A House subcommittee yesterday held public hearings on the Federal Trade Commission's proposal to regulate funeral homes, in an effort to shame House and Senate conferees into keeping the FTC's proposed rules alive.
At the urging of undertakers, the House three months ago voted to kill the proposed FTC funeral regulations without holding hearings on the controversial consumer issue.
The Senate took its own swipes at the FTC's authority last week, but refused to block the funeral home regulations.
House backers of the FTC staged yesterday's hearings in an attempt to make it embarrassing for the conference commiitee to bury the funeral rules when the two versions of the bill are reconciled.
Witnesses told of a truck driver whose body was burned to ashes in a six-hour fire but whose widow was charged for embalming, of a priest threatened with loss of his parish for criticizing undertakers, and of newspapers that killed articles about cutrate funeral parlors when higher priced funeral homes threatened to take their obituaries elsewhere.
The hearings were held by a House oversight subcommittee chaired by Rep. Bob Eckhardt (D-Tex.), one of the FTC's leading supporters on the issue. Two represenatives who led the effort to kill the proposed funeral home rules, Marty Russo (D-Ill.) and Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.), turned down invitations to attend.
The regulations the FTC wants to impose would:
Require funeral directors to give clients an itemized list detailing the cost of the casket, embalming, hearses and limousines and other services.
Prohibit funeral directors from falsely claiming that cemeteries require metal or concrete enclosures for caskets.
Prohibit funeral directors from embalming remains without specific authorization or from claiming that embalming is required by law in all cases.
Prohibit funeral homes from requiring that relatives buy a casket even through the body is cremated.
Prohibit funeral homes from boycotting other funeral homes and burial societies that offer less costly services.
Advocates of the rules who testified yesterday included a maverick mortician from Texas who said he was trained to sell widows expensive coffins. "I was dressed down by managers because my sales average wasn't high enough," said James Reveley of San Antonio.
Calling his training "a scientific approach to exploiting the condition of the bereaved," Reveley said he quit being a funeral director and worked his way through dental school as an embalmer.
He later led efforts in Texas for statewide funeral regulations and opened a funeral service that for $365 provides burial in a plain pine box, without embalming. The average cost of a funeral in the United States is $1,400, Rep. Albert Gore Jr., (D-Tenn.) noted.
Reveley said that reporters for two Texas newspapers interviewed him for articles about funeral costs, but that neither piece appeared because funeral directors put pressure on the newspapers. Gore, a former reporter and a member of the oversight subcommittee, said the panel would investigate that charge.
Funeral homes deliberately choose low-priced coffins "that look as cheap as possible" so that buyers will choose a more expensive model, Reveley said, or the homes keep their cheaper coffins in a back room.
That charge was repeated at the hearing by a Louisville, Ky., television reporter who conducted a three-month investigation of funeral costs.
When he asked about a wood coffin at one funeral home, John Bowman said, he was led down a long, dark tunnel to a garage, where the coffin was standing amide debris and dirt. More costly coffins were displayed in a room with chandeliers, carpeting and wallpaper, he added.
Larry Pont, a Chicago television reporter subpoenaed by the committee, said he found the truck driver's widow who paid for embalming and a coffin even through her husband's remains "were carried out in an ash tray" after a six-hour fire.
Federal funeral regulations are needed because state legislators are suspectible to pressure from funeral directors, who are often powerful members of the community, said Msgr. Richard W. O'Keeffe, who serves on the Arizona State Funeral and Embalmers Board.
O'Keeffe said funeral directos asked his bishop to reassign him when he advocated state controls over funeral home operations. The bishop refused, but the funeral directos successfully blocked action by the Arizona legislature.