ICFA analyzes funeral-related complaints filed with FTC
by ICFA General Counsel Robert M. Fells, Esq.
Since 1998, the ICFA has analyzed funeral-related complaints consumers have filed with the Federal Trade Commission by letter, phone, fax and, more recently, e-mail. The FTC does not publish these complaints and inquiries but makes them available to interested parties who file requests through a federal disclosure law known as the Freedom of Information Act.
General complaints involving consumer fraud alone accounted for more than 635,000 complaints filed with the FTC in 2004. By contrast, the total number of funeral-related consumer complaints filed with FTC during the two-year period beginning January 2003 and ending December 2004 is 571, or approximately 24 complaints per month on a nationwide basis. To further place these figures into context, there were approximately 2.4 million deaths during each of the two years under review.
It is important to note that FTC staff cautions that the "complaints have not necessarily been verified by the FTC. Therefore, you should make your own judgment about relying on the information provided." In addition, not all complaints were filed by customers of the businesses subject to the complaint.
The ICFA's analysis of the complaints indicates that a fair number were filed by competitors or former employees of the businesses named in the complaints. One complainant filed a series of complaints against individual funeral homes owned by the same company. However, the majority of complaints appear to be filed by consumers who were dissatisfied with their experience.
Of the 571 complaints provided by the FTC, 409, or approximately 70 percent, involved funeral homes. A slight majority of the funeral home complaints, 238, or 58 percent, dealt with potential violations of the FTC Funeral Rule. The most common allegations involved the lack of itemization or not providing a general price list, imposing additional charges when the casket was purchased from another provider or charging fees that had not been previously disclosed.
Complaints not relating to the Funeral Rule involving funeral homes focused on allegations such as rude or insensitive conduct, not providing copies of the death certificate, mistakes in the obituary and incidents where the remains would not be released for burial until the bill was paid.
Perhaps the most bizarre complaint involved an allegation where the funeral director threatened to disinter the deceased and return the remains to the mortuary until the family signed certain papers.
Complaints filed against third-party sellers
After funeral homes, the highest number of complaints involved third-party entities such as casket retailers, monument companies, cremation services, telemarketers and casket and vault manufacturers. These complaints totaled 78, or approximately 14 percent of the 571. Only three of the third-party complaints appeared to be Funeral Rule-related. For purposes of this review, complaints were considered related to the Funeral Rule regardless of whether the particular business is technically considered a "funeral provider" under the current definition in the Funeral Rule. For example, casket stores are not covered under the Funeral Rule, but where a complaint alleged that a casket store did not provide a written price list, the complaint would be considered Funeral Rule-related.
Complaints filed against cemeteries
The third largest category of complaints involved cemeteries. Seventy-five complaints, approximately 13 percent of the total, alleged a variety of cemetery misconduct, including added charges when a customer purchased a marker or vault from another provider, inability to obtain a refund when cemetery property is no longer wanted and late delivery or delayed installation of a marker.
Eight of the cemetery complaints appeared to be Funeral-Rule related. Perhaps as an indication of the rise of third-party sellers in recent years, this 2003-2004 survey of consumer complaints marks the first time there have been more complaints against third parties than against cemeteries, though the difference is a marginal three complaints.
Rounding out the total number of complaints, eight were filed against combined funeral home-cemetery operations, and only one complaint was lodged specifically against a crematory.
The ICFA understands that the 571 complaints received by the FTC during 2003 and 2004 do not represent the total number of complaints in the United States that may exist against the cemetery and funeral profession for that time period.
However, the ICFA believes it is reasonable to interpret this data as an important representative sampling, on a national level, of the types of problems that consumers and others, such as third parties and competitors, are experiencing.
This data will be particularly helpful when the FTC resumes its Funeral Rule review proceedings, which are expected to begin by the end of the year. ICFA members will be kept informed of significant developments.