Tips for Purchasing Funeral Services

Each year, Americans arrange more than 2 million funerals for family and friends. Because funerals can cost thousands of dollars, you should be aware of federal regulations that can help protect you from overpaying.

Federal laws in the US, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, make it easier for you to choose only those goods and services you want or need and to pay for only those you select. According to the law, you can find out the cost of individual items whether you shop by telephone or in person.

If you inquire about funeral arrangements in person, the funeral home must give you a written price list of available goods and services. Keep in mind that when you arrange for a funeral, you can buy a package of goods and services or individual items. If you want to buy a casket for example, the funeral provider must supply lists that describe the available selections and their prices.

Telephone Price Disclosures

You can shop by phone to compare prices among funeral providers. Getting price information over the phone may help you select a funeral home and the arrangements you want.

When you call a funeral provider to ask about terms, conditions, or prices of funeral goods and services, the funeral provider must give you prices and other information from the price lists to answer your questions reasonably.

General Price List

If you inquire in person about funeral arrangements, the funeral provider will give you a general price list that contains the cost of each funeral item and service offered. Use this information to help select the funeral provider and funeral items you want, need, and can afford.

The price list also must include information about embalming, caskets for cremation, and required purchases.

Embalming Information

The law requires funeral providers to give consumers information about embalming. Under the law, a funeral provider:

  • may not falsely state that embalming is required by law
    .
  • must disclose in writing that embalming is not required by law, except in certain special cases.
  • may not charge a fee for unauthorized embalming unless embalming is required by state law.
  • will disclose in writing that you usually have the right to choose a disposition — such as direct cremation or immediate burial — if you do not want embalming.
  • will disclose to you in writing that certain funeral arrangements, such as a funeral with viewing, may make embalming a practical necessity and, so, a required purchase.

Cash Advance Sales

The law requires funeral providers to disclose in writing if they charge a fee for buying cash advance items — goods or services that funeral providers pay for on your behalf. Examples of cash advance items are flowers, obituary notices, pallbearers, and clergy honoraria. Some funeral providers charge you their cost for these items. Others add a service fee to their cost. The law requres funeral providers to tell you when a service fee is added to the price of cash advance items, or if there are refunds, discounts, or rebates from the supplier on any cash advance item.

Caskets for Cremation

Some consumers may want to select direct cremation — cremation of the deceased without a viewing or other ceremony where the body is present. If you choose a direct cremation, the funeral provider will offer an inexpensive alternative container or an unfinished wood box. An alternative container is a non-metal enclosure — pressboard, cardboard, or canvas — to hold the deceased.

Because any container you buy will be destroyed during the cremation, you may wish to use an alternative container or an unfinished wood box. These could lower the funeral cost because they are less expensive than traditional caskets.

Under the law, funeral directors who offer direct cremations:

  • may not tell you that state or local law requires a casket for direct cremations;
  • must disclose in writing your right to buy an unfinished wood box (a type of casket) or an alternative container for a direct cremation; and
  • must make an unfinished wood box or alternative container available for direct cremation.

Required Purchases

You do not have to buy goods or services you don't want, or pay any fees as a condition to obtaining the products and services you do want, except one permitted fee for the services of the funeral director and staff, and the fees for the goods and services you select or state law requires. Under the Funeral Rule:

  • you have the right to choose the funeral goods and services you want, with some exceptions.
  • the funeral provider must disclose this right in writing on the general price list.
  • the funeral provider must disclose the specific state law that requires you to purchase any particular item on your itemized statement of goods and services selected.
  • the funeral provider may not refuse, or charge a fee, to handle a casket you bought elsewhere.

Statement of Funeral Goods and Services Selected

The funeral provider will give you an itemized statement of the total cost of the funeral goods and services you select. This statement also will disclose any legal, cemetery, or crematory requirements that require you to purchase any specific funeral goods or services.

The funeral provider must give you this statement after you select the funeral goods and services that you would like. The statement includes the prices of the individual items you are considering for purchase, as well as the total price, in one place. You can decide whether to add or subtract items. If the cost of cash advance items is not known at this time, the funeral provider must write down a “good faith estimate.” The law does not require any specific form for this information. Funeral providers may include it in any document they give you at the end of your discussion about funeral arrangements.

