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Originally published November 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 19, 2007 at 3:35 PM

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Aging Deliberately

Keeping an eye on the funeral industry

Last week, I began a three-part series about the funeral industry — a topic that will almost certainly turn many of you off. Although we are allergic...

Special to The Seattle Times

Last week, I began a three-part series about the funeral industry — a topic that will almost certainly turn many of you off.

Although we are allergic to the thought of getting older, I think we're more afraid to think about and plan for our deaths. But here's the punch line: Planning for our aging and our death gives us far more control over what happens, which is what most people want. It allows us to make intelligent choices while we're able — and make our wishes known to those who care about us.

But thinking about our deaths offers something else: a peek into a fascinating world of providers and practices we usually ignore. It's time to grab the handle and pull this door open. As much as we don't want to, we must. When we do — if we've educated ourselves ahead of time — we're more able to protect ourselves against a number of unsavory business practices.

Funerals are a $15 billion industry. As nearly 80 million boomers march inexorably toward old age, can you imagine a more reliable "growth" industry over the next 50 years? It's time to wake up and pay attention.

It's an industry of sharp contrasts. On one hand, there are 21,000 funeral homes in the nation. On the other, there are a little more than 100 consumer groups, run mainly by volunteers, dedicated to educating the public about their rights as funeral consumers and how to make wise choices.

Last week, I wrote about Seattle's People's Memorial Association (PMA), which started the educational movement in 1939. With three paid staff members, it is now the largest funeral-planning group in the nation.

"There are a lot of good people in the funeral business," says Ron Hast of Tiburon, Calif., who's been in the industry for 50 years as owner of 14 funeral homes. He's now publisher of Mortuary Management magazine, a trade monthly that goes to 10,000 subscribers.

Most funeral providers are locally run, he says, but corporations own a growing share, and the corporate agenda is focused on the bottom line. There's now a great emphasis on selling products, getting commissions and meeting financial quotas.

This is true in a lot of industries, but the funeral industry "is a different breed of cat," he says. Nobody wants to call a funeral home, so when they do, they're in grief and have no idea what they're getting into.

In response to widespread complaints — and an exposé about funeral-home practices in Jessica Mitford's 1963 book, "The American Way of Death" — the Federal Trade Commission passed the Funeral Rule more than 20 years ago, setting basic consumer-protection requirements for the industry.

Among its most important provisions, the Funeral Rule requires funeral homes to offer accurate and up-to-date price information to consumers in writing, prohibits them from lying about legal requirements in order to sell products or services, prohibits them from "bundling" or requiring customers to buy a certain "package" of goods and services, and other safeguards.

Unfortunately, says Joshua Slocum, executive director of Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA), a national consortium of educational funeral nonprofits, research shows widespread noncompliance.

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For example, in 2005, FCA volunteers collected price information for funeral homes in the Columbus, Ohio, area. Out of 65 providers, only 12 were in full compliance with the FTC rule.

Examples of violations include a false disclosure that embalming is required for a graveside service when it is not, failure to disclose fees for basic services, failure to tell consumers they may choose an alternative container (such as cardboard) for cremation instead of a casket, failure to disclose a price range for caskets and inclusion of required services consumers must pay for even if they don't want them all.

Four funeral homes even gave their cremation fee but failed to disclose that a third-party crematory would add another fee for the cremation itself.

In Western and Central Washington, where People's Memorial Association has conducted similar surveys, "Some funeral homes give price lists that are 20-30 pages long," says executive director John Eric Rolfstad. "The front pages list 'package deals' that typically include many items a family may not want or need. To get to the basic prices, you need to go to the back pages. Unfortunately, most families aren't aware of that fact and end up purchasing much more than they want or need."

You can read more about FCA, and get a nationwide directory of funeral consumer groups, at www.funerals.org, or call toll free 800-765-0107.

Next week I'll tell you how you can become a savvy funeral consumer.

Most of us age accidentally, without planning or forethought. Aging Deliberately tells us how to age on purpose, with more control. You can reach Liz Taylor at lizt@agingdeliberately.com or write to P.O. Box 11601, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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