Photo by Michael Matteo
By Jesús Chapa Malacara
When Adam Drapczuk III’s 4-year-old son was battling terminal brain cancer, he could not bear to plan the boy’s funeral.
His playful and funny son, also named Adam, loved Star Wars and baseball. Drapczuk wanted to spend every moment he could with him, not waste any time visiting funeral homes or calling around to get prices.
The diagnosis meant his son’s death in 2015 was not unexpected. Yet little Adam’s passing still felt sudden to his parents when they had to make arrangements.
There are two funeral homes in the family’s Central New Jersey community of Hightstown. Drapczuk chose the bigger one, since he expected a large crowd.
He did not expect a bill totaling nearly $13,500.
“They already had possession of my son’s body, so it was not like I could walk out and begin shopping,” he told the Federal Trade Commission.
Drapczuk is among those urging the FTC to expand its Funeral Rule—which requires transparency in pricing— to make funeral homes to list costs online.
Drapczuk said he would have made a more informed decision if he could have surfed websites to reliably compare costs.
When loved ones meet with funeral home staffers in person, price sheets for expenses must be provided. The federal regulations, written in 1984 in the wake of an FTC report that found widespread evidence of price gouging, were put in place before the internet was woven into the fabric of everyday life.
Consumer groups and officials from more than 20 states are pushing for all funeral prices to be posted online. That would mean prospective customers would not need to make in-person visits to fully understand the extent of costs—preventing funeral homes from not disclosing added fees.
As the FTC explores expanding the reach of the rule, battle lines are being drawn.
RESISTANCE TO CHANGE
Only two of every five funeral homes have some information about prices online. And fewer than 25 percent post specific price lists, according to a survey by the FTC published in October. One company has faced federal and state charges of deceiving customers on the costs and services in one of the higher-profile cases brought by the FTC.
>>> Related: Online Deception Charged: Not So Close to Home
The state officials urging the FTC to broaden its protections—a group that includes nearly half of the nation’s attorneys general—cited a review by the Washington, D.C., attorney general’s office that found the price for the same item or service can vary widely even within the same city.
In Washington, for instance, the price of embalming in 2019 ranged from $375 to $995. Prices for caskets could begin at $350 and rise to upwards of $6,000.
To be sure, many coffins in the U.S. are on the lower end of the scale. One company that helps consumers finance funerals found wooden caskets typically running $1,000 to $3,550. Metal caskets may cost more, depending on the type of material and thickness. The company estimated that a typical coffin costs between $2,000 and $5,000.
In Columbia, South Carolina, a casket can run from $400 to $45,000 and a direct cremation can cost between $895 and $5,270, according to the state chapter of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. In Bradenton, Florida, the local consumers alliance found that embalming can range from $595 to $1785, while a hearse to transport a casket from a funeral home to a cemetery can cost between $145 and $995.
“If funeral providers posted their prices online, consumers would have the ability to make these important decisions in the privacy of their homes,” the state officials wrote to the FTC. “This would allow consumers to more easily consult with other decision-makers who may not be able to travel to different funeral homes to obtain price information, including those who are out of town.”
The $35-billion-plus funeral home industry—represented by two major lobbying groups, the National Funeral Directors Association and the International Cemetery, Cremation & Funeral Association—opposes expansion of the funeral rule.
Among other things, the funeral directors association argued in response to the FTC’s request for comments in October that “consumers do not price shop for funeral goods and services, especially not online” and that “price is not a primary determining factor for funeral consumers.”
The funeral directors association has argued that the FTC should not alter its regulations and that the industry undergoes enough oversight, despite what critics say.
“The issues that they’ve raised, especially with regards to online pricing, they’ve been addressed by the free market in a much superior way,” Christopher L. Farmer, general counsel for the funeral directors group, told the NYCity News Service. “It’s such a small percentage of people that price shop for funeral homes and such a small percentage of people that go online and funeral consumers don’t have a problem with finding prices.”
The trade groups also say broadening regulations would burden the many individual owners of funeral homes with the needless cost of updating their websites, adding that the industry already faces enough oversight from the states.
>>> Related: The Disunited States of Funerals
But other organizations, including AARP and the Funeral Consumers Alliance, wrote to the FTC in favor of expanded oversight.
