The Federal Trade Commission yesterday imposed long-debated rules designed to protect consumers making funeral arrangements.
The rules compel funeral directors to give consumers price lists that show the charges for every item and service offered, and to provide pricing information over the telephone.
They also prohibit funeral directors from misrepresenting the legal necessity or efficacy of embalming or from requiring a casket for direct cremations.
While maintaining that the rules are unnecessary, funeral trade groups that opposed federal intervention in their business said yesterday they will cooperate with the program. Consumer organizations applauded the rules.
The FTC has prepared a television advertising campaign to alert the public to the new protections, which survived one of the longest challenges from an industry group in commission history, becoming effective 12 years after the FTC's investigation of deceptive funeral practices began.
The regulations were challenged within the agency, in Congress and in several lawsuits, an effort that cost the industry "between $1.2 million and $1.5 million," according to David Bohardt, executive director of the National Funeral Directors Association.
Bohardt said yesterday that the rules will have "almost no effect" on America's 22,000 funeral directors, but had been fought "simply on principle." He added, "Principle is an expensive proposition."
Several funeral directors said they already give customers a breakdown of all costs and had long abandoned "package" funeral pricing.
"Those of us in the Order of the Golden Rule have been diligent about letting people know about embalming and pricing," asserted Charles Dykeman, of Waterloo, Iowa, who is president of the 1,240-member association of the nation's largest funeral directors. The group is selling to its members kits, films and sample price lists based on the FTC rule.
Dale Rollings, executive director of the group, wrote to FTC Chairman James C. Miller III in January and said the required disclosures "approach a joke." Recently, however, the organization distributed a statement that it "applauds the FTC ruling."
Surrounded by a display of caskets and urns that the group set up in a congressional hearing room, Rollings said yesterday he still believes that few families will read the disclosures.
"I honestly don't believe anyone's going to read that stuff," he said. "Just like a car showroom, the sticker has a lot of figures on it and most of the time you go to the bottom line."
He said that in the five states that already require itemization, funeral prices have risen.
But consumer groups hailed the rules. "This gives us a more equal bargaining position," said Kent Burnette, a spokesman for the 15 million-member American Association of Retired Persons. "There has been misrepresentation, and people have been unable to get price information."
Marcia Goldberg, director of the Continental Association of Funeral and Memorial Societies, an organization that promotes no-frills funerals, said consumer protest over the failure of the FTC's used-car rule helped overcome congressional opposition. "It's wrong for the funeral industry to say it's a matter of a few rotten apples," she said. "In the past, if any funeral director advertised his prices, he frequently was blacklisted in the industry."
Violation of any part of the rule carries a fine of up to $10,000.
In its decade of study, the FTC found consumers were unaware that no state requires embalming except in rare cases of infectious disease or long waits for disposition.
The agency found that embalming without permission "is a widespread practice" and noted the industry's own study, which showed that nearly 10 percent of funeral buyers would decline it if given the choice. Under the new rule, consumers cannot be charged for embalming if they didn't authorize it.
States may ask for an exemption to the FTC rules if their own laws offer the same protections. The rules also carry a sunset provision requiring the agency to decide in four years whether they should continue.