Consumer Protection: Funeral Planning

When a loved one dies, difficult and sometimes costly decisions about a funeral have to be made quickly, often under great emotional stress. Your emotional state may dictate decisions not in your best interests. You may want to consult with a disinterested person, perhaps a clergyman or an experienced friend, if you feel unable to objectively evaluate a funeral provider's products and services.

For example, sometimes manufacturers of caskets and burial vaults give to the funeral providers promotional materials that may appeal to the desire to protect the physical remains of the deceased. They may do this by making false or exaggerated claims about the durability of their products. They may make insupportable claims that their products are “waterproof” or impermeable to the elements. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued orders against some manufacturers, prohibiting them from making such false or deceptive durability claims.

This article discusses caskets and burial vaults, their use, and their protective claims. It also briefly discusses the option of funeral pre-planning, and lists organizations you may contact for further information.

Caskets

A casket, also called a coffin, is frequently the single most expensive funeral item you may have to buy if you are planning a traditional funeral. A casket is not required for a direct cremation or an immediate burial. With the latter, the body is generally buried without viewing or embalming and is generally placed in an alternative container made of unfinished wood, pressboard, cardboard, or canvas.

Caskets vary widely in style and price and typically are sold for their visual appeal. They generally are made of metal or wood, although some are constructed of fiberglass or plastic. Most metal caskets are made from rolled steel in different gauges -- the lower the gauge, the thicker the steel. Wooden caskets come in hardwood, softwood and plywood.

The terms “gasketed,” “protective,” and “sealer” are frequently used to describe a metal casket. These terms mean that the casket has a rubber gasket or other features that delay the penetration of water and prevent rust. Some metal caskets come with a warranty for longevity. Protective features in caskets add to their cost.

Unlike metal caskets, wooden caskets generally are not gasketed and do not carry a warranty for longevity. However, manufacturers of both wooden and metal caskets usually warrant workmanship and materials.

Burial Vaults or Grave Liners

Often, cemeteries require a burial vault or a grave liner to enclose the casket in a grave. The casket is placed into either a vault or a liner to prevent the ground from caving in as the casket deteriorates. A grave liner, also called a “rough box,” is made of reinforced concrete and lowered into the grave prior to burial. A burial vault is more substantial and expensive than a grave liner, is typically sold for its visual appeal, and is usually gasketed. Most vaults are constructed of steel-reinforced concrete and lined with other materials, including plastic. Like some caskets, the vault may be sold with a warranty of protective strength.

Preservative and Protective Claims

Under the federal law (US), funeral providers are prohibited from making claims that funeral goods, such as caskets or vaults, will keep out water, dirt, and other gravesite substances when that is not true. The law also prohibits funeral providers from telling you a particular funeral item or service can indefinitely preserve a body in the grave. Such claims are untrue.

Pre-planning Funerals

Decisions about purchasing funeral goods and services are often made when people are grieving and under time constraints. For this reason, some people choose to prearrange a funeral. If you are considering prearranging a funeral for yourself or for a loved one, ask funeral directors about the different types of dispositions and ceremonies available. At the same time, scrutinize claims made by the manufacturers of such products as caskets and burial vaults.

The law requires funeral directors to itemize prices and provide consumers with price lists, and price information over the phone, which are essential for comparing costs.

If you are considering pre-paying for funeral goods and services, there are a number of issues to consider and questions to ask before pre-paying for funeral arrangements.

  • Be sure you know what you are paying for. Are you buying only merchandise, such as a casket and vault, or are you purchasing funeral services as well?
  • What happens to money you have pre-paid? Some states have different requirements concerning the handling of funds paid for pre-arranged funeral services.
  • What happens to the interest income on money that is pre-paid and put into a trust account?
  • Are you protected if the firm with which you are doing business should go out of business?
  • Can you cancel the contract and get back any money you have pre-paid if you should change your mind about the pre-planned funeral?
  • What if you should move to a different area or death occurs away from home? Some pre-paid funeral plans can be transferred, but often there is an added cost in doing so.

In addition, it is important to keep copies of any documents that you sign or that are given to you at the time pre-arrangements are made. It also is especially important to inform family members about such plans and arrangements and the whereabouts of these documents.

For More Information

Most states have a licensing board that regulates the funeral industry. You may contact the licensing board in your state for information or help.

You also may contact the Funeral Service Consumer Assistance Program (FSCAP). This is a program designed to assist consumers and funeral directors in resolving disagreements about funeral service contracts. FSCAP is a service of the National Research and Information Center, an independent, nonprofit organization that researches and provides consumer information on death, grief, and funeral service. You may contact FSCAP at:
2250 E. Devon Avenue Suite 250
Des Plaines, Illinois 60018
1-800-662-7666

For Further Help

If you have a problem concerning funeral matters, first try to resolve it with your funeral director. If you are dissatisfied, contact your state or local consumer protection agencies listed in your telephone book or FSCAP, at the numbers listed above.

You can file a complaint with the FTC by contacting the Consumer Response Center by phone: toll-free 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357); TDD: 202-326-2502; by mail: Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20580; or through the Internet, using the online complaint form. Although the Commission cannot resolve individual problems for consumers, it can act against a company if it sees a pattern of possible law violations.

Source: Federal Trade Commission, November 1996

Available from ElderCare Online™            www.ec-online.net             1999 Prism Innovations, Inc.