Several individuals told the FTC that when loved ones died, they searched online for prices when arranging funeral services. One funeral director from Colorado said she conducted all her business with families online or over the phone because of pandemic restrictions.
“They already had possession of my son’s body, so it was not like I could walk out and begin shopping,”
– Adam Drapczuk III
Photos by Sarah Luft
HOW THEY LOBBY
A NYCity News Service review of federal lobbying disclosure statements shows that over the past five years, the two groups have spent a combined $1.8 million on lobbying efforts, with $1.6 million coming from the funeral directors group.
The filings reveal efforts that span from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and from Congress to the Environmental Protection Agency. A further look at the groups’ activities and interviews point to a highly effective, nimble advocacy operation.
By Washington standards, the organizations spend a modest sum for an industry that takes in tens of billions every year.
In a video for the YouTube channel FUNERAL nation TV, the funeral directors’ chief lobbyist, Lesley Witter, said in December 2021 that the funeral industry has a “massive presence” in Washington.
Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, said relatively small operations like the National Funeral Directors Association can have a big impact in Washington — especially when federal agencies rely on industry groups for expertise they do not have in-house.
“Agencies will meet with the industries that they are supposed to oversee, because they feel like that’s actually where the expertise is,” said Lawson, whose group which works to defend and expand Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
In 2020, the Department of Homeland Security classified funeral workers as critical. The move allowed them to be among the first in line for personal protective equipment, which was difficult to obtain during the first wave of COVID infections and deaths in March 2020.
The CDC and NIH at the time also categorized funeral workers as frontline workers who, along with hospital and nursing home staff, would be among the first eligible for vaccination before most other Americans.
In a 2022 funeral director conference biography, Witter was described as providing “content and review” for those government guidelines and for policies that expanded federal spending.
The trade groups also have sought increased funds from Federal Emergency Management Agency programs that provide funeral aid for victims of hurricanes, tornadoes and other calamities. In 2021, FEMA decided to include all COVID-related deaths as those eligible for funeral reimbursements for up to $9,000 for an individual.
>>> Related: The FEMA Bump for COVID Funerals
The funeral directors association touted as a “success” legislation that expanded spending funeral and burial costs for veterans who die outside of a VA Hospital.
THE FIGHT OVER ONLINE PRICE LISTS
In comments to the FTC, members of the directors association say funeral home owners should get to decide whether to post prices online—not the government.
“Funeral homes know very well the clientele they serve,” Raymond Butterfield, a past president of the Rhode Island Funeral Directors Association, wrote to the FTC. “If families want price information posted on the funeral home’s website, the funeral home will post it.”
Michael J. Pearson, president of the New Hampshire Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association Inc., echoed those comments. Most funeral homes “are small family-owned businesses,” he wrote. “Except for hospitals, no other profession, trade, or business in the U.S. is required by the government to post online price information.”
“While a growing number of our members are posting price lists on their websites, that should be their decision, not the FTC’s,” Pearson said. ”Funeral consumers who want price information know to contact the funeral home to obtain it.”
The Rhode Island and New Hampshire groups both belong to the National Funeral Directors Association.
The Funeral Consumers Alliance told the FTC that a California regulation calling for funeral homes to post some pricing information online shows how the industry is reluctant to be fully transparent.
“This state is a natural laboratory, as it is the only state with any requirements relating to online price disclosure for funeral providers,” the group wrote to the FTC.
The California regulation calls for every funeral home to have a website, requiring them to either post prices or offer a way for consumers to get the information by email.
In 2020, 45 percent of funeral homes in the state sampled posted prices prominently online, the consumer group said. Another 25 percent posted prices that were difficult to find. The remaining 30 percent said consumers would need to email them.
“In practice,” the consumer group said, “these funeral homes are free to compel consumers and researchers to physically visit the funeral home.”
This means “you’re really depending on the market sensitivity and the goodwill of the funeral directors,” Stephen Brobeck, senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, told the NYCity News Service, adding, “Anybody who doesn’t really want to disclose can do it relatively easily.”
In New Jersey, Drapczuk said he wished funeral homes would make prices easier to see—and understand.
He recounted how the expenses for his son’s arrangements added up.
