By Tony Kahn

When the mother of 23-year-old Cincinnati resident Alex Bill passed away unexpectedly on Thanksgiving of 2015, the family wasn’t prepared. They went to the funeral home closest to their apartment complex.

Alex Bill

Alex Bell leafs through photos of his mother, who died in 2015. (Photo by Daniel Honerkamp)

“We didn’t really consider shopping around, simply because it was just too traumatizing,” Bill said. “It was my mom and it was so unexpected that we just went with the first option.”

Across the Tri-state grieving families overspend by thousands of dollars because they don’t shop around. To help local residents avoid any costly mistakes, a group of journalism and electronic media students from the University of Cincinnati visited 18 funeral homes at 40 physical locations around the Cincinnati area, taking note of pricing disparities and whether the funeral homes were following federal regulations.

The FTC Funeral Rule

The government set business standards for the funeral business in 1984, when the Federal Trade Commission established the Funeral Rule, which applies to all licensed funeral homes nationwide. The Funeral Rule gives consumers the right to see the prices of goods and services and to receive a written statement before they pay.

A funeral home must provide to anyone who asks a general price list detailing at least 16 essential services and their prices. The home must also provide a separate list containing pricing information on caskets, urns, and alternative burial containers.

The Funeral Rule:

  • Gives consumers the right to purchase only what they want.
  • Forbids states from requiring people to buy a casket for cremation or for embalming for every death.
  • Forbids funeral homes from bundling prices together in order to get you to pay for something you don’t want or need.

Why do funeral home prices vary widely?

The Funeral Rule arms consumers with a lot of good information, but in some ways it’s still stuck in the 1980s. It hasn’t been updated to require funeral homes to publish the information online. Funeral homes still largely deal in paper and call for consumers to come into their doors to get the information.

Melissa Kloss, financial professor at the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Sciences, served as a funeral director before becoming a professor. She said people often choose the least expensive option rather than trying to educate themselves. The rule is “simply throwing a price at them and saying ‘Take it or leave it,’” Kloss said. “So a lot of funeral directors will prefer to meet with families one on one.”

Lacey Fox is a funeral director at Gwen Mooney-Miller Funeral Home in Spring Grove. She says different funeral homes target different markets.

Comparison of Walker and Gwen Mooney

“Our funeral home is not the most expensive, but it’s not the most inexpensive,” Fox said. “If you’re eating a ham sandwich versus a fillet mignon, you’re paying for what you get. And we pride ourselves in serving our families the best we can and providing them with the newest technology” and creative approaches to funeral services.

Just a few miles away, the Walker Funeral Home offers more affordable prices.

Debbie Weaver of Walker Funeral Home

Funeral director Debbie Weaver of Walker Funeral Home. (Photo by Michael Muse)

Funeral director Debbie Weaver said the biggest factor in keeping costs low comes from the source of their supplies.

“Everybody’s getting basically the same casket, the same vault, but I think the ones like us where we shop around to find a vault company that’s locally run, that maybe can get us better prices,” she said. “I think that’s where the biggest difference is.”

Taking a closer look

The student journalists compiled a chart comparing prices. It shows that prices can vary widely in a small area, and that the same services can differ in price by hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on where you go. All the funeral homes supplied the information the federal law requires.

Kloss said that the Funeral Rule keeps homes accountable. “I have never heard of any instances in Cincinnati of price gouging because all of it would be recordable,” she said. “We’re actually fairly lucky in this area.”

When comparing prices between funeral homes, consumers should note:

Range of prices among funeral homes

You can plan ahead

The table above represents just a small sample of the costs that accumulate when planning a funeral. Without proper planning, families can find themselves with a mountain of debt.

Weaver of Walker Funeral Home urges everyone to plan ahead for the sake of those left behind. “It is so much easier making arrangements with a family member when they’ve already preplanned and have the financial part taken care of too,” she said. “So when the time comes you just have to grieve and you don’t have to worry about what mom or dad would have wanted and how to pay for it. That’s just a whole lot more stress on top of everything else.”

Bill says he’s lucky his aunt stepped in. “If I were the one to have paid I probably would have gone with a funeral home if it offered a significantly lower price,” he said. Seven months after his mother passed, he’s still dealing with financial questions, but at least the funeral isn’t among them.

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