Death Toll – Times Publications, August 2008

High pressure sales tactics and consumer ignorance leave many grieving Arizonans vulnerable to funeral R.I.P. offs.

Last year, John and Laurie McKinley started planning their funerals – picking out caskets, comparing prices at mortuaries and finally purchasing side-by-side funeral plots.

Both in their mid-50s, the McKinleys wanted to avoid passing the financial and emotional burden associated with funeral planning on to their children.

But while John McKinley says he was ready for the inevitable, he was not prepared for the business practices at some of the Valley’s mortuaries.

“It was like buying a used car,” he says. “They’re like a bunch of vultures.”

McKinley says he found prices varied widely from one funeral home to the next, and several salesmen attempted to pad their bills with “hidden charges,” while others used “high-pressure tactics” in an attempt to get him to spend more money.

McKinley compared prices, did his research and was finally able to settle on a lower price he felt was fair. But he says the experience gave him a new perspective on the business of dying.

“They know you want the best for your loved one, they act like they care, but all they’re seeing is the money,” he says. “That’s what they do for a living.”

Funeral industry critics say McKinley’s experience is fairly common. Though the funeral industry is a business and its administrators are in business to make a profit, problems arise when grieving families handle the transaction emotionally, leaving them susceptible to rip offs.

On average, a person can expect to be involved in directly organizing a funeral only twice in their lifetime. In addition, because the public tends to ignore the subject of death until absolutely necessary, consumers often have little or no knowledge of the financial aspects of arranging a funeral.

Grief and consumer ignorance can leave relatives vulnerable to price gouging, manipulative strategies and pressure sales tactics. To avoid being ripped off, consumers should research several mortuaries, shop around for more favorable pricing and become informed about general funeral industry practices.

“This is an industry based on secrecy and fear,” says Father Henry Wasielewski, of Tempe, a retired Catholic priest and funeral industry watchdog for more than 20 years. “That secrecy is the absolute key to this industry. If people knew how much these things cost and how much they’re being ripped off, people would be up in arms. But they just don’t know.”

‘Don’t You Want the Best?’

Funeral homes will often prey on a consumer’s emotions and grief to encourage them to spend more money, says Phyllis Rowe, vice president of the non-profit Arizona Funeral Consumer Alliance and a consumer advocate board member on the state funeral board.

“They use a number of tactics to play upon your grief,” says Rowe, who became a consumer advocate after feeling ripped off by a mortuary while planning her father’s funeral. “It’s unfortunate. I don’t think the people really know that they’re being price gouged.”

Critics allege that several mortuaries attempt to up-sell to grieving families by preying upon their guilt and grief. They may ask, “Don’t you want the best for your loved one?” or persuade families that a product or service is considered more “respectful,” Rowe says.

These common tactics put the consumer at a disadvantage, says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Even if mortuaries aren’t trying to be manipulative, it’s often the nature of the transaction, he says.

Darryl Roberts, who served as a funeral director for 30 years, says it may not be something entirely nefarious on the part of funeral salespeople, but is more a result of a conflict of interest.

“The vast majority of the people in the industry are good people. They are in a situation where they have a conflict of interest between their jobs and the consumers,” he says. “You’re led to overspend, because that’s their job. That’s the funeral industry’s job.” When Roberts was working as a funeral director he recalls often trying to up-sell customers because he was there to make money, but he says it “always ate at me that it wasn’t really fair to the consumers.”

After retiring, Roberts wrote an expose, “Profits of Death,” to reveal unfair practices in the industry.

Roberts says a common reason families are taken advantage of is because they don’t shop around. Consumers typically choose a funeral home because it is close to where they live or because of a reference, expecting services to be comparably priced. In addition, purchasing decisions are often made under time constraints, since the average time between death and funeral proceedings is just four to six days.

“There’s very little price shopping in the industry,” Roberts says. “They have a captive market. When you walk in the door there, they know they have a sale. The only question is: ‘How much is it going to be?’”

