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Funeral homes could soon have to post prices online

FTC Chairperson Lina Khan, speaking at a Senate Committee hearing in 2021. Last week, the FTC moved closer to modernizing a rule that requires funeral businesses to provide prices to consumers when they visit or call.
SAUL LOEB
/
AP
FTC Chairperson Lina Khan, speaking at a Senate Committee hearing in 2021. Last week, the FTC moved closer to modernizing a rule that requires funeral businesses to provide prices to consumers when they visit or call.

Funeral homes around the country could soon be required to post a clear list of their prices online for services like burial and cremation, part of an updated federal rule designed to help consumers compare options after a loved one dies.

The Federal Trade Commission voted 4-0 last week to signal its intention to modernize a 1984 rule that requires funeral businesses to provide prices to consumers when they visit or call.

That existing rule predated the widespread use of the internet and mobile phones, and doesn't require those businesses, now known as death care providers, to post their prices online or even email them to consumers.

What the FTC called "potential amendments to the rule" could change that.

The FTC also released a staff review of funeral home websites. The review found that just under 25 percent of the sites provided a full list of prices. More than 60 percent offered no price information at all.

"Stories persist about consumers spending hours trying to answer the most basic questions about how much it will cost to bury their loved ones," FTC chair Lina M. Khan wrote in a separate statement. She cited a 2017 investigation by NPR into business practices in the death care industry.

The investigation into pricing and marketing in the funeral business found that consumers still have trouble figuring out how much services cost, and that the industry is often unhelpful.

"In the internet era, it's hard to see why anyone should have to physically visit or call multiple funeral homes just to compare prices," Khan wrote.

NPR's investigation found that funeral providers have been deliberately opaque to grieving consumers for strategic reasons, even offering the same services for different prices depending on the retail location.

Top death care industry representatives speaking at last week's FTC meeting said they opposed updating the funeral rule, arguing that posting prices should be a business decision and not a government mandate.

One of them was Gregory Sangalis, general counsel for Service Corporation International, or SCI, which operated nearly 1,500 funeral outlets and nearly 500 cemeteries across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico as of last year.

Sangalis told the commission that the rule is already working as intended and the FTC should not impose additional costs on businesses by changing it.

"Customers obtain the unique services they want, at fair prices, and with clarity about what they are getting for their money," he said. "We serve over 300,000 families each year and have seen no evidence that the rule is resulting in any unfair or deceptive conduct that warrants any changes."

Sangalis' company was featured in the NPR investigation as a business that sold identical cremation services at widely varying prices.

SCI, whose brands include Dignity Memorial, Neptune Society and National Cremation Society, also has told Wall Street investors it has strategically packaged its offerings to get customers to spend more.

The Funeral Consumers Alliance, a death care industry consumer group, called the FTC action "the biggest victory for funeral consumers since the Funeral Rule was made effective in 1984."

"Consumers can potentially save thousands of dollars by comparing funeral home price lists," said the group's executive director, Josh Slocum. " The typical funeral, according to the industry, costs over $7,000."

In a joint statement with the Consumer Federation of America, the group said that a requirement for online prices would cost virtually nothing, as funeral businesses already have digitized price lists that can easily be posted on their websites or social media pages.

Consumer advocates have long argued that those shopping for death care services are uniquely vulnerable. They're buying something unfamiliar, and can't easily compare prices. And, they're often under time pressure by a hospital or by family members to make arrangements quickly.

But Donald Otto of the Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association suggested that funeral consumers are no more vulnerable than consumers of other goods and services.

"For example, just this last week I went to three different bars in my hometown, and ordered the same drink at all three bars," Otto told the FTC. "At no time was I given a price list before I was served my drink. As a matter of fact, I was given different prices at different bars."

Otto said, "Where is the data that shows funeral establishments need to have a greater level of protection? I submit that there isn't any."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Robert Benincasa is a computer-assisted reporting producer in NPR's Investigations Unit.