, pinpointing each state agency tasked with overseeing the funeral industry, as well as its

  • snail-mail address
  • phone number
  • email address, and
  • relevant state government website

to secure further funeral-focused information.

✧︎︎︎ Fashioning a Comprehensive State-Research Methodology

(a/k/a what to plug into the google search form)

Laws change. The revision may source in a legislative or regulatory body, or it may result from one or more court opinions. Only one trained/skilled in legal research (i.e. an attorney), interpretating the findings and applying it to your particular situation, can provide adequate advice. This reality explains why this page is educational in nature, not legal advice.

Search to learn how your state treats the Funeral Rule. You may unearth additional protections.
Search to learn how your state treats the Funeral Rule. You may unearth additional protections.

However, you can gain familiarity with frequently encountered issues (e.g. embalming, cremation, caskets). The following suggested google searches will assist in uncovering resources which discuss various aspects of your state’s treatment of the Funeral Rule:

  1. “funeral rule” embalming caskets (price|pricing) Maine site:*.gov
  2. “funeral rule” embalming caskets (price|pricing) Maine site:*.org
  3. “funeral rule” embalming caskets (price|pricing) Maine

Substitute the name of your state for Maine. The first search restricts your hunt to government sites, the premier authority in this area. The second search queries only .org sites, likely to present information in a consumer-friendly manner. The third search covers everything everywhere, in the default English language. Of course, you can choose other keywords. I suggest the listed keywords because the combination is likely to unearth pages with more comprehensive information.

To tame the responsive deluge of search hits, look for the Search Tools link appearing directly underneath Google’s search bar. When you tap it, two new linked options appear: Any Time, and All Results. Tap Any Time, then choose Past Year. This provides the freshest publications, limited to those pages posted within the past year, calculated backward from the date of your search. Feel free to experiment with the time options Google provides.

Related Issues, e.g. Full-Body Donation

Full-body donation offers a lasting legacy, through the mechanism of medical research. The donation typically incurs no fees. The medical organization absorbs costs associated with transport, and just about everything else. To clarify: $0 from your pocket.

A phone call to an dedicated organization starts the process, including arranging transport. Multiple forms require signature. Cost-free options include cremation with return of the ashes to you. If end of life occurs in a hospice setting, that hospice will provide detailed information, pertinent to the location, upon request.

Additional educational resources include:

  • aCremation: Busting myths about body donation
  • LifeShare of the Carolinas: Whole Body Donation
  • MedCure: Give Back by Helping Advance Medical Science (12 page PDF)

As these and other articles make clear, whole body donation precludes organ donation. (Source: OrganDonor.gov. See section: “Can I be an organ and tissue donor and also donate my body to medical science?“).

Incidentally, while we’re on the subject of death-induced expenses, be aware: low to no-cost euthanasia options exist for beloved pets.

Call to Action

The internet presents golden self-education opportunities. Please, exploit that reality — soon!

FootNotes

  1. I’ve not personally dealt with OverNightCaskets.com, so I’m unable to make a personal judgment call. As should be standard with every online purchase, Google the resource for consumer opinions, e.g.”OverNightCaskets.com” review -site:overnightcaskets.com