When Death Knocks, Bereaved Beware

Coffins in funeral parlour after large number of deaths during heatwave
There are many horror stories in the $14 billion a year funeral industry. The world's largest company recently settled a class action lawsuit for $100 million for negligence and misconduct in Florida.

When Barbara Osborne's father died, the funeral director strongly recommended an expensive "sealed" casket, one he said would preserve her dad's body for 75 years.

"I felt hurt, vulnerable, looking for comfort and peace," says Osborne. "He mentioned that some people like to drive Volkswagens and some like to drive Mercedes, and he knew dad drove a Mercedes."

But, as CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports, the Mercedes turned out to be a lemon. Before the casket was placed in the family mausoleum, Osborne sensed something was wrong, so she had the casket opened and discovered a body that had already decayed.

"A casket that I was told would last longer than 75 years did not even last 75 days," says Osborne.

Funeral directors, often working on commission, are marketing to people at their most vulnerable. They make the bulk of their profit on caskets. The casket alone can be up to half the total bill, costing as much as $70,000.

Consumer adviser Ed Markin advises: "bereaved beware."

So what is it about people shopping at that time in their lives that makes them so vulnerable to overspending?

"We're in denial about death," says Markin. "We don't bother to learn about the particulars of arranging a funeral until we have to, at which time we have no bargaining left."

Markin teaches consumers to peek under the curtain at the local funeral parlor, where it's easy to forget the funeral director is a salesman and his boss is probably one of four corporate giants which control the market and set prices.

"When you go into a funeral home, the first thing you should ask is to use the restroom," says Markin. "Check the toilet paper - if it's single-ply industrial toilet paper, leave.

"If they're cutting corners there, they'll be cutting corners everywhere else, too - I'm dead serious."

In a statement, the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) said it and its more than 20,000 funeral director members take protecting consumers very seriously. The association implemented a new Code of Professional Conduct, which became enforceable as of January 1, 2004. For more information on funeral planning or choosing a reputable funeral home, the group's Web site is www.nfda.org.

CBS sent one of its producers and an undercover camera to check out funeral homes in the nation's funeral spending capital, Washington D.C.

The footage was then shown to Russ Harmon, who provides affordable funerals.

"This is an atrocity," says Harmon.

Harmon says two of the three funeral homes visited by CBS News violated federal rules by talking prices without first providing a price list.

At one, a saleswoman rifled through a mess of papers, ordered her lunch and was somewhat less than specific on casket prices.

One funeral home did offer a price list.

"We've got big ends of the spectrum and everything in the middle," says a funeral salesperson on the tape.

But their "broad spectrum" was all "high-end."

"The most expensive package they have here is nearly the cost of a small house," says Harmon.

Harmon can do a funeral from start-to-finish for as little as $800.

It may not be everyone's ideal, but it proves you can go out in style without going into debt. Just don't wait until the last minute.

Tips To Avoid Getting Ripped-Off By The Undertaker
  • Avoid those fancy, expensive "sealed" or "protective" caskets - they don't protect anything.
  • Avoid "package deals" if they're padded with services you won't use, like "access to a grief library."
  • Shop around and use the Internet. Product mark-ups can be incredible, even 3,000 percent.
  • The best buyers shop ahead for themselves. Among the worst? Men who say just "make it nice." They should take someone with them.

    On CBS News' The Early Show, Joshua Slocum of the Funeral Consumers' Alliance, shows you how to protect yourself from unscrupulous funeral homes.