Posted By Josh Slocum on August 5, 2011
-by Lisa Carlson
I traveled to Sullivan, Indiana this week to see if I could help a young man fight an outrageous funeral bill. His wife, a housekeeper at a local hotel, died suddenly in June ’09, with no insurance or benefits. She was the sole bread-winner, as he is disabled with a back injury. The funeral director was fully aware of the financial circumstances yet behaved illegally and unethically in order to crank up the bill. A brother-in-law contributed $500, and the family got $1,000 from the county. The funeral director refused time payments. In November ’09, the funeral director went to Small Claims Court for the balance of the $6,900 funeral bill.
By January, Kevin’s mother found me on the Internet. I was stunned by what I heard and promptly sent the following letter to the judge:
Some become funeral directors as a mission to help people at one of the most difficult times in their lives. For others, funeral directing is just a job, and they are not above manipulating the bereaved for their own benefit. Mr. Holmes appears to be one of these.
Because of documented abuse and to protect consumers to the extent possible, the Federal Trade Commission passed the Funeral Rule in 1984. Three of the requirements of the Rule are that families must be given a General Price List (GPL), a Casket Price List (CPL), and an Outer Burial Container Price List (OBCPL) prior to finalizing any choices. These are the “menus” of available options from which to choose. (If one were to end up at an expensive restaurant chosen by friends, one could at least see the costs ahead of time and choose only a salad for one’s meal perhaps.) All funeral homes in the country have been mailed information on Complying with the Funeral Rule: <http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/business/adv/bus05.pdf> It is also covered in Continuing Education courses from time to time.
When the FTC does undercover funeral shopping to see if funeral homes are complying with the Rule, funeral homes are at risk of a $11,000 fine [now $16,000] for failing to give out a GPL in a timely way and another $11,000 fine [$16,000] each for failing to give out a CPL or OBCPL prior to selection of a casket and vault. Kevin Lowe and his family were given none of these opportunities to limit funeral costs for Carla Lowe, even though Mr. Holmes was repeatedly told, “There is no insurance.”
Indeed, Mr. Holmes’ unprofessional conduct was conspicuous when, in the middle of Kevin’s effort to make arrangements, Mr. Holmes started promoting his own funeral insurance to Carla’s siblings.
When trying to select a casket in the casket showroom, Kevin’s mother asked what the lowest cost casket was. They were led to a garage, and a tarp was pulled off a metal casket for which Mr. Holmes charged the family $1,395. (The wholesale cost for this casket was likely $395.) He sold them a name-brand vault for $1,125. The total funeral came to $6,906.40.
Every funeral director wants to get paid for his/her labors but is foolish to sell a funeral for which a family can’t pay. What would an ethical funeral director have done in a situation where funds are clearly limited? One of the options required on the GPL is an “Immediate Burial” package which Mr. Holmes could have pointed out. When I inquired by telephone, Mr. Holmes told me his charge for that was $1,400. His charge for a graveside service is $494, I think. (He had a little trouble citing the exact price over the phone, starting at $395 before he settled on the $494 price.) When I asked about the least expensive casket, he told me, “$1,095 on the floor, but others are available at around $600 or $700.” And his price for a concrete box as required by the cemetery? “Around $600.” So if Kevin had been given the information required by the FTC and he selected the barest minimum to bury his wife, Kevin’s total bill might have been almost $3,000 less.
That Mr. Holmes would sell such an expensive funeral to a family that clearly said they had almost no money is by itself offensive. But to refuse time payments from a disabled husband who just lost the family breadwinner, regardless how modest the payments might be, and to subject Mr. Lowe to the additional stress of court action seems particularly malevolent. The $1,500 Mr. Holmes has already received has covered most of his out-of-pocket expenses. Since Mr. Holmes escaped the FTC scrutiny and $33,000 in fines this time, perhaps he should be ordered to mark the balance of Kevin Lowe’s bill for Carla’s funeral “Paid in Full,” as a deterrent from such despicable conduct in the future.
cc: Holmes Memorial Chapel
cc: Indiana Funeral and Cemetery Board
cc: Indiana Funeral Directors Association
cc: Kevin Lowe
All was quiet for 18 months, and we all assumed Mr. Holmes was properly chagrined. But when he heard that Kevin was finally awarded the disability for which he had applied, he moved to have Small Claims enforce the November ’09 ruling. A hearing was scheduled for August 2nd, 2011, and I flew out to see if I could help. Alas, the letter I had sent 18 months ago pointing out the unethical and illegal violations didn’t count, as the young man needed to appeal himself, and the time to appeal a decision had long since past.
While there, I did have some fun shopping at the two funeral homes the day before . . . under my maiden name. I was shopping for my Aunt Lucy who was 93 and under hospice care with no insurance and little money. Mr. Holmes now has a somewhat younger man, Scott, working with him, and I actually got price lists on this visit, unlike Kevin’s experience. But Scott was very manipulative, stopping his explanation of costs at the bottom of the second page of the three-page GPL, before we got to any low-cost options. He started trying to fill in a worksheet as if we were having a one-of-everything funeral. . . even though I’d told him Aunt Lucy had few assets and was out-living all her friends so we wouldn’t need a big funeral. Needless to say, I went ahead and turned the page, knowing what should be next—
Immediate Burial and Direct Cremation. I then complained about the $1095 casket price, the cheapest on the casket price list, and Scott said he could special-order a cloth-covered for $795. Why wasn’t that price listed? Because the FTC Funeral Rule says they don’t have to list special-order caskets on the Casket Price List. Then I noted that there is a package price for an Immediate Burial with a casket from the funeral home that’s only $595 more than an Immediate Burial with the casket supplied by the family. “Oh,” he said, “That’s the flat-top,” and went to get a picture. That wasn’t listed either, of course. They didn’t have “an unfinished box” even though it’s mentioned on the casket sheet (without a price) as was the cloth-covered special-order. To their credit, when I suggested I might have my brother Edward make a casket, neither funeral home objected. Of course, who knows what might have been added to the final bill in that case.
The other funeral home—Banks and Brust—gave the GPL promptly. The Direct Cremation was $1900 but an Immediate Burial was about $2900, over $3,600 with a minimum casket, almost as much as a full-service funeral. I asked why so much more for an Immediate Burial when it included exactly the same services as Direct Cremation. Actually, why wasn’t it less than cremation since the crematory fee was included? The funeral director hemmed and hawed over that one, never really coming up with an answer.
As we were leaving, he said he didn’t want to lose a customer over $100 or so. I mentioned that Holmes was a LOT less for an Immediate Burial. Ten minutes later, he rang my cell phone (which they’d taken when I made the appointment). He said he’d given me the wrong price for an Immediate Burial. It should be only $1825—
the total of the basic fee, removal, and a coach to the cemetery. So I said I guess he’d need to change the price on his GPL. I was aghast when he said, “No, we like the GPL the way it is.” Because grieving families don’t have the presence of mind to compare prices a la carte, no doubt. It makes one wonder if they’re taking advantage of those who can’t opt for cremation for perhaps religious reasons.