I admit it, I’m jealous. The Funeral Consumer Alliance (FCA), the funeral profession’s staunchest critic, joined with the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) to take a survey of funeral home prices in ten U.S. metropolitan areas. No, that’s not why I’m jealous. I am jealous because they managed to get their story carried in some prestigious news media outlets including Time, Forbes, and the Washington Post. I wish we could do that.
At any rate, FCA/CFA say they randomly selected 15 funeral homes in ten cities: Atlanta, Denver, Indianapolis, Mercer County, NJ, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Orange County, CA, Philadelphia, Seattle, Tucson, and Washington, D.C. They said that each funeral home had a website and they wanted to see how many posted their prices on the websites. The groups also wanted to see how many of these funeral homes provided price information by email when each was contacted by email. Perhaps this is a good time for me to note that the FTC Funeral Rule has never required funeral providers to post their prices on their websites or send them by email. The Rule does require that written price lists must be given to anyone who inquires in person at the funeral home or who asks for prices over the phone.
FCA/CFA summarize the results of their survey as follows: only 38 of the 150 funeral homes selected (25%) fully disclosed prices on their websites. And 24 funeral homes (16%) did not disclose prices on their websites or in response to email or a phone call. Also, the prices that were disclosed indicate a wide variety of prices for similar goods among various funeral homes. These results were labeled as “bad news” by FCA/CFA and the news media followed this lead unquestioningly.
But like little Johnny, I can read. So I went to the FCA website (I didn’t check to see if they post their prices) to examine the raw data or whatever details they chose to provide inquiring minds. A separate document was helpfully provided for each of the ten cities surveyed. These are the results that I found: of the 150 funeral homes, 134 gave the price information requested – even though they were not legally required to do so. In fact, five of the ten cities had 100% compliance with the requested information. Of the remaining five cities, 16 of the 75 funeral homes provided none of the requested price data. I realize that FCA/CFA claimed the number to be 24, not 16, but examining the individual city data, I only counted 16. I’m willing to be corrected but this is what I found.
No survey is perfect and one can nitpick if so inclined. I prefer to examine the details to discover if there’s a built-in bias or simply an ax to grind by the survey takers. I found it in the FCA/CFA survey. For each city, a chart was listed with four subsections. All listed at the top “Total Funeral Homes Surveyed 15.” The four subsections are: Number who put their complete General Price List and consumer disclosures on their site; Number that provided a price list by email after an email request; Number that provided a complete price list only after a phone call; and finally, Number that did not provide any price information.; It was this last section where I derived the 16 funeral homes that provided no info. I don’t know how they got 24. Now for the bias: for the five cities where there was a 100% response rate in one of the three subsections, the fourth – Number that did not provide any price information – was omitted. Of course, for consistency this fourth subsection should have been listed and the number “0” been assigned. The fact that this data was dropped suggests bias. The downside of reporting survey results is that if you’re intellectually honest you have to report all the results, not just the stuff that supports your position.
If this survey was commissioned by ICCFA, I like to think that everything would have been reported. Of course, our headline would be: 75% of funeral homes provide price information they are not required to give out. But just as history is written by the victors, survey results are reported by those who commission them.
The real surprise for me is the FCA/CFA complaining about the wide variety in pricing. They measured prices in three areas: direct cremation, immediate burial, and full funeral. The high and low price points in each city were thousands of dollars apart. To most people this indicates vigorous price competition but consumer advocates see this as confusing and therefore bad for the public. I wonder what they would say if all the prices were similar. Of course we know what they would say: Price fixing! Sometimes you just can’t win.
More troubling is the way pricing is shoehorned into three categories. A direct cremation will include different things with different providers; same with direct burial and full funerals. The survey pretends to compare apples but they are mixing apples and oranges together. This is not unlike assigning automobile prices to compact, midsize, full size. Most folks know enough about cars to spot the flawed methodology here. Speaking about cars, I’ve checked local car dealers and I can’t find any that post their prices on their websites. I don’t believe they are being deceptive or sneaky. They likely want me to come in and see what they’re selling, take a drive in the models, and experience the value of each car. Then the prices can be considered in context. But when a group’s agenda is to say that funerals cost too much, shorn of any value proposition, then the disclosure or non-disclosure of prices becomes a moot point.
The bottom line of the FCA/CFA survey is to call on the Federal Trade Commission to require funeral providers to post their prices on their websites, and to send them by email on request. This move would require amending the Funeral Rule, which is currently scheduled for review in three years. FCA/CFA points to California law as a precedent for requiring the posting of funeral prices on websites. But it seems that California doesn’t actually require this. Perhaps the real question is regardless of government mandates, should funeral providers post their prices on the Internet? This where forces in the market place will provide changes better than any government regulation can. If the competitors of a funeral home are posting their prices, you can bet that the mortuary in question will soon follow suit.