A survey of 70 Washington area funeral homes showed that one out of six homes violated federal rules requiring that customers be given price information on services, according to a report by a local consumer advocacy group that is to be released this week.
The report by the Memorial Society of Metropolitan Washington found that 12 funeral homes would not supply the cost of embalming when asked. The Federal Trade Commission, after a decade-long battle with the funeral industry, adopted rules in 1984 requiring that funeral homes inform consumers that embalming is not necessary in most cases. The federal rules also require homes to provide detailed information about costs over the telephone as well as furnish written price lists.
The survey, conducted by the 15-year-old consumer group during the last eight weeks, also showed that many prices quoted over the telephone varied greatly from those listed in homes' price lists. In some cases, researchers found, funeral home employes said there would be no charge for certain items, such as the use of a chapel, but the home's price list included hourly charges for use of the room and the other services.
A staff lawyer for the FTC termed the findings "serious allegations" yesterday and said the commission would investigate them.
"We are very interested in obtaining the information on the report," said Raouf Abdullah, a lawyer in the FTC's Division of Enforcement. "Surveys in other parts of the country have been very helpful in our enforcement activities."
The commission has issued notices against several funeral homes nationwide because of violations of the funeral rules, but details of those cases cannot be released until the the regulatory actions are concluded, Abdullah said.
Ted Rowse, a member of the Memorial Society's board of directors, said the board had voted to relay the report to federal authorities.
"The prices given over the phone varied so much from their written price lists that it amounts to plain confusion," Rowse said. "A lot of the homes give the excuse that their employes don't know. But if they don't, who should?"
The society found that a direct cremation, with a modest container and no ceremony, ranged in price from $325 at the Sam Butler Funeral Home to $997 at Joseph Gawler's Sons Inc., both in the District. The median price in the homes surveyed was $475.
Costs for a funeral without embalming, visitation, a ceremony and using a modest container, varied from $350 at Horton's Funeral Home in the District to $1,513 at Joseph Gawler's Sons Inc. The median price for all homes surveyed was $850.
Tom Hornbaker, assistant manager at Gawler's, noted that the home supplies any type of funeral requested by families. "With the federal government now having this rule, people thought it would be cheaper," he said. "The prices haven't changed, there just are more choices."
Officials of several of the homes listed as refusing to give embalming information said inexperienced employes or relatives gave incorrect information to the surveyors.
"Our embalming is $175," said Willard Bacon, manager of the Bacon Funeral Home, where funeral director Edward W. James works. The society said it contacted James, but Bacon said his firm answered the call. "People who temporarily answer the phones here may not have known."
At all the homes contacted, the median price for a minimum coffin was $345, with the most expensive minimum coffin costing $1,030 at the Hoffman Funeral Home in the District, according to the report.
Regular coffins ranged from $85, from an unnamed funeral home, to $19,596 for a double lead, solid bronze coffin at Gawler's.
The median price for embalming was $175, with a low price of $85 at the Robinson Funeral Home to a high of $430 at the William Clark Funeral Home, both in the District.