April 19, 2017

Consumer Advocate for Funeral Industry To Speak on Transparency and Fairness

The public has used the Internet to empower bargain shopping in many different areas, but one realm particularly resistant to transparency and equity is the funeral industry, according to Josh Slocum, nationally-known consumer advocate and expert on funeral issues.

In a talk on “Bringing the Funeral Industry into the 21st Century” at Princeton Abbey on Sunday, April 23 at 2 p.m., Mr. Slocum will advise audience members on how to protect themselves from paying too much for a funeral. He will also describe his plans to bring transparency and fairness to the funeral business.

Executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) and co-author of Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death (“the book that the funeral industry doesn’t want you to read”), Mr. Slocum has been working with the FCA to persuade funeral homes to post their prices and services online and has petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to require funeral service providers to include prices on their websites. “That alone would do more for funeral shopping for the consumer than anything else we could do,” he said.

“Consumers’ fear of death and of ‘seeming cheap’ by shopping around allows the funeral business to completely avoid the normal consumer feedback that moderates prices in other service sectors,” he added.

Mr. Slocum went on to emphasize the disparities in funeral industry pricing and the importance of creating opportunities for price comparisons. “The very same simple cremation, for example, can cost you less than $1,000 at one funeral home, and $3,000 or more at another, often within the same geographical service area,” he said.

Comparing funeral shopping to more everyday transactions, Mr. Slocum noted, “It would be like shopping for an iPhone and finding one dealer charging $300 for the model, while another charged $1,200 for the same model. Or a car, say a Honda Civic, had a sticker price of $24,000 at Dealership A, but $72,000 at Dealership B. That’s how extraordinary price differences are in funeral homes. We would never accept this in any other marketplace that was truly competitive.”

Over the past two years, the FCA has conducted three nationwide funeral home price surveys, each revealing a wide range in prices, often for identical services, offered by funeral homes.

A recent survey organized by the FCA of Princeton (FCAP) compared prices and services of 482 New Jersey funeral homes and reviewed their transparency and compliance with federal law. More than 30 percent of the 701 N.J. funeral homes refused to divulge their prices on the phone or by email.

Noting a “tendency toward secrecy,” a FCAP press release stated, “Traditionally, funeral homes are known to be reluctant to divulge prices until the customer is sitting in the funeral parlor’s inner office, captive to the hard-sell pitch of a seasoned funeral director.”

The survey also revealed a wide range of costs for the same services. A package called “direct cremation,” for example, varies in cost in New Jersey from $550 to $5,065 depending on the funeral home, even though the services are identical.

Prices at Princeton’s two funeral homes, according to FCAP, are both in the mid-range, $2,670 ($1,300 member discount price) at Kimble Funeral Home on Hamilton Avenue and $3,190 at Mather-Hodge on Vandeventer Avenue. The prices were available by phone, not online, from the funeral homes or through FCA at fcaprinceton.org.

The cost of a range of other services — alternative containers, graveside services, refrigeration, transportation, caskets — also varied dramatically at different funeral homes across the state, according to the survey conducted during the fall of 2016.

To obtain prices volunteers first checked the websites, then sent emails and made phone calls to obtain information. Even after seven attempts to contact each funeral home, more than 30 percent never responded with the requested information.

Warning of “family and friends vulnerable to choosing and overpaying for services they don’t want or need,” the FCAP urges consumers to plan and shop, but not prepay for a funeral until necessary. The not-for-profit, all-volunteer educational organization encourages consumers to make informed, thoughtful decisions about funerals and memorial arrangements before the need arises.

Mr. Slocum’s talk will be part of the Annual Conference of the FCAP and will be preceded at 1 p.m. by a free tour of the Princeton Abbey, part of the old St. Joseph’s Seminary, at 75 Mapleton Road.