The final bill, nearly $13,500, was roughly twice the median price of an American funeral. The basic funeral service fee was $2,000. Visitation hours for one day cost $985. A church service added $650. The home claimed it could not get a casket for a child, so the family had to pay for one built for an adult.
“I guess the good thing about having the big casket for him,” said Drapczuk, “is we stuffed it with a lot of his toys.”
Photo by Hannah-Kathryn Valles
By Jesús Chapa Malacara and Ariana Perez-Castells
As the Federal Trade Commission considers expanding federal protections for consumers shopping online for funerals, the funeral industry is pushing back—arguing the states already provide enough oversight.
More regulation would only create “confusion,” the National Funeral Directors Association told the FTC in January. The profession’s leading lobbying group contends that state regulators better understand local markets and are “nimble enough to address concerns and issues.”
It is not the first time the industry has pointed to state oversight as a reason to not expand federal regulations. The funeral directors group made the same argument, for instance, when opposing federal legislation in 2016 against deceptive practices. And in 2008, it used the same rationale to oppose federal consumer protections for pre-paid funerals.
Yet a NYCity News Service review of how states regulate the funeral industry shows oversight varies greatly across the United States.
Some require funeral directors to undergo training or earn a college degree before applying to become a licensed funeral director. Some states, like Tennessee, promise to inspect funeral homes every year. Others, like Minnesota, conduct inspections every two years. Delaware stopped inspections during the pandemic and is resuming them with a goal of checking each funeral home once every other year.
While many funeral homes operate with clean records, state overseers continue to find violations, including homes that mishandle corpses and workers who steal from those who paid for their funerals in advance.
Stephen Brobeck, a senior fellow with the Consumer Federation of America, said licensing can prevent fly-by-night operations that “just want to make a quick buck.”
The Federal Trade Commission, which primarily checks whether funeral homes are disclosing prices honestly, found in undercover investigations during the past decade that 25 percent of those visited violated federal directives.
>>> Related: A Bad Percentage on FTC Investigations
State agencies police a range of abuses beyond honesty in pricing.
A funeral director in Tennessee was supposed to ship 10 corpses to Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. Instead, the bodies were left in two funeral homes for almost a year, with some rotting beyond recognition. The director continued offering funeral services even after he lost his license.
In Pennsylvania, a funeral director was charged with stealing over $284,000 from more than 50 customers who pre-paid for funerals.
For consumers who want to check a funeral home, some state agencies make it easy to see online whether a funeral home has violated state laws. Others do not post such information, and instead require consumers to file open records requests that could take months.
The Consumer Federation and the Funeral Consumers Alliance reported in 2021 that regulators in different states provide vastly different levels of information on their websites to consumers.
Many states do not give consumers enough information about their rights, how to protect themselves or how to file complaints when they face problems, according to the organizations.
“The majority of states did not meet our criteria for the minimum level of useful information for consumers,” they wrote.
A NATIONWIDE MAZE
Regulators in different states go under different names. In Kansas, it is the Board of Mortuary Arts. In Wisconsin, it is the Department of Safety and Professional Services. In Arkansas, it is the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors.
But they do similar work: regulating the industry, fielding consumer complaints and aiming to root out funeral homes and workers who violate state regulations.
Grieving families hoping to check the background of a funeral home to hire for a burial will find it harder in some parts of the country.
Those in Minnesota and Missouri can find prominently published detailed, lengthy reports outlining the violations and the legal reasoning for state enforcement actions.
Other states, including Illinois and Tennessee, publish monthly reports about disciplinary actions, with one or two sentences about the violation committed by a funeral home.
Hawaii and Washington state require navigating more complicated sites that provide scant details about violations. Washington state lists whether a funeral home has a suspended or revoked license but offers no specifics about the violation. Kentucky requires readers to go through its meeting minutes to find the names of violators.
The International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards has wanted to compile a centralized national database of state disciplinary actions so consumers could check the background of any funeral home in the U.S. in one place, said Dalene Paull, its executive director. The task has proved too daunting so far “because of all the discrepancies in reporting from the state boards.”
The Consumer Federation and the Funeral Consumers Alliance awarded seven states their highest grade for user-friendly websites, including Arizona, New York and Virginia. Seven others were given failing marks for sites with scant information, including North Dakota, Kentucky and Utah.
