The time period that follows the death of a loved one is typically one filled with grief and other strong emotions. It is also a very vulnerable time for the survivors, making it a poor time to make important decisions. Nevertheless, there are often a number of important decisions relating to the decedent’s funeral and burial that must be made. If you find yourself faced with making these decisions, it may help to know that the law offers you some protection through something known as the “Funeral Rule.”
The History of the Funeral Rule
Until about 50 years ago, the National Funeral Directors Association prohibited its members from advertising their prices in newspapers and other media. At first glance, this prohibition may seem as though it was intended to be respective of the grief surviving loved ones experience; however, what the prohibition really did was to make it easier for providers to slip in last minute costs and unexpected fees when loved ones of a decedent were planning a funeral. Because they had no way of knowing the costs ahead of time, they had little choice but to pay the extra costs and fees if they wanted the funeral to proceed as planned. Eventually, the Department of Justice stepped in and filed a lawsuit after which the Federal Trade Commission established the Funeral Rule in 1984.
Your Rights under the Funeral Rule
If you are a surviving loved one who is charged with planning a funeral, it helps to know the rights you have under the Funeral Rule, such as the right to:
- Buy only the funeral arrangements you want. You have the right to buy separate goods (such as caskets) and services (such as embalming or a memorial service). You do not have to accept a package that may include items you do not want.
- Get price information on the telephone. Funeral directors must give you price information on the telephone if you ask for it. You don’t have to give them your name, address, or telephone number first. Although they are not required to do so, many funeral homes mail their price lists, and some post them online.
- Get a written, itemized price list when you visit a funeral home. The funeral home must give you a General Price List (GPL) that is yours to keep. It lists all the items and services the home offers, and the cost of each one.
- See a written casket price list before you see the actual caskets. Sometimes, detailed casket price information is included on the funeral home’s GPL. More often, though, it’s provided on a separate casket price list. Get the price information before you see the caskets, so that you can ask about lower-priced products that may not be on display.
- See a written outer burial container price list. Outer burial containers are not required by state law anywhere in the U.S., but many cemeteries require them to prevent the grave from caving in. If the funeral home sells containers, but doesn’t list their prices on the GPL, you have the right to look at a separate container price list before you see the containers. If you don’t see the lower-priced containers listed, ask about them.
- Receive a written statement after you decide what you want, and before you pay. It should show exactly what you are buying and the cost of each item. The funeral home must give you a statement listing every good and service you have selected, the price of each, and the total cost immediately after you make the arrangements.
- Get a written explanation of requirements. If there are any legal cemetery or crematory requirement that require you to buy any funeral goods or services, you have a right to a written explanation describing those requirements.
- Use an “alternative container” instead of a casket for cremation. No state or local law requires the use of a casket for cremation. A funeral home that offers cremations must tell you that alternative containers are available, and must make them available. They might be made of unfinished wood, pressed wood, fiberboard, or cardboard.
- Provide the funeral home with a casket or urn you buy elsewhere. The funeral provider cannot refuse to handle a casket or urn you bought online, at a local casket store, or somewhere else — or charge you a fee to do it. The funeral home cannot require you to be there when the casket or urn is delivered to them.
- Make funeral arrangements without embalming. No state law requires routine embalming for every death. Some states require embalming or refrigeration if the body is not buried or cremated within a certain time; some states don’t require it at all. In most cases, refrigeration is an acceptable alternative. In addition, you may choose services like direct cremation and immediate burial, which don’t require any form of preservation. Many funeral homes have a policy requiring embalming if the body is to be publicly viewed, but this is not required by law in most states. Ask if the funeral home offers private family viewing without embalming. If some form of preservation is a practical necessity, ask the funeral home if refrigeration is available.
If you believe that a funeral home violated your rights under the Funeral Rule because you were not given a general price list or because a funeral and burial cost was substantially more than you were told, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
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