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Resolving Disputes with Cemeteries

Tough Negotiations Are Sometimes Required with the Funeral Home or Cemetery

Dozens of books and articles have been written over the years detailing the struggles consumers sometimes have with companies in the death care industry. Too often, it seems, unscrupulous people who run cemeteries, funeral homes, crematories and other such establishments take advantage of grieving customers, politely talking them into services they realize after the fact were unnecessary or substantially overpriced, enforcing abusive policies that keep prices artificially high, or, being downright dishonest and deceitful.

Many often hear the tales of families who were taken advantage of by cemeteries or funeral homesMuch of what’s been written about these problems is careful to note that most people in the death care industry are honest and hard-working folk who are well deserving of their pay. But still other writers say that, in fact, the entire industry is corrupt to its core and fundamental reform has long been necessary. It is these later allegations – such as those leveled in 1963 and again in 1996 in famous books about the industry by journalist Jessica Mittford – that have caught the attention of reformers over the years and inspired many laws since the 1970s.

But, despite the laws, consumers all-too-often still end up abused and helpless – especially when dealing with cemeteries.

The much-heralded “funeral rule” passed in the 1980s by the Federal Trade Commission was intended to protect consumers from a wide variety of abusive practices common to the death care industry. But, as Mittford’s 1996 book The American Way of Death: Revisited discusses, the FTC’s enforcement of the new rules has been spotty over the years because, the agency’s leaders say, the government simply does not have resources to investigate and prosecute most complaints. And the problem is even more pronounced for customers of cemeteries, which, despite being players in the death care industry, have managed to avoid being covered by the funeral rule.

So, grieving customers, whose cemeteries policies make it difficult to order the grave marker of their choice, for example, often never experience the benefits that the reforms had promised.

Suggesting to the cemetery that one is interested in an outside vendor will help determine their characterIt is obvious that reformers have plenty more work to do to force the death care industry to be universally fair and honest with its customers, but, in the meantime, all hope is not necessarily lost for abused consumers. Here are some ideas for resolving or even avoiding disputes with a cemetery despite the fact that cemeteries are not formally covered by the funeral rule.

First, it’s important to thoroughly understand all contracts with a cemetery before you sign and to test the cemetery’s consumer friendliness from the very beginning.  Ask about rules for grave markers (sizes and colors allowed, for example) and prices for installation. If the cemetery will not provide you this information in writing, you should consider selecting another company. Let the cemetery personnel know that you may elect to buy a grave marker from an “outside” source such as Grave Markers by Memorials.com, and, if anyone on the staff makes an attempt to discourage that idea, consider another company right away.

If you find yourself already bound to a plot in a cemetery that is being unreasonable on matters of grave marker selection and the like, consider politely mentioning the Federal Trade Commission. While the FTC’s funeral rule does not apply to cemeteries, activists and reformers have long been committed to eventually adding cemeteries to the rule. Cemetery owners understand that, if they do not police themselves, they may be included in future laws. Additionally, they also know that some practices, while not technically in violation of the funeral rule, may be illegal under other FTC rules. So, few cemetery owners and managers will relish the idea of a complaint against them to the FTC. Often just a brief, even friendly, mention of the agency will be enough to convince a cemetery owner to change his or her mind on an unreasonable policy.

There are many ways to determine if a memorial company is reputableIf the quick mention does not do the trick, a more serious threat may be in order. Explaining that you intend to place a phone call to the FTC by a certain date if the cemetery insists on enforcing its policy will often get good results. It is true, of course, that the FTC will likely not act upon your complaint unless it has received a number of similar recent complaints against the same company. But, regardless, most business owners will be glad to make concessions on unreasonable policies in order to avoid even one complaint.

If threats do not have the desired result, then a phone call to the FTC is in order. You should also consider filing complaints about the cemetery to the Better Business Bureau and, most effectively, with the local media. It will likely help to give the cemetery a few days notice of your intention to do this. Even cemetery owners who are not intimidated by a report to the FTC will likely want to avoid a negative report to the BBB or in the local media.

Other options to pursue would be a report to the Cemetery Consumer Service Council run by the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association. Like the Better Business Bureau (BBB), this organization encourages cemeteries to work with customers to make reasonable resolutions to disputes with the goal of avoiding future legislation against the industry. The CCSC keeps records of all complaints and shares them with government regulators in many cases.

And the Funeral Consumers Alliance is a non-profit, mostly volunteer group that helps funeral home and cemetery customers who have been abused. The group has chapters across America and these local groups are often more familiar than anyone else with idiosyncrasies of the death care industry in a particular area. In fact, many members of the FCA will suggest that joining this group even before arranging a funeral is the best way to avoid problems and frustrations.

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