Many states make it easy for consumers to file complaints about a funeral home by sending an email, using an online complaint form or calling the agency, yet others make it more difficult.
In Florida, for example, those who feel wronged must print out a paper form and mail it.
Filing complaints can be even harder for those who are not proficient in English.
In California, complaints in English can be filed online. Those who want to file in Spanish have to print out a form and mail it to the Department of Consumer Affairs.
“We have this really strict system that’s based on…activities that were true 60 years ago and are increasingly untrue today.”
– Tanya Marsh, associate dean, Wake Forest University School of Law
Photo by Hannah-Kathryn Valles
A PATCHWORK OF LICENSING
Most states license funeral directors who supervise all aspects of a funeral, from collecting bodies to overseeing burials. New Mexico states that a key reason for oversight is to ensure those handling funerals can do so properly, and with respect.
The licensing process typically includes taking a test, documenting training and education and paying a small fee. Licensees are likely to need to undergo continuing education to learn about changes in the profession. And they may need to document that they understand public health concerns such as preventing the spread of contagious diseases.
Embalming can be one of the most profitable parts of the industry. The job includes handling toxic chemicals like formaldehyde.
Hawaii is one exception, requiring licenses only for embalmers and for the facilities themselves, not for those serving as funeral directors.
Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Agencies, which has no licensing requirements for funeral directors or embalmers, requires funeral homes to be licensed. And funeral workers can only work for a licensed facility. Workers may seek certification from a nonprofit, but that is voluntary.
A RANGE OF EDUCATION
Education requirements also vary state-to-state. Minnesota and Ohio are the only states that require funeral directors to have a bachelor’s degree. A number of states, including Arkansas, require a high school diploma or the equivalent, along with apprenticing at a funeral home.
Robert C. Smith III, executive director of the American Board of Funeral Service Education, said enrollment in college and university mortuary-science programs has risen during the past few years, with the highest peak in the last 25 years happening in 2021.
The board is the federally recognized accrediting agency for mortuary programs.
Smith said some may question whether extensive schooling is needed for funeral-industry work.
“When you’re in education, you’re constantly being bombarded by the question of, ‘Is education worth it?’” he said. “People are starting to question the value.”
He said the training is essential.
“Everything that I learned in my funeral service education, I have used in practice in some fashion,” Smith said. “So I know that there was relevance in what I was taught.”
Photo by Joe Caffrey
Photo by Sarah Luft
Photo by Michael Matteo
CASKETS IN COURT
State regulators have faced challenges to the extent of their oversight.
The Rev. Nathaniel Craigmiles and Tommy Wilson started selling funeral caskets out of Craigmiles Wilson Casket Supply in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1999. The state Board of Funeral Directors and Emblamers told them to stop—only licensed funeral directors in the state could sell caskets.
The case went to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Craigmiles and Wilson argued that going to mortuary school to become a licensed funeral director, a cost of about $10,000, had little to do with selling caskets.
The court sided with them, noting that licensing was a “significant barrier” for those who only want to sell caskets.
Tanya Marsh, associate dean at the Wake Forest University School of Law in North Carolina, believes strict licensing of funeral home directors does not take into account the modern desires of customers. Fewer people, for instance, want bodies embalmed for viewings. More want cremations, where remains become ashes.
“We have this really strict system that’s based on, frankly, activities that were true 60 years ago and are increasingly untrue today,” Marsh said.
Marsh noted that death doulas, who offer loved ones support—including dealing with a family member in hospice care—are not allowed to oversee funerals.
“You’ve got death doulas and home funeral guides and folks who really want to help families and are getting smacked down in states like California because there’s no path to licensure for them,” said Marsh. “So instead, they’re operating outside of the law.”
In 2019, California’s Cemetery and Funeral Bureau ordered a group of death doulas to stop operating because the state ruled that they were offering services that should only be provided by a licensed funeral home director. The doulas fought back, filing a federal civil complaint challenging the bureau’s decision and won an injunction to continue their work.
They compared costs for states that require funeral homes to also have embalming rooms, versus those that do not. They estimated that consumers in Arizona pay an additional $16.8 million each year to meet this standard. States that require funeral directors to be licensed embalmers also created higher prices, they found.
