At $7,000 on average, funeral services are some of the most expensive purchases that people make. That they come at a time of emotional vulnerability only raises the potential for financial exploitation.
Armed with that information – and his own difficulty comparison shopping when his father was diagnosed with cancer – Ed Howard of the Center for Public Interest Law successfully sponsored state legislation in 2011 requiring funeral homes to publish information about services on their websites.
Federal law already required funeral homes to provide a list of services on request, but the state now mandates that they provide that list online and tell visitors that price lists are available on request.
Sacramento County funeral homes have a mixed record when it comes to complying with the law, which took effect Jan. 1. The Sacramento Bee reviewed dozens of funeral home websites and forwarded some questionable ones to Howard for his review. He said four of the funeral homes were not in compliance and another four were questionable.
“This means that the death of a loved one is an even more difficult process, because consumers can’t simply find out how much things cost,” said Howard, senior counsel at the University of San Diego-based center. “It’s not just unlawful – it’s wrong.”
Of the four funeral homes that he found out of compliance with the law, Howard said they all make it difficult to find the needed information, if they provide it at all. For instance, Lind Brothers in Carmichael has prices and services in the right format – called a “general price list” – but they can be found only if you see “GPL” in tiny letters at the bottom corner of a page and know what that means.
Lind Brothers did not return a message from The Bee.
Howard, though, reserves some of his strongest criticism for funeral homes he says are likely in compliance but don’t provide the information clearly. He said that’s because they’re owned by Dignity Memorial, which calls itself the “largest network of funeral, cremation and cemetery providers” and has about 150 facilities providing funeral services in California, including four in Sacramento County.
Dignity’s website provides the requisite list of services, which can be found through a link on its home page, and it notes that prices are available upon request. Although that approach keeps the company in compliance, Dignity doesn’t clearly identify the information on its home page and its list of services is jumbled compared with the prescribed federal list, making comparison more difficult, Howard said.
“They’re on the cusp of being in compliance,” he said. “They are 100 percent in violation with the spirit of the law.”
Dignity spokeswoman Jessica McDunn provided The Bee a copy of one of its Sacramento funeral home’s price lists. The price for direct cremation without viewing was $2,895, higher than at 18 other funeral homes in the region, according to prices posted by the homes on their web sites.
McDunn said the company is clearly following the law. She said it posts services but not a general price list because the information is confusing without proper explanation.
“We want to be able to go over the general price list with them,” she said.
Howard instead suggested that funeral homes don’t post prices because “they want to play on your emotions. That’s why they want to get you into the store.”
The original version of Howard’s bill called for the general price list to be posted online. But Howard said he backed off because of opposition from the California Funeral Directors Association. The bill that passed gives funeral homes the option, and quite a few are posting the list, perhaps because they already are required to provide it upon request. Funeral homes without websites are not required to post information online.
Bob Achermann, the association’s executive director, confirmed that funeral directors were initially opposed to having to post prices, saying they were being unfairly singled out as an industry. Since then, the association has worked with funeral directors to comply by repeatedly communicating the law’s requirements.
He said about 40 percent of the industry is not in his association and that some of the businesses that aren’t members are likely not in compliance. Achermann also characterized this first year as a learning period.
That’s been the philosophy at the California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, which regulates the industry, spokeswoman Monica Vargas said.
“What the bureau has done mostly is educate businesses – working with them and bringing them into compliance,” she said. “No establishments have been issued warning letters or fined.”
Howard said the regulator has been too lax. He said the bill already gave funeral homes all of 2012 to get into compliance.
Call The Bee’s Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @BradB_at_SacBee