The Funeral Rule

The Funeral Rule is a famous piece of administrative law (a policy that, though not enacted by an executive branch agency instead of Congress, has the same overall affect of a Congressional law) that is aimed strictly at funeral homes and related establishments. Thanks to this movement in the memorial industry, consumers can greatly benefit from the fact that funeral homes can no longer impose abusive practices (which we will go into further details about later in this article). Additionally, this rule has allowed a great expansion in the memorial industry itself; for example, memorial websites that sell funeral products were not possible before the Funeral Rule. While families should contact the memorial website of interest, should they have any questions, they can certainly save a lot of time, and are even presented with a larger number of memorial options than what most funeral homes or cemeteries can offer. The larger selection of memorials, in turn, means that the family can rest assured that they found the right tribute to represent their beloved. The rule was established in 1984 after years of debate commonly thought to have been inspired by journalist Jessica Mittford’s classic book, The American Way of Death.

Consumers greatly benefit from the Funeral Rule

Mittford’s book brought to light a great number of abusive practices that had become routine parts of the funeral industry by the 1960s. The allegations brought forth anger from activists, legislators, and regulators alike, and policies makers at all levels and branches of government spent much of the next two decades discussing how to force reform upon the country’s funeral establishments. The Funeral Rule was the result, and though Mitfford said in an update to her book just before she died in 1996 that the rule had done little to stop corruption in the industry, it is widely credited with making the funeral business more friendly to customers looking to keep costs down.

As Mittford duly noted, The Funeral Rule is not a perfect piece of law, but probably its main feature does give consumers much more power than they had without the law. In a nutshell, each licensed funeral home in the United States is required under the law to publish a “General Price List” and to make that list available, more or less immediately, to any prospective customer who enters it’s establishment (whether or not the customer asks for the list). The Funeral Rule’s General Price List is simply a document that lists all goods and services the funeral home offers and its price for each. These prices are not negotiable. If a funeral home lowers the price for one customer (other than in select cases in which the funeral home offers reduced or free services for customers in need), it must do so for all customers.

This may sound like a very simple adjustment, perhaps even trivial, (and it may be for other industries). But, for funeral homes (or at least customers who now deal with funeral homes) it is quite revolutionary. Before the Federal Trade Commission enforced The Funeral Rule, funeral homes were commonly in the practice of playing profitable negotiating tricks upon their vulnerable, grieving customers. They would, for example, hide the cost of relatively expensive, but optional, services such as embalming or music to be played at a service by simply including those services in select “packages” for which a single price would be charged, but no itemized price list would be provided. The Funeral Rule effectively eliminates this practice by requiring all good and services to be sold at “a la carte” prices. Many funeral establishments still do offer “packages” for marketing purposes, but they are not allowed to offer discounts on some of the items in those packages. Having prices clearly listed, from the very moment that a customer steps into a funeral home has made it very easy for customers to avoid paying high costs for services that they may not want or need. This has, certainly, been a boon for consumers.

The Funeral Rule has allowed families a greater variety of ways to meet their memorial needs

While the General Price List is probably the highlight of The Funeral Rule, it is only one part of a 48 page document available from the website of the Federal Trade Commission. That document goes on to list many other requirements of funeral homes under the rule. Funeral home employees may not, for example, refuse to give pricing information via telephone, misrepresent the legality of optional services such as embalming, and require customers to purchase particular products or services as a requirement of doing business for the funeral home. All of these, as with the rest of The Funeral Rule are intended to help consumers work their way through mazes of high pressure, and downright dishonest, tactics that had one been the rule of the funeral business.

From a consumer’s perspective, probably the most interesting feature of The Funeral Rule is that many of its requirements apply also to all other industries under other laws, namely those related to anti-trust and anti-competition issues. It is noteworthy that the funeral industry was deemed to have become so outlandish in its sales tactics that lawmakers felt it was important to write a set of rules in which the funeral industry was specifically referenced.

Fortunately for consumers, The Funeral Rule is readily obeyed by the vast majority of licensed funeral homes operating today, and there appears to be no concerted effort posed by the industry to change or weaken the rule. So, despite Mittford’s impatience, The Funeral Rule seems, largely, to have accomplished its mission. Because the Federal Trade Commission, which created the rule and has responsibility for its enforcement too, has very little money with which to conduct investigations into who is breaking the rule, enforcement depends a great deal upon funeral home’s being willing to police themselves. This is often a recipe for disaster, of course, but, in the case of The Funeral Rule, it seems to have worked out just well. All reliable research indicates that voluntary enforcement of The Funeral Rule seems now to be The Golden Rule among funeral homes.