In death, a final chance to get gouged

Last Updated Oct 20, 2015 10:29 AM EDT

Confusing, widely variable prices. Salespeople more eager to get you in the door than to answer questions. Another frustrating trip to the used car lot?

Actually, that's the experience millions of people around the U.S. face trying to arrange funeral services for their loved ones, according to consumer advocates.

"It's still very, very difficult to get funeral homes to adequately give out prices without asking a lot of detailed questions or without being maneuvered into, 'Well, it's really better to come into our office to speak about it in person'," Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, or FCA, said in a call to discuss the findings.

"There's no other industry that works so hard to hide what they charge," he added.

The group, along with the Consumer Federation of America, or CFA, said in a report released Monday that most funeral homes fail to adequately disclose their prices for burial, cremation and other services. And those prices can vary enormously even within the same city, a sign the funeral industry lacks competition, the CFA said.

In conducting the study, the groups solicited pricing information from 150 randomly selected funeral homes in 10 metropolitan areas around the country. Along with contacting independently owned funeral homes, the researchers also included at least one business from a large chain, such as Service Corporation International (SCI), in the sample. If prices weren't posted on a funeral home's website, they followed up by email and, if necessary, by phone.

CFA examined what funeral homes charged for a range of services. Those included immediate burial without ceremony or the cost of a casket, and a "full-service" funeral, which involved preparation of the body, viewing, transportation by hearse or other vehicle to the cemetery, and a graveside ceremony, among other services.

Stephen Brobeck, executive director at CFA, said he was "stunned by the huge difference" in funeral prices. Depending on the funeral home, prices for the same services in the same city almost always varied by at least 100 percent, with the gap in some areas topping 200 percent.

In Washington, D.C., for example, the price of a full-service funeral could range from $3,770 to $13,800. In Seattle, a cremation could cost $495 all the way up to $3,390, while in Minneapolis immediate burial ranged from $650 to $3,395.

Meanwhile, only a quarter of the funeral homes examined in the report fully disclosed prices on their sites. That makes it harder for people to get the information they need to choose a home and arrange funeral services.

"It will cost you a great deal more if you can't comparison-shop," Slocum said.

Funeral prices have risen significantly over the last decade, driven in part by industry consolidation. In 2014, the total median cost for a basic funeral, including a viewing and burial, was $7,181, up 29 percent from $5,582 in 2004, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). The median cost of a cremation around the U.S. last year was $6.078.

Since 1984, the Federal Trade Commission has required funeral home operators to provide an itemized price list for their services to anyone who requests one, whether consumers, representatives of businesses, government agencies and even competitors.

Yet the "funeral rule," as it is called and which was revised in the 1990s, only applies if people call by phone or visit a funeral home in person -- it does not require operators to disclose pricing information on their website. Only one U.S. state, California, makes it mandatory for homes to list their prices online.

The CFA is urging the FTC to require all states to require funeral homes to disclose pricing information on their sites, a practice the consumer group said will make it much easier for people to compare costs as they select a funeral home. Slocum advises consumers to call three or four funeral homes to compare prices.

Responding to consumer concerns about funeral homes' online pricing practices, a spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association pointed to the FTC rule.

"Generally, funeral homes are not required to disclose prices on their website," the group said in a statement. "The FTC conducts inspections of funeral homes to ensure compliance with this and other requirements of the funeral rule. NFDA's code of professional conduct unequivocally states, 'Members shall comply with the Federal Trade Commission's funeral industry practices Regulation.'"

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