by Robert M. Fells, executive director and general counsel of the ICCFA
I've learned to detect a media hit job on the funeral profession whenever I see a reference to Jessica Mitford's book, The American Way of Death. Now look, what are the chances that the journalists in question have ever cracked open a copy of this half-century old book, written before many of them were born? I guess that the purpose in citing this book is to "prove" that problems with funeral homes aren't new. OK, but my problem with the reporters is that they haven't bothered to find out exactly what problems are in the book. They'd be surprised if they did.
I have actually read the book, and I've also read its forgotten sequel, The American Way of Death Revisited, which Mitford was working on at the time of her death in 1996. She was quite a character and had she lived to do the TV talk show circuit, her new book might have made more of an impact. I remember seeing Jessica on ABC's "Nightline" with Ted Koppel around 1991. The full hour was devoted to a cremation scandal in California where cremated remains were commingled, among other things. Every guest on the program expressed their regrets and condolences to the families affected. But not Jessica. She said (from my memory), "What difference does it make? Those people were dead anyway." I never saw Mr. Koppel so nonplussed either before or after that particular show. Mitford revealed what many of us had suspected – that she saw no value in funerals or in commemorating the dead. It really wasn't the issue of a funeral director's ethics but why people were wasting their money for no reason.
With that for context, I began reading the November 2012 issue of Money Magazine. I had spent some time on the phone answering questions from the magazine's reporters and researchers. Just based on the tenor of the questions, I suspected that the fix was in before the research had even been completed. But let's get real, nobody is going to write a three-part series on how wonderful the funeral profession is. And we do have a common purpose with the media in informing the public about scams out there. More important, we all can agree that most people have little idea of all the options and decisions there are in arranging a funeral, and the knowledge of these things is the best preventative to guard against being taken advantage of.
Money Magazine had an opportunity to provide its readers with a well-written piece on the advantages and pitfalls of funeral planning. There is the almost obligatory statement that "many funeral directors are compassionate helpers who follow the rules," but that's the last we hear about that. I will hold off on a final judgment because there are two more installments to go, but if Part One is characteristic of the overall tone, Jessica Mitford would be pleased. First, the title, "The High Cost of Saying Goodbye," suggests that funerals cost too much. If we can agree that housing, cars, gasoline, and groceries cost too much, then I have no problem saying that funerals are no exception. The Money article begins with a family who prepaid for arrangements back in 1992, but were charged thousands more at the time of the funeral in 2010. They felt they were taken to the cleaners, and understandably so. Yet I couldn't help thinking that if they were taken to the proverbial cleaners, they provided the transportation to get there.
By that I mean that after paying for arrangements in 1992, there was apparently no effort made to find out what happens next. They assumed that because they had paid for everything they selected, there would not be other items needed at the time of the funeral they had not prepaid. They also didn't realize that the funeral home could not refuse to accept a casket they had bought online, among other things. I can understand when people are blindsided by the death of a child (as was the case tragically with Mitford, an event she never mentioned in her book), but in the anecdote cited by Money Magazine, the consumers in question might have been more savvy. I'm not suggesting they had to be like Ralph Nader or John Stossel, but even the Federal Trade Commission staff has wondered why after nearly thirty years of the Funeral Rule, most people still have no idea they are entitled to a written price list at the beginning of a conversation about a funeral.
Money next points out that one out of four funeral home checked by the FTC for Funeral Rule compliance were in violation of it. Let's be candid and admit that's indefensible. But violating the Funeral Rule is not necessarily the crime of the century. Most problems stem from the timing of giving customers the written price list. I have no sympathy with funeral directors who never give customers the price list—throw the book at 'em—but the timing can become like the little bird on Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life" that comes down from the rafters when the "secret word" is said. In this case, the secret word is "funeral" and upon hearing it that little bird better have the price list in its beak. This is not consumer protection, especially when customers who properly received the price list say they didn't even look at it but just held it in their hands.
Some funeral homes just can't please the folks at Money. Even armed with the price list, we are told that four out of five funeral consumers don't comparison shop. A consumer advocate is quoted telling a whopper: that government agencies don't track cemetery complaints. It would be more accurate to say that not all states track cemetery complaints—I suspect that Montana or North Dakota don't—but tell that to the agencies in New York, Florida, Texas, California and other states and they will disagree. The article provides some good advice about comparison shopping, bringing along a friend who is not emotionally invested, and knowing your rights under the Funeral Rule.
But then Money has to ruin it all by advising readers not to prefund their funeral or burial arrangements. They even cite the FTC as being against prefunding but I believe the staff's concerns are much more nuanced than "just say no." AARP is opposed to prefunding but then it markets its own "final expense" insurance product they want their members to buy (no conflict of interest here!). Consumers Federation of America doesn't like prefunding either because sometimes the funeral provider in question has financial trouble. This is a valid concern but it's also statistically small. The fact is the virtually all prepaid arrangements are honored and performed even if the individual funeral provider is incapable of doing it.
It is fair to ask why take any risk at all? Actually, the typical consumer incurs a higher risk by NOT prefunding. The standard advice from consumer advocates is to just put aside sufficient funds to pay for the type of funeral you want and have it payable at the time of death. That sounds reasonable until we realize that such accounts are not shielded from creditors' claims such as the all-too-common expenses of the final illness. Most funerals aren't nearly as expensive as the costs of the final illness, which can last for months or years and may not be entirely covered by insurance or Medicare. There is even statistical data to back up this concern: The September 2007 issue of Consumers Union Magazine detailed the results of a survey among adults 18 to 64 who had health insurance coverage. Asked how many had to "dig deeply" into savings to pay their medical expenses even with health coverage, ten percent said they had. Another ten percent said they had to borrow money from relatives and friends to pay their medical bills. Since the age spread was so wide, 18 to 64, I think it's likely that those percentages would have been much higher had the survey focused exclusively on older people.
The big question to ask opponents of prefunding is: if consumers put aside money for their funerals (and that's a big "if"—most people don't even save for their retirement) as you urge them to do, but they must tap these savings to pay their medical bills, how would you suggest they pay for their funerals then? I'm still waiting for an answer. In sum, this first part of Money's coverage of funeral planning contains some good advice about knowing your rights, comparing prices, and knowing the law—it's not that complicated —but it is so weighed down with anecdotes of bad experiences that readers will emerge more fearful than informed. Well. let's see what the next two parts bring.
Posted Nov. 28, 2012