WHERE THE funeral industry and the FTC are concerned, the House has put itself in the position of the Red Queen: sentence first, verdict later. It voted last year to kill the FTC's proposed regulations on funeral homes. Now one of its committees is holding hearings into how and why the FTC came to propose those regulations.
The timing of the hearings, of course, is not accidental. House members apparently believed last year that they had heard enough from home about the subject -- never mind that it was all from the funeral directors -- and that they needed no more evidence. But the chairman of a House Commerce subcommittee, Rep. Bob Eckhardt, thought they ought to hear a little from the other side before trying to force the Senate to accept this particular limitation on the FTC.
There are, as best we can figure them out, two basic arguments for strangling the FTC's attempt to regulate funeral homes: such regulations aren't needed and, if they are, the states can do the job. Even the small amount of evidence accumulated by Rep. Eckhardt's committee last Wednesday (the FTC has tons more) should be sufficient to persuade an unbiased observer of the fallacy of each argument.
The catalog of abuses brought before the subcommittee was staggering. For example, there was the story of the woman who was charged for embalming and for a coffin, although all that remained of her husband after the six-hour fire in which he died was some ashes. The argument for giving help to the states in dealing with these things was presented by an assistant attorney general from Arizona, a state not noted for seeking more federal regulation. He pointed out that many state laws on the subject were drafted by the funeral industry itself and offer little or no protection to consumers. A member of the Arizona Funeral and Embalmers Board told the subcommittee that, after he had tried to expand the board's regulatory activities, he received anonymous telephone calls asking him how he wanted to be embalmed.
If the arguments against the FTC's proposed rules are as weak as they sound -- and they are -- why did the House vote last year to kill them? Because the funeral industry doesn't want to be regulated and is now trying to exercise in Congress the kind of political clout that has kept it free from effective regulation by most state legislatures.
This is not one of those cases in which an industry is about to be tied down in federal red tape and bureaucratic requirements. The FTC's proposed rules are remarkably simple. They would require funeral homes to give prices over the telephone and to provide itemized price lists and written contracts. They would prohibit funeral directors from misstating legal or cemetery requirements and from suggesting that embalming, coffins or burial vaults can preserve a body for long periods of time. They would prohibit padding of prices, embalming without permission and requiring the purchase of coffins for cremated remains.
These proposed rules are mild. They are at most a list of business practices that are decent and honorable. The vigor with which they are being opposed suggests how urgent is the need for them.