Harrington has worked as an expert witness for the funeral industry in challenging regulations. In 2011, he testified on behalf of monks at the Saint Joseph Abbey who were not allowed to sell handmade wooden caskets in Louisiana because they were not licensed funeral directors. The monks won.
Photo by Hannah-Kathryn Valles
You have lost a loved one.
In the immediate aftermath, you will have some daunting financial decisions to make about services, burial or cremation.
A typical funeral with a viewing and burial could cost an average of $7,800. In recent years, cremation has surpassed burial in popularity, and it is less expensive.
Federal and some state rules require that consumers be told clearly about costs and options. But that does not always happen.
Q: Did your loved one pay for a funeral in advance?
A: That could save mourners time and money. Yet some states do not regulate how the money is handled. Instead of setting the money safely aside in escrow funds, dishonest funeral-home operators can steal or mishandle funds.
Q: What funeral home are you going to use and what do you know about it?
A: If you went online to find a funeral home, are you sure it has a physical address? At least one company has optimized search results online to present itself as a local funeral home, when it might be hours away from you.
Q: Is it easy to check a funeral home’s record?
A: Grieving families hoping to check the background of a funeral home to hire will find it harder in some parts of the country. The International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards, which has wanted to compile a centralized national database of state disciplinary actions, says the task has proved too daunting “because of all the discrepancies in reporting from the state boards.”
Q: Are there ways to save on costs?
A: You might be able to rent a casket for viewings and services, for instance. You also can buy a casket at a store like Costco, and the funeral home would have to use it. Services at a funeral home or a house of worship are not required. Cremation can be a less-expensive option over burial. Memorial gatherings can take place in a home or a park, and that may be more convenient if a ceremony involves scattering ashes. Each choice can add or reduce costs.
Q: Do you want a more eco-friendly burial?
A: More Americans are asking about environmentally friendly ways to handle a body. One option includes foregoing embalming for burial in a cloth shroud.
Another green funeral choice, alkaline hydrolysis—or aquamation—suspends a body in a water solution to hasten decomposition. The remaining bones are given to the family to bury. This is touted as more environmentally friendly because it has a much smaller carbon footprint.
Q: What costs must be revealed to consumers?
A: Federal law requires funeral homes to disclose and document the cost of each aspect of their offerings, which can range from caskets, embalming and cremation to viewings, use of a hearse and transport of a body to another funeral home. Other costs can include fees paid to a religious institution or leader for conducting a service.
Q: Would you like to compare prices online?
A: You may be out of luck. Though funeral homes are required by federal law to disclose their prices, they’re only required to do so face to face and, to a lesser extent, by phone. They do not have to disclose prices online or even by email. California has a version of an online shopping law, but it does allow wiggle room, consumer advocates found.
The Federal Trade Commission is considering requiring funeral homes to post their prices online.
Q: How will you pay?
A: A loved one may have money set aside for their funeral or paid in advance without family members knowing. Insurance may also cover costs. In some states, such as New York, workers compensation payments may also be available. The Social Security Administration may pay $255 to surviving spouses. And veterans are entitled to additional aid, including a basic gravestone. For deaths in a federally designated disaster such as a hurricane or tornado—or from COVID-19— there may be payments for up to $9,000. Federal auditors have found that some money for disaster-related funerals has been spent improperly.
Q: What if you think you’re dealing with a fraudulent funeral home?
A: You can submit a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, your state’s funeral licensing board and non-governmental organizations such as the Better Business Bureau. You can file a complaint with the FTC online or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357); TDD: 1-866-653-4261.
Q: What are some other scams to look out for?
A: Obituaries and death notices can provide details that can lead to fraud. Unsolicited calls, especially those asking for personal details about the deceased, can be a sign of a scam. Scamsters often appear soon after disasters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will not contact you to solicit a funeral assistance application. Applying for assistance is free. If someone claiming to be a representative of FEMA tells you the program costs money, it is a sign of a scam. To reduce identity theft and other scams, AARP recommends that you tell Social Security and the IRS about the passing of a loved one, as well as their banks and credit-card issuers.
Photo by Michael Matteo