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Funeral Homes Respond To Pricing Violations

Gorsline Runciman Funeral Home sign
Scott Pohl
The Gorsline Runciman Funeral Home in East Lansing was one of seven local businesses cited by the Federal Trade Commission.

Coping with the death of a loved one is stressful, and the cost of a funeral might not be the first thing on your mind. In order to make shopping around for funeral services easier, the Federal Trade Commission requires funeral homes to give people pricing information early in the process. But in the eyes of some funeral directors, the rules around the pricing information are not well defined. That uncertainty has put seven funeral homes in the Lansing area in trouble with the FTC.

In 2017, the FTC sent secret shoppers into 15 funeral homes in the Lansing area. Nearly half of them were found to be in violation of the FTC pricing rules. 

One of the rules concerns the timing of when a price list is given to a customer.

Phil Douma is executive director of the Michigan Funeral Directors Association. He says it isn’t clear how the FTC defines timely manner. “If a family comes into a funeral home and says ‘I’m here to make arrangements for my mother,’ that gives rise to the question," Douma says. "Does the general price list have to be distributed at that point?”

If you don’t give the pricing information out at all, that’s a violation. That’s what happened to Paradise Funeral Chapel and Arrangement Services of Lansing and Saginaw after a secret shopper at the Lansing location didn’t get the price list.

Douma says the other problem is that the FTC has their own precise language they want funeral homes to use in those pricing lists. “That document has four specific disclosures that are required to be listed in the federally mandated format," he explains, "with every T crossed exactly the same and I’s dotted, and commas the same. There's no variation.”

Basically, any change to the FTC language is a violation. You can’t really personalize the document. The simplest and easiest way to prevent a violation would be to copy and paste the language from the FTC.

Nathan Skinner is Manager-Director at the Skinner Funeral Home in Lansing. He says he got a violation for missing a comma and making some other subtle changes to the language in his pricing document. He was fined thousands of dollars and was given the choice to either participate in a Funeral Rule Offenders Program or, as he puts it, "the other was fighting the federal government and probably going out of business.”

Naturally, Skinner chose the program. Now, he says, the price list is always available to anyone who walks in, and the language on that list has been cleaned up to match that of the Federal Trade Commission.

The other Lansing area funeral homes cited by the FTC were Gorsline Runciman in East Lansing, Nelson-House in Owosso, Keck-Coleman in St. Johns, and Holihan-Atkin Barclay and Peters and Murray, both in Grand Ledge. All have entered the Funeral Rule Offenders Program.

Phil Douma of the Michigan Funeral Director’s Association says the FTC Funeral Rule will be up for renewal in 2019. He hopes that renewal will include greater clarity on when a price list must be provided.

In the meantime, Douma reminds consumers that they have every right to shop around when planning a funeral.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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