The largest funeral home "sweep" in the country has just been completed in Massachusetts. Using test shoppers, the Federal Trade Commission and the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office visited forty funeral homes in six Massachusetts cities. Ten of those homes appeared to be in violation of the FTC's Funeral Rule. The Funeral Rule is designed to ensure that consumers making funeral arrangements receive price lists and are informed that they can purchase only the goods and services they want or need. Rather than contest possible charges in federal court, the ten homes opted to enroll in the new Funeral Rule Offenders Program ("FROP").
The FROP program, announced in January 1996, was developed to boost compliance with the FTC's Funeral Rule. Under the program, funeral homes that appear to be in violation of the Rule -- and that choose to enter the FROP program rather than face possible formal legal actions -- will make a voluntary payment to the U.S. Treasury. The payment is lower than the civil penalty the FTC might obtain in a formal law enforcement action for Funeral Rule violations, which can range up to $10,000 per violation. As a result of the Massachusetts sweep, the ten homes entering the FROP program will make payments to the U.S. Treasury totaling just over $20,000.00.
Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger stated, "I am pleased that my office and the FTC could join forces to conduct such a broad investigation into funeral practices in Massachusetts. When consumers are dealing with the stress of the death of a loved one, or contemplating future arrangements for themselves, it is vitally important that they receive all the information they need, and that they be given copies of information to review at home. It allows them to consider all avenues, without fearing that they will make hasty or costly decisions without thoughtful consideration."
Prior to the sweep, each funeral home had received copies of the FTC's Funeral Rule Compliance Guide, which contains information on how to comply with the Funeral Rule. A test shopper then went to each funeral home and asked about making funeral arrangements. The Funeral Rule requires a funeral home to give a consumer an itemized price list at the beginning of any discussion of funeral arrangements or prices for funeral goods or services. If the funeral home failed to provide the shopper with the required information, another test shopper was sent to the home on a different day to discuss funeral arrangements and prices. Funeral homes that failed to provide the required information on more than one occasion were then notified of their non-compliance and offered the option of entering into the FROP program.
The FTC and state Attorneys General have been conducting similar Funeral Rule enforcement sweeps since late 1994. Other sweeps have netted five violators in Delaware; seven violators in the Nashville, Tennessee; five violators in the Tampa, Florida area and seven violators in Mississippi. More sweeps are expected to be launched soon.
The FTC's Funeral Rule, promulgated by the Commission in 1984, was revised in 1994. The rule requires funeral homes to give consumers who visit a funeral home to discuss funeral arrangements or prices a copy of an itemized general prize list that they can use to comparison shop. The general price list contains a number of disclosures and other information -- for example, that embalming is not necessarily required by law. The FTC's rule also makes clear that consumers do not have to buy a package funeral, but can pick and choose the goods and services they want. It also requires funeral homes to give consumers itemized lists of the goods and services they have selected, so that they can be sure they are paying only for the items chosen or required by law.
A free FTC brochure for consumers, titled "Funerals: A Consumer Guide," provides additional information about consumers' rights and legal requirements when planning funerals. Copies are available from the FTC's Public Reference Branch, Room 130, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 202-326-2222; TTY for the hearing impaired 202-326-2502. To find out the latest FTC news as it is announced, call the FTC's NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710. FTC news releases and other materials also are available on the Internet at the FTC's World Wide Web Site at: http://www.ftc.gov
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