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In funeral homes, customers are speaking up

The funeral industry engages in sales at a most vulnerable time in clients’ lives. But consumers have become increasingly aware of their rights and begun to take more control over funereal matters.
Coffins in Sun City
Caskets on display in a showroom in Sun City, Ariz. Recently even Costco has gotten into the business of selling discount caskets.Robert Van Der Hilst / Corbis
/ Source: contributor

After Helen Fitzgerald’s first husband died, she had the presence of mind to ask his boss, a family friend, to accompany her to the funeral home for emotional support. Little did she know she’d be getting a strong financial advocate, too.

“I was looking at the solid cherry casket, and he went over to opt for this metal one, which was $5,000 cheaper,” says Fitzgerald, who lives in Fairfax, Va., and is the author of “The Grieving Child,” “The Mourning Handbook” and “The Grieving Teen.” “Every time the funeral director asked if I wanted something added to the service, my friend would say, ‘How much is that going to cost?’ In essence, he gave me permission to spend less money.”

Although this happened in 1974 — Fitzgerald is now training director for the American Hospice Foundation in Washington and is certified in thanatology, the study of death and dying — the story has a contemporary ring.

Although the funeral industry is a service one, it also engages — some would say aggressively — in sales, and at a most vulnerable time in clients’ lives. But consumers have become increasingly aware of their rights and begun to take more control over funereal matters.

In the forefront of educating the public is the Funeral Consumers Alliance in South Burlington, Vt., a nonprofit organization founded in 1963. Along with monitoring industry trends and mediating complaints, the organization spends much of its effort alerting consumers to the existence what is known as the Funeral Rule, issued in 1984 by the Federal Trade Commission.

This rule requires funeral directors to itemize the costs of services like pick-up of the body, embalming, make-up, casket, flowers, viewing, the service at the funeral parlor or church, the hearse and the grave-site ceremony. But noncompliance is rampant and widespread, says the alliance’s executive director, Joshua Slocum.

“It’s a huge problem,” says Slocum, who prices a typical funeral in this country — excluding cemetery costs — at about $6,500. “This noncompliance costs consumers millions of dollars and, even more importantly, manipulates them and denies them the choices the law is supposed to guarantee them. In any single metropolitan area in any state, if you give me a stack of price lists from funeral homes, about 75 percent of those general price lists have one or more Funeral Rule violations.”

What’s worse, he says, most people don’t even know the Funeral Rule exists.

Thus many consumers, in addition to not knowing they are entitled to an itemized price list, are unaware they have the right to opt for, say, immediate burial or cremation without a ceremony, to refuse embalming or even to provide their own caskets.

“Our organization is committed to 100 percent compliance with the Funeral Rule,” says Robert Biggins, president of the National Funeral Directors Association and owner of Magoun-Biggins Funeral Home, in Rockland, Mass. “If someone commits a change that is designed to mislead a customer, that is grievous, and that type of thing should absolutely be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Yet Slocum believes the FTC "has been completely derelict” in enforcing the Funeral Rule, and some funeral directors tend to agree.

“Some of these funeral directors know the Funeral Rule has no teeth,” says Cary Troxel, a funeral director who owns Funeral Solutions, a full-service funeral home in Coco, Fla., who has become something of consumer advocate himself.

Stephen Cohen, an attorney with the FTC, says, “We haven’t necessarily seen something that cries out for attention that the Funeral Rule isn’t working."

Traditionally, in the funeral business, caskets are marked up as much as fivefold, Troxel says.

“Funeral homes realizing this obscene profit on caskets is not appropriate today, when people can go to a casket store or a provider that’s selling them for less," he said.

Troxel also owns, which sells bronze, copper, steel, stainless steel and hardwood caskets at about half the price one might pay at a funeral parlor. Two of his best-selling items are made of 20-gauge steel and priced at $1,200 and $1,300. “I tell customers they have a right to seek value in their funeral merchandise,” he says.

Troxel notes the home page of his online business that funeral homes "must accept the casket you have provided without duress or embarrassment to the consumer." Yet he finds many homes still put up a fight.

He describes one panicked buyer who tried to cancel an order after the funeral home told the consumer the coffin he had ordered would be “full of mice and roaches.” Another customer, he added, suspiciously interrogated him for selling a coffin for so much less than the funeral home would. Like Troxel, other funeral directors are turning the interests of price-conscious consumers into opportunities.

Stephan Kwiatkowski, a funeral director who, with his wife, Denise, owns the full-service Kwiatkowski Funeral Home, in Omro, Wis., opened the less traditional Fox Cities Funeral and Cremation Services, in Oshkosh, in July 2003. At the Fox Cities establishment, he says, a consumer may choose a casket from a catalog and may opt to have the service elsewhere. Kwiatkowski says he is focusing on an “underserved part of the community that cannot afford or does not want to use all the services of a funeral home.” The average cost of a Fox Cities funeral, not including cemetery costs, is about $3,000 to $3,500, he says.

Even Costco is riding the wave. A year and a half ago, the company began selling caskets, says Collin Cremo, who supervises the buyers responsible for in-house casket sales. Today, Costco has various locations where members can special order caskets at kiosk areas, and where corners of caskets are on a display board to indicate the quality of the materials. Costco also sells a broader selection of caskets — and also urns — online. "Since we've been offering caskets in-store and online, we have found our members recognize the compelling values we offer in this category," Cremo says.

It is not always about money, however. If the final send-off can be stylish, as well as economical, all the better.

Tired of coffins “that looked as though they came from 200 years ago,” Andreas Spiegel created Uono, a coffin company in his native Cologne, Germany, in January 2005. He hopes to market his minimalist, canoe-shaped “cocoon” casket, which is made from jute, available in 14 colors, and retails for 3,200 to 3,500 euros (roughly $4,000 to $4,500), depending on whether one opts for a silk or cotton lining. The casket, he says, is designed to evoke shelter and security. People want more individualized ceremonies that fit the personality of the deceased, Spiegel says.

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, whose “Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death” will be published this summer, also found that many people — especially baby boomers —wanted the deaths of their loved ones commemorated by a certain aesthetic that somehow defines their lives.

Boomers are used to getting consumer goods when, where, how and at the price they want, Cullen says, and their attitude about purchasing death-related goods and services is no different. However, she notes, “It doesn’t mean consumers will spend less.”

In any case, it is now easier to do more comparison shopping, whether it be for a full-service ceremony or a simple cremation. Some experts are astonished that checking out the competition — something one wouldn’t hesitate to do when, say, buying a car — is considered bad taste for funerals.

Now with more online businesses offering goods at a discount, and with consumer rights’ literature readily available — including the F.T.C.’s “Funerals: A Consumer Guide,” — the public is in a better bargaining position than ever. But out-of-date notions need to be discarded.

“A cultural idea in America, fomented by the funeral industry, is that the only right or proper way to show how much we love our dead is through the amount of conspicuous consumption we engage in,” says the funeral group’s Slocum.

Preparation helps, too, especially when you know a loved one is likely to die in the near future. “At least explore your options,” Troxel advises. Most people “wait until the person is not breathing to decide on a funeral director,” he says. “They won’t do their homework.”