In 1984, the United States Federal Trade Commission (the FTC) passed The Funeral Rule. The Funeral Rule was created to protect consumers from deceptive practices within the funeral industry. The rule defines common terminology used by funeral professionals and consumers alike, and provides guidelines by which funeral directors and funeral homes must abide.
All too often, the parties responsible for arranging funeral services – usually grieving family members – are at their most vulnerable. In their time of sadness, they can forget that a funeral home is a business that intends to turn a profit, and that both parties are agreeing to a business contract.
The Funeral Rule serves to remind consumers – and funeral industry professionals – that funeral services are similar to the intangible products and services sold by banks and life insurance companies, and that many of these prepaid funeral services are subject to regulation. The definition and distinction between who qualifies as a “funeral provider”, and who does not, is clearly explained in The US Funeral Rule. All funeral providers in the United States must comply with this federal rule. Let’s examine some of the key regulations of The Funeral Rule.
The Funeral Rule is extremely specific. It leaves little opportunity for miscommunication or misunderstanding about many of the most common terms used by funeral professionals and society at large. This includes the definition of funeral types from which the consumer may choose.
This type of funeral is the most common in the United States. The Funeral Rule describes this funeral as including a visitation in which the body or ashes of the deceased are present, a formal funeral service, a procession (usually in cars) from the formal service to the cemetery, and a burial or cremation (if the cremation has not already occurred).
This traditional, full-service funeral includes a basic fee for the funeral director/funeral home, as well as fees for transportation of the body to the funeral home, cremation (if chosen), a coffin or urn, the use of the funeral home for the viewing, the cost of labour for burial, and the cost of a cemetery plot or tomb.
Funeral homes often offer dozens of additional services to the family, all of which have fees associated with them. Optional services include: embalming of the body, dressing of the body by funeral staff, a written death notice (obituary) for the newspaper, rental of a hearse or other vehicles, prayer cards for guests, and flower arrangements.
Per The Funeral Rule, an immediate burial is when the body of the deceased is buried soon after death, without a viewing or visitation in a funeral home. No formal service is held before the burial takes place, and the burial itself is simple and without ceremony. It is common for family and friends to have a memorial service after the burial, sometimes at a much later date.
An immediate burial can include a funeral director’s fee, as well as fees for transportation of the body, a coffin (usually one that is more simple than the coffins used for full-service funerals), labour for the burial, and the cemetery plot.
A direct cremation is similar to an immediate burial. The Funeral Rule describes a direct cremation as a cremation that takes place soon after death, without a viewing or visitation by friends and family. The rule allows for the remains (ashes) of the deceased to be buried or held in a cemetery, buried or scattered in another location by friends or family, or kept by family members.
The fees associated with a direct cremation include the funeral director’s basic fee, transportation and cremation of the body (whether done by the funeral home or at a separate crematorium), the cost of an urn or container for the ashes, and the cost for a burial plot or tomb at the cemetery (if chosen).
The aforementioned “funeral director’s basic fee” is also defined by The Funeral Rule. The rule permits funeral homes to charge a basic fee that all customers must pay. Each funeral home may set its own basic fee, but the fee may only include common services to all funerals they provide, such as transportation of the body, use of their facilities, and making arrangements with cemeteries or crematories. Optional services such as coffins and urns, or flower arrangements, cannot not be reflected in the basic fee.
The most specific regulation that resulted from The Funeral Rule was the General Price List (GPL). A GPL is created by each individual funeral provider based on the prices they have determined for their goods and services. A funeral home is required to provide its customers with a GPL as soon as the customer asks about the types of funerals, services, or goods available.
Prior to the existence of the GPL, funeral providers would bundle services together, pricing only the bundle and not disclosing the prices for the individual services in it. If a customer did not want to rent cars for the funeral procession, but the car rental fee was part of the bundle, the price remained the same. Customers, lacking time to “shop around” in their time of need, would be forced to accept the bundled pricing.
The Funeral Rule requires 16 specific prices to be included on the General Price List. It stipulates that the funeral provider may also include itemised prices for other goods and services, but that the language used must be clear and understandable by the consumer. Finally, the GPL must include important disclosures regarding the services and associated fees, and they must use FTC-approved language. The Funeral Rule ensures that all customers have the right to pick and choose services separately. Goods and services may still be bundled for customers who choose a full-service funeral, but only if the bundle is intended to provide a discounted price.
Death and funerals–and government regulation– are touchy subjects for most people, but the US Funeral Rule does have a few takeaways from which the UK’s self-regulated funeral industry could benefit.
Definition of “funeral providers”. The Funeral Rule clearly identifies the factors that qualify a person or business as a funeral provider. In the United States, even if you are not a registered or licensed funeral professional, you must comply with The Funeral Rule if you provide goods and services for funerals. By defining who qualifies as a “funeral provider”, the government is able to enforce regulations.
The UK is lacking a clear and binding definition for who qualifies as a funeral provider. Many local councils have created regulations themselves, but there is no widespread oversight or corresponding consequences for failure to comply with those regulations. Broad legislation that identifies who qualifies as a funeral provider in the UK would create a path for enforceable regulation across all areas.
Transparency in pricing. As explained above, the United States Funeral Rule is strict about providing itemised pricing and disclosures through the use of clear and transparent language. No such law or rule exists in the United Kingdom, therefore funeral directors can use ambiguous and/or deceptive language that may confuse consumers into spending more money than necessary.
The lack of regulation over the funeral industry is well-known to many concerned politicians, funeral professionals, and consumers in the United Kingdom. Many are seeking regulation similar to the United States. Petitions and proposed legislation have been drafted and have circulated for years, including a proposal by the National Council of the Forum on End of Life in Ireland, and a proposed bill by the Scottish government. Both of which have stated their stance on pre paid funeral providers for many years.
The United States Funeral Rule does recognise the regulations of the individual states of the union. If a state has regulations that are more stringent than those laid out in the federal rule, funeral providers in that state must comply with the more stringent (state) laws. This is another area in which the UK could learn from the US; by creating widespread regulations, but not ignoring laws passed by county councils in individual countries.
It is difficult to predict the future of regulation over the funeral industry in the UK. When they have been faced with the topic year after year, politicians have managed to avoid any serious discussion about a UK Funeral Rule. If concerned citizens force the issue, the government may have no choice but to act soon. When they finally decide to tackle the task, the US Funeral Rule will be a proven template which they can follow.