Urns For Less
August 10, 1999
Each year, California families arrange some 200,000 funerals. Unfortunately, many of those families will be forced to overpay for their funeral services when they supply their own casket, because many California mortuaries are skirting existing state and federal consumer protection laws. Therefore, we ask that the Funeral Rule be revised to specifically prohibit mortuaries from charging more for the funeral services simply because the deceased's family supplies their own casket.
For many years, surviving family members could not even supply their own casket, because most mortuaries refused to perform the funeral services unless the family purchased the casket from that mortuary, usually at an obscene markup. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) tried to break this anti-competitive "bundling" arrangement in 1984, by requiring all mortuaries to accept caskets supplied by a family. Despite that requirement, however, the mortuaries maintained their casket monopoly by charging "casket handling fees" of up to $1,000 on all caskets not purchased from that mortuary. Finally, in 1992, after acknowledging that the mortuaries successfully had circumvented the federal law, California forbade all mortuaries from tacking on such casket handling fees (Bus & Prof Code section 7685.1(b)) (the FTC also banned such handling fees in 1994).
Today, in a blatant attempt to maintain their casket monopoly, mortuaries throughout California circumvent that ban by charging more for the funeral services if the surviving family supplies their own casket. This time around, however, the mortuaries studiously avoid the term "casket handling fee." Rather, they require those families that supply their own casket to buy all of the funeral service items piecemeal, whereas, they permit those families that buy the casket from the mortuary to purchase funeral service packages, which cost up to $1,000 less than buying the funeral service items individually. Whatever the scheme--package discount or casket handling fee--the surviving family members pay substantially more for funeral services when they supply their own casket.
The California Public Interest Research Group found that the purchase of a funeral is the third most expensive purchase the average Californian makes and that current law prohibits the aforementioned pricing scheme. Regardless, the mortuaries claim that the scheme is lawful because such scheme was not specifically prohibited by the casket handling fee ban. As mentioned above, the FTC and the California Legislature previously have tried to open the funeral industry to competition, but each time the mortuaries have managed to weasel around the wording of the law. Therefore, we ask that the Funeral Rule be revised so that it specifically prohibits mortuaries from charging more for the funeral services simply because the deceased's family supplies their own casket. Such a ban would save American families millions of dollars each year.
Barry M. Taira