Slocum says in some cases it goes further than preying upon the emotions or guilt of the consumers, asserting that some funeral homes will actually lie to families, telling them they are required to buy optional services. Several customers have lodged complaints with the Arizona Funeral Board alleging they were told embalming was required prior to a public viewing or cremation, which is untrue. Families can instead choose to refrigerate the remains if there is to be a delay prior to final disposition.

“It is illegal for funeral homes to tell consumers they are required to buy things when that isn’t true,” Slocum says. “Unfortunately it does happen.”

‘A Horrible Experience’

When 58-year-old James Robinson died suddenly of a hospital staph infection, his longtime girlfriend, Belinda Hollins, was left to fulfill his final wishes.

Hollins went to a mortuary near her Phoenix home to make the arrangements. Robinson’s wishes were to be cremated, but his family first wanted the opportunity to say their final goodbyes, so Hollins asked the salesman what her options were. Instead of being presented with a list of products and services offered by the mortuary and related prices, a practice required by federal law, Hollins says she was only shown one casket and quoted a price of $1,495, with a funeral cost totaling nearly $5,000.

“They took me in a room and said I had to pick one,” she says.

Since the casket would only be used for two hours, she says she asked about renting one.

“He said this is the procedure, this is the way it goes,” Hollins says. “He said I can’t rent a steel casket and that the state law of Arizona says you cannot rent a steel casket. You have to buy it.”

There is no such law. In fact, most Arizona funeral homes do rent caskets and sell a disposable liner insert required for casket rentals.

Hollins says she was unaware that other funeral homes may have provided her with a rental casket.

Several weeks later, another funeral home director informed her she had been misled. She complained to the state funeral board. At the hearing, the funeral home contended that they had showed Hollins a pricelist, multiple caskets and offered to rent her a wood casket. It came down to Hollins’ word against that of the funeral home representatives, and with no proof, the complaint was dismissed.

“It was a horrible experience,” she says. “Eventually I just gave up.”

Costly Inconsistencies

Critics of the funeral industry contend that manipulative sales tactics are just one of the issues facing an aging American populace. Inconsistencies in the prices being charged for what amount to the same products and services mean consumers may be increasingly vulnerable to excessive charges.

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average funeral in the United States costs $6,500, and the total can easily exceed $10,000 once a burial plot, flowers and other costs are included.

In Arizona, funeral costs can vary widely, and in extreme cases, can be as much as ten times higher from one mortuary to the next. At the Eastlake Mortuary in Phoenix, for instance, a traditional burial not including the casket or the burial plot costs $995, while the price is $10,500 at the Chapel of Chimes in Glendale, according to a 2008 price survey of 73 Valley funeral homes by the nonprofit Arizona Funeral Consumer Alliance. There are a number of reasons the costs can vary and, according to the survey, corporate-owned funeral homes are typically more expensive than family-owned facilities.

One factor contributing to the difference in price is the overhead of the mortuary.

“If you want to go to a huge place, with red carpet and crystal chandeliers, that’s fine,” says Darrin Harper, funeral director of Harper’s Mortuary in Phoenix. “But you’re going to pay for it.”

Paying for a nicer setting may be worth the added expense for some families, but several other services unrelated to the mortuary setting are often inconsistently priced. Prices for direct cremation, for instance, a process which simply means a deceased person is cremated without services or a viewing, are starkly higher at some Valley mortuaries.

At Mesa’s A Wise Choice Desert View Chapel, a direct cremation is priced at $395, while the same service costs $2,300 at Resthaven Park Mortuary in Phoenix, according to the survey. Since most funeral homes are shipping bodies to the same crematories, the only difference appears to be the price.

“People think direct cremation is direct cremation,” says Harper. “But it depends on what door you’re walking through.”

Funeral costs cannot be regulated by the Arizona Funeral Board or any other governing body, says Rudy Thomas, the board’s executive director.

“Funeral homes have the right to free enterprise,” he says. “All we can do is set standards.”

