By Marion Callahan for PhillyBurbs
The last thing grief-stricken people may think about when a loved one dies is the cost of the final arrangements.
With little time to plan during a vulnerable time, they could end up with a hefty bill, paying far more on services than they planned -- and possibly more than they needed to spend.
Many people may not know that there are consumer protection laws aimed at safeguarding buyers as they make difficult financial choices during these stressful times.
The Federal Trade Commission created the Funeral Rule, which carries the authority of law, in 1984. The federal rule is designed to ensure that funeral home pricing is transparent.
Among its key requirements:
Funeral directors must give consumers a price list and let them order only the services and products they want, in person or on the phone.
Funeral directors are required to tell customers which services they must get and which are optional.
A casket or cremation urn can be bought elsewhere and the funeral home must handle it without charging an extra fee.
Vaults aren't required by state law anywhere in the USA, but many cemeteries require them to prevent graves from caving in. You have the right to look at a price list and choose the one you want.
Caskets aren't required for cremation. Alternatives, such as cardboard or pine boxes or shrouds, may be used.
You can bury or cremate someone without embalming. Some states require embalming or refrigeration if the body isn't buried or cremated within a certain time; some states don’t. Pennsylvania law requires embalming or refrigeration after 24 hours unless burial or cremation occurs before then.
"Most people don't know (their) legal rights ... the full range of options or what you do and do not need to buy," said Rachel Zeldin, a board member of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, an advocacy group.
"Most people will walk into a funeral home's for-profit showroom and say, 'What do I need?' And because they're nice and you're grieving, you'll believe them when they say 'We'll take care of everything,' and chances are you will naïvely purchase whatever they suggest," she added.
Grave markers in the cemetery behind St. Peter's Church in Philadelphia.
FTC findings paint a different story: A 2014 FTC undercover investigation found three-quarters of the funeral homes that were surveyed released pricing information to consumers over the phone as the law requires, but one-quarter did not.
FTC spokesman Frank Dorman said violations that trigger fines are rare in the Philadelphia region. The only one dates to 1999, when a Philadelphia funeral home agreed to pay an $11,000 civil penalty for violating the federal Funeral Rule by failing to provide a casket price list.
Most complaints in the Bucks County area have less to do with funeral home transparency and more to do with consumers' lack of knowledge about what services are needed and how much they cost, consumer advocates say.
Mike Bannon, director of the Bucks County Consumer Protection Office, shows a pile of complaints about the funeral industry.
Michael Bannon, director of the Bucks County Consumer Protection Office, said he's seen complaints related to funeral and burial expenses more than double in the last year, jumping from a handful to more than two dozen. Many of those complaints amount to buyer's remorse, he said, which is when people realize -- after the fact -- that they spent too much.
The median price of full-service funerals, without cemetery expenses, has jumped nearly 30 percent, from $6,580 in 2004 to $8,508 in 2014, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, a trade group.
"Some people don't realize that they've been gouged until after the fact; it's when they've had time to think about what they've spent and question the issue," he said. "A funeral might cost $17,000, but later the consumer realizes the average cost is around $8,000 and wonders 'How did this happen?' "
Bannon said he'll review the contracts of those who feel they've overpaid, but by then, "the casket is already in the ground. It's a very painful process and there is not much we can do."
He advises consumers to shop around, do as much advance research on the cost of services and treat the purchase as if it were any other major expense. His office, located at 1260 Almshouse Road in Doylestown, provides a funeral planning booklet to guide people through their consumer rights. It is also available online here.
Fluehr Funeral Home owner Joseph Fluehr IV, talks about the cost of funerals and today's trends in final arrangements.
Joseph Fluehr III, who owns several area funeral homes, including one in Richboro and one in New Britain, said calling a funeral home after a loved one dies is "often one of the toughest phone calls that people will have to make. With funerals, we often don't have luxury of weeks and months to plan, and people need a facilitator, someone to guide them through one of the most difficult times of their lives. We provide compassionate care, not just for the living, but for that person who died."
Fluehr III, a member of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, a trade group, said he does his best to remind clients of their rights and he believes most area funeral homes do so as well.
Zeldin, who lives in Yardley, wishes her family had known their rights and what was required and optional, when her uncle died in 2011. The family spent more than $10,000 for funeral arrangements, she said, including a pricey casket and embalming.
While Zeldin said the median U.S. cost of embalming is about $700, the service can range from $300 to $3,000, depending on the funeral home. She suggested asking the funeral home if refrigeration is an option, noting some funeral homes charge $50 a day for that service.
"To the average person, making such financial decisions at a point of grief and stress is difficult," added Zeldin, whose website -- Imsorrytohear.com -- is a hub for information about funeral planning.
Knowing your rights and investigating prices before a death occurs are good ways to protect yourself, according to other consumer advocates and funeral directors.
What Zeldin said she has learned since her uncle's death is that funeral prices vary widely, "sometimes by thousands of dollars – in the same neighborhood."
And there are many ways to reduce the costs.
For example, Pennsylvania law permits consumers to have home funerals without funeral directors, a practice followed by many in the first part of the last century. Despite that, the National Funeral Consumer Alliance and the Greater Philadelphia alliance say most families choose the help of a funeral director to file the needed paperwork, including a death certificate or cremation certificate.
"Still, it's important for people to know they can keep a loved one at home for a day without harm and have visitation at home without the involvement of a funeral director," Zeldin said.
Josh Slocum, executive director of the National Funeral Consumers Alliance, said family members often instinctively call a funeral director immediately after a death and "the meter starts running." A person calling a funeral home in "panic mode" is less likely to ask for a price list, he added.
Consumers' unwillingness to shop around before a loved one dies or immediately afterward can result in overspending, Slocum added, cautioning people against jumping too quickly at "traditional (funeral) packages."
"Who wants to be non-traditional during this time," he asked. "First, look at the itemized offerings (in the package) and know you have legal rights only to buy products and services you want."
Caskets, for example, can cost thousands of dollars – especially if they're sold under the term "protective," he said. A pine box, however, could be purchased for a couple hundred dollars.
"The question we should be asking ourselves is what do we think we can protect a dead person from – bugs? water? air? dirt? All things that make up the natural world will get you in the end no matter how well you box the corpse. So these so-called protective caskets are worse than misleading. A casket is a box; that's all it is."
And while burials are the choice in 70 percent of Pennsylvania funerals, an increasing number of families nationwide opt for cremation. The National Funeral Directors Association, a trade group, projects that cremations will one day exceed burials.
"Cremation makes it more convenient for families because there is no time limit for a funeral then," Slocum said. "Families can organize a memorial weeks later, when everyone who wants to pay respects has time to get there."
Whether the method is burial or cremation, Slocum advised people not to let the topic of death deter them from being smart shoppers.
"People often act as if it's a sin to talk about money – as if somehow what you spend is supposed to express how much you love someone. So we're afraid to haggle over the price of a coffin," he said.
"Eight thousand dollars for a funeral is not chump change," Slocum said. "Merely the choice of a funeral home could make a difference of thousands of dollars. Too often, people re-examine the costs after the fact. By then, it's too late."
Funeral directors Steve Shelly and father Frank, co-owners of the Shelly Funeral Homes discuss funeral trends and costs.
Frank Shelly, co-owner of the Shelly Funeral Homes in Plumstead and Warrington, said cost is only one factor people consider when they're planning a funeral. And, he added, responsible funeral homes all "offer full disclosure" about prices as well as what is required by law and what is optional.
"We did this before the FTC had any requirements," he said. "We always gave written documents of what we're providing and what we're providing it for. Most funeral directors, even my competitors, are very ethical, honest individuals. I cannot identify any one of them who would willingly take advantage of a grieving person."
And people aren't always searching for the cheapest products or services.
Steve Shelly, who co-owns the business with father Frank, said, "Not all decisions should be made on costs."
Wooden caskets, for example, are usually preferred over cheaper burial alternatives, he said. Rarely does anyone opt for Shelly's cheapest casket, which is a $90 cardboard box.
Steven Shelly of the Shelly Funeral Home in Warrington, talks about the cost of final arrangements, including cremation urns and caskets.
More frequently a consumer will say, "Oh, dad always wanted a plain pine box, so you show them a plain pine box and they're like 'Oh, no we can't do that,' " Steve Shelly said.
Then, all options are discussed, the Shellys said.
"Sometimes, cutting corners in the long term is not really the best way to go," Frank Shelly said. "Unless someone has gone through the experience of losing a loved one, you really don't know what your inner needs are going to be. And you think some things are not necessary, just dispose of me, just get rid of me. It may be all right for you, but what about the family?"
Frank Shelly encourages people to talk about their wishes in advance with their families, or if possible, make their own arrangements in advance. He said that up to 15 percent of funerals are planned in advance.
"It's important to recognize that no one lives forever," he said. "And if there's a preference, share it with your family, so they'll have an idea of what to do."
Dan Richards, 63, of Warrington, made his wishes clear to his family.
He wants his body donated to science. His choice was fueled by a desire to lessen the cost for his family and do something good for society.
"The cost of funeral expenses can put you in a hole," he said. "I'd rather donate it to science where they work on the body, cremate it and then give it back to the family. It's a little easier on family all around. And I'm not going to need this body; someone else might as well use it."