If you need to plan a funeral while you’re grieving over the loss of a loved one, an unscrupulous funeral home  might try to take advantage of you. That’s why the Federal Trade Commission created the federal funeral rule, which requires funeral directors to provide you with a price list and let you order only those products or services you want.

But the FTC’s annual undercover investigations sometimes find funeral directors who aren't playing by the rules, which is why you need to review your rights before calling a funeral home. For example, in January, the Harrison Funeral Home in Harrison, N.Y., and its funeral director agreed to pay a $32,000 civil penalty to settle charges that it failed to give consumers the required price lists.

Under the 1984 funeral rule, funeral homes must give consumers itemized price lists before any in-person discussions begin about funeral arrangements, coffins and/or outer burial containers. Funeral directors must also provide prices over the phone on request.

Among other requirements, funeral homes can’t require consumers to buy any unwanted products and services, such as coffins, urns, or unnecessary embalming. And they must allow consumers to bring in coffins or other items obtained elsewhere. With a cremation, for example, you can bring your own container, even if it’s not designed to be an urn.

Some funeral homes try to increase sales by making consumers believe they need to purchase more than they want or can afford, says Lisa Carlson, executive director of the Vermont-based Funeral Ethics Organization and co-author of "Final Rights," a consumer guide. During her undercover visit to a funeral home some years back, Carlson says, the funeral director insisted the law requires the purchase of an urn for cremated remains, which he said can kill fish if released into a waterway. Neither is true.

If a home presses you to buy more than you want or balks at your bringing in your own coffin or other items “you should get up and leave, absolutely,” Valerie Wages, president of the Georgia-based Tom M. Wages Funeral Service, said.

Has a funeral home pressed you to buy more or not given you the required price lists? Please e-mail us at MoneyEditor@cr.consumer.org with your story and contact information (including phone number) for a future report in the Consumer Reports Money Adviser newsletter.

What to do

  • If you need to plan a funeral, don’t be rushed into making expensive decisions. You should have at least two days and maybe a week or more to make arrangements if the dead is in a hospital morgue or with a coroner.
  • Start by reviewing the requirements of the funeral rule.
  • Examine your state’s law governing such issues as embalming, coffins and vaults, burial, and cremation. That can help you know whether a funeral home is trying to sell you unnecessary items.
  • Read "How to Read a Funeral Home Price List" and other advice at the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit consumer protection organization.
  • Don’t let anyone guilt trip you into spending more than you can afford or think is wise.
  • Always comparison shop among other funeral homes and online. Some homes, such as the Boulger Funeral Home in North Dakota, post their price lists on their websites. There are many third-party sources of coffins and other funeral products online, including Walmart.com, where we found coffins for as low as about $800. Many sites offer quick delivery. Alternatively, you can use online prices as a basis for price discussions with the funeral director. Let the director know that you’re prepared to bring in your own coffin or other items if you can’t reach certain price targets on funeral products. But never tell the director your overall budget. Joshua Slocum, the alliance’s executive director and "Final Rights" co-author, says the savings from comparison shopping can be huge. “If you will take the time to make three to five phone calls, that can save you anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 or $4,000 for exactly the same thing,” he said.

— Anthony Giorgianni


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