Thomas says higher quality services can be found for lower prices, and he recommends asking mortuaries for their pricelists prior to making a commitment.

“People don’t know what to expect,” says Jo Chavez, a chaplain and owner of Mesa’s Caskets and More, a retailer of discount caskets and urns. “They go to these people as professionals, but these people are salesmen.”

The mark-up on caskets is often between 300 and 500 percent or more at many Arizona funeral homes. For example, a Batesville casket that wholesales for $625 is often sold for up to $4,063 at many mortuaries, according to data collected by the Interfaith Funeral Information Committee.

Chavez says purchasing caskets outside of the funeral homes is one way consumers can save money, though mortuaries may attempt to steer consumers away from that option.

“Our caskets come from the same manufacturer that delivers to the funeral homes,” she says. “It’s just a matter of what you choose to mark them up.”

Harper says most funeral directors are good people who work to help consumers. Harper’s is one of the more price-competitive funeral homes in the Valley, and one of two in Arizona that work with a program created by the Interfaith Funeral Information Committee to provide low-cost funerals.

“A lot of people point the finger at us funeral directors that we’re hurting or price gouging,” Harper says. “You have one bad seed in every apple pie, but a lot of us are in business to help people.”

Buyer Be Prepared

A few years ago Harvey Malkin went to a Scottsdale funeral home to make arrangements for his mother. At the mortuary, he says he was never given a pricelist and believes the funeral home misrepresented the costs. He ended up going to another funeral home and filed a complaint to the funeral board. Since funeral boards can’t regulate prices and there wasn’t any proof the family didn’t receive a pricelist, the complaint was dismissed.

Although he says the process was difficult to go through while grieving a loved one, he learned from the experience.

“Before you get into this situation, you have to be prepared for the eventuality,” he says. “You have to already have made buying decisions.”

The funeral industry works against the consumers in many ways, funeral critics say. One of the best defenses against being overcharged for funeral expenses is preplanning.

Preplanning consists of arranging funeral services and choosing products, like caskets and flowers, prior to death. But many preplanning proponents warn against prepaying.

“It’s unfortunate because the industry really hawks prepayment as taking care of everything,” Slocum says. “It really is a very unwise choice in most instances.”

Even when someone prepays, funeral homes often add on extra charges or adjust the costs for inflation, leaving families with a bill when the funeral ultimately takes place. “You shouldn’t give them any money,” Wasielewski says. “The best thing to do is put your money into a separate account, if you want to put money aside.”

He adds that it is wise to appoint a trustee who will have access to the funds and be responsible for paying the final costs of the funeral.

To avoid funeral-industry pitfalls, an increasing number of consumers are looking for alternatives to traditional arrangements.

“When a loved one dies, people should understand there are many options for disposing of a body and celebrating the life of that loved one,” says Ruth Zemek, a former Better Business Bureau executive who now runs a consulting service advising consumers on how to plan low-cost and environmentally friendly funerals.

“The options that are presented by the funeral industry are not all inclusive; they don’t really represent all the options,” she says. One increasingly popular alternative to traditional arrangements are green burials. Instead of an expensive steel casket, green burials utilize an inexpensive, bio-degradable casket and use no embalming fluid or concrete vault. Not only are green burials cheaper, they are also environmentally friendly.

In addition, families can gather for free at someone’s home or at a park to share memories of the person’s life, Zemek says.

“I have seen poor families borrow money so that they could give a loved one a proper funeral,” Zemek says. “People can have a beautiful celebration of the life of a loved one that incorporates their friends and family in a happy state. And they can also do that for a relatively small financial expense.”

Regardless of the type of funeral a family chooses, it is important for consumers to be knowledgeable.

“When a family is planning a funeral, families are at a distinct disadvantage because they don’t know their options,” she says. “The best way to deal with that is to become informed.”

Interfaith Funeral Information Committee:
Arizona Funeral Consumer Alliance:
Arizona Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers:
Funeral Consumer Alliance: