Even as consumers increasingly shop and compare prices on the web, one group of businesses remains slow to put cost information online: funeral homes.
The Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule requires, among other things, that funeral homes give prices over the phone and provide detailed, written price lists to customers visiting in person. But the rule, which took effect in 1984 and predates the internet, doesn’t require disclosure online.
A new analysis from the Funeral Consumers Alliance and the Consumer Federation of America, which looked at more than 200 funeral homes in small and midsize state capitals, found that just 16 percent of homes with websites included their full price lists online. About a quarter posted some pricing information — typically information about packaged services rather than an itemized list.
“Few funeral homes are disclosing meaningful price information online,” Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the consumer federation, said on a call this past week about the study.
Providing information online, he said, would help consumers comparison shop. A full-service funeral typically costs more than $7,000, excluding costs for cemetery plots and other related fees, but prices vary widely. Consumers are often at a disadvantage, Mr. Brobeck said, because they are usually in mourning when they shop for services and may not feel capable of being assertive about seeking price information.
“It is time for the F.T.C. to bring the regulations into the digital age,” the report concluded. Posting price information online shouldn’t be burdensome, it said, because funeral homes already have to create price lists to distribute in print.
The alliance analyzed information gathered in November and December in the capitals of 25 states that lack any online price-disclosure mandate. The study also included Sacramento for comparison, because California is the only state that requires funeral homes with websites to provide pricing information online or to list services and note that prices are available upon request.
Of 211 funeral homes surveyed in the 25 cities, 193 had functioning websites. Just 30 posted their complete price list online. Fifty-three, or more than a quarter, posted some pricing information online.
In Sacramento, 25 funeral homes had websites, and nearly three-quarters posted their general price lists. Two homes appeared to violate state law, posting neither price information nor a list of services with a note that prices were available upon request, the researchers found. Four other homes listed services and indicated pricing was available upon request.
The National Funeral Directors Association, a trade group, said it left the decision about whether to post price information online to its members. Walker Posey, a spokesman for the association and a funeral director in North Augusta, S.C., said directors wrestled with how to convey differences in personal service, not just price, that can affect a customer’s experience.
“It’s hard to communicate value with just a number,” he said.
One funeral home, for instance, may charge a lower price, Mr. Posey said, but that doesn’t indicate whether the home’s vehicles are clean, whether the reception area is well maintained or whether the embalmer is skilled. “Will Mom look good?” he said.
“There’s a reason why people should look deeper than the cost on a price sheet,” Mr. Posey said, adding that he was working on a website tool for his funeral home that would provide online pricing information “in context.”
Service Corporation International, the largest chain of funeral service providers in North America, said it fully complied with the Funeral Rule. “In the U.S., we are posting prices online in certain markets,” the company said in an email. “However, we strongly believe in the importance of having a personal conversation with families to understand how they envision honoring their loved ones.”
Lois Greisman, associate director of marketing practices with the F.T.C., said that in the past, people tended to choose the same funeral home used by relatives or one recommended by their house or worship or hospital. But as society becomes more mobile, she said, and families disperse across the country, online shopping for funeral services is likely to become more common.
Here are some questions and answers about funeral prices:
Will the federal Funeral Rule be updated to address online pricing?
The F.T.C. is scheduled to review the rule in 2019, a commission spokesman said. The Consumer Federation of America and the Funeral Consumers Alliance petitioned the commission for early review and asked it to require online price disclosure, but it’s unclear if that will occur. Several new commissioners have been nominated and await confirmation, according to a news release late last month.
How can I comparison shop for funeral services?
The F.T.C., which explains the Funeral Rule on its website, suggests gathering information in advance, if possible, to compare prices and services without the pressure to make a decision quickly.
Other resources for consumers include the National Funeral Directors Association. Mr. Posey recommends visiting several funeral homes to assess their facilities and staff. “They should walk into different funeral homes,” he said, “and see how they feel.”
The Funeral Consumers Alliance offers a planning tool on its website and includes tips for people seeking cremation, which is increasingly popular, or who prefer not to use a funeral home. Joshua Slocum, the alliance’s executive director, suggests starting with a local affiliate of the consumers alliance, which may have compiled pricing information.
What if I have a complaint about funeral services?
The Funeral Consumers Alliance said consumers could file a complaint with the F.T.C. if they felt that a funeral home had violated the Funeral Rule, but it noted that the agency tended to act after seeing patterns of abuse, rather than addressing individual complaints.
The alliance offers tips for filing local complaints on its website.
Many states have an agency that oversees funeral homes or a consumer unit within the state attorney general’s office that takes complaints.