Preservative and Protective Claims

The Funeral Rule prohibits funeral providers from telling you a particular funeral item or service can preserve the body of the deceased indefinitely in the grave. For example, funeral providers may not claim that embalming or a particular type of casket will preserve the deceased's body for an unlimited time.

The law also prohibits funeral providers from making claims that funeral goods, such as caskets or vaults, will keep out water, dirt, or other gravesite substances if that is not true.

Other Considerations

Most decisions about purchasing funeral goods and services are made by people when they are grieving and under time constraints. Thinking ahead may help you make informed and thoughtful decisions about funeral arrangements, allow you to choose the specific items you want and need and compare prices offered by one or more funeral providers.

If you decide to make advance plans about funeral arrangements either for yourself or a loved one, you can choose among several types of dispositions and ceremonies. Your choice will affect the cost. Some people prefer a ceremonial service, religious or secular, with the body present. Others prefer cremation, which may be performed directly or after a ceremony. In addition, the deceased body may be donated (either directly or after a ceremony) to a medical or educational institution. To help ensure that your wishes are carried out, you may want to write down your preferences, and tell relatives and family friends what you decided.

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.

If you want additional information about how to make funeral arrangements and the options available, you may want to contact interested business, professional, and consumer groups. Some of the largest include:

Funeral and Memorial Societies of America
P.O. Box 10
Hinesburg, VT 05461
1-800-458-5563

FAMSA is a consumer organization that disseminates information about alternatives for funeral or non-funeral dispositions. It encourages advance planning and cost efficiency.

Cremation Association of North America
401 North Michigan Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60611
(312) 644-6610

CANA is an association of crematories, cemeteries, and funeral homes that offer cremation. More than 750 members own and operate crematories and encourage the concept of memorialization.

International Order of the Golden Rule
P.O. Box 3586
Springfield, Illinois 62708
(217) 793-3322

OGR is an international association of independent funeral homes. Membership is by invitation only. Approximately 1,500 funeral homes are members of OGR.

Jewish Funeral Directors of America
Seaport Landing
150 Lynnway, Suite 506
Lynn, Massachusetts 09102
(617) 477-9300

JFDA is a national trade association of funeral directors serving the Jewish community. It has approximately 200 members.

National Funeral Directors Association
13625 Bishop's Drive
Brookfield, Wisconsin 53005
(414) 789-1880
1-800-228-6332

NFDA is the largest educational and professional association of funeral directors. It has 14,000 members throughout the United States.

National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association
3951 Snapfinger Parkway, Suite 570
Decatur, Georgia 30035
(404) 286-6680
1-800-434-0958

NFDMA is a national association primarily of African-American funeral providers. It has 2,000 members.

National Selected Morticians
5 Revere Drive, Suite 340
Northbrook, Illinois 60062-8009
(847) 559-9569

NSM is a national association of funeral firms in which membership is by invitation only and conditioned upon the commitment of each firm to comply wit the association's Code of Good Funeral Practice. Consumers may request a variety of publications through NSM's affiliate, the Consumer Information Bureau, Inc.

Funeral Service Consumer Assistance Program
P.O. Box 486
Elm Grove, Wisconsin  53122-0486
1-800-662-7666

FSCAP is a nonprofit consumer service designed to help people understand funeral service and related topics as well as helping them to resolve funeral service concerns. FSCAP service representatives and an intervener offer consumers recommendations to steer them in the right direction and to the right resources to identify needs, address complaints, and resolve problems. Free brochures on arranging funerals, understanding grief, and preneed planning are available. Hours are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Funeral Service Educational Foundation (FSEF)
13625 Bishop's Drive
Brookfield, WI 53005
1-800-228-6332

FSEF is a nonprofit foundation dedicated to advancing professionalism in funeral service and to enhancing public knowledge and understanding through education and research. Established in 1945, the foundation is funded by tax-exempt contributions and by the registration fees of its educational programs for funeral service professionals. 

For Further Help

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

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