The day before the funeral in 2007, with family already in town, Kerben received a bill for $16,735. That’s more than double the 2006 median cost of $6,195 for a viewing and burial, the closest year for which data is available from the National Funeral Directors Association. The 2014 median cost was $7,181, according to the most recent data from NFDA.
“Had I known the prices upfront, I would’ve shopped around,” Kerben said.
Situations like Kerben’s have prompted start-ups that want to pry open the costs in the funeral industry to allow for easier comparison shopping.
Experts say funeral prices have been hard to come by for disparate reasons, ranging from reluctance on the part of funeral homes to reveal the costs to confusion over how to easily disclose them. On top of that, American culture shies away from discussions of death and its associated costs.
The Federal Trade Commission requires funeral homes to give prices over the phone and on paper in person when asked. But the FTC’s Funeral Rule doesn’t require prices to be given online or by email. Right now, online pricing is only required in California.
Tech companies want to fill this gap. Tyler Yamasaki co-launched funeral comparison site Parting.com in 2015 after he had trouble finding costs online while planning his grandmother’s funeral.
“We originally went in with the premise that funeral homes weren’t putting out information because they didn’t want to,” said Yamasaki, chief executive and co-founder of Parting, which runs Parting.com. “But once we worked with more and more funeral homes, we realized that they provide a really valuable service. They’re really there to help. They just don’t have the know-how or resources to really adapt to the new type of consumer that they’re faced with.”
Parting.com offers prices for more than 15,000 funeral homes, covering about 78 percent of the 19,322 businesses in the United States. After initially obtaining prices by mystery shopping, Parting.com mainly relies on funeral homes to update their own pricing. “Our site is not necessarily meant to be 100 percent accurate, like what you’re going to get. It’s really to show comparison because the discrepancies in price are really wild,” Yamasaki said.
Atlanta-based Funeralocity, a similar price comparison website, launched in May. The company published prices on the website for the 200 funeral homes in the metropolitan statistical area. Ed Michael Reggie, founder and chief executive, declined to explain how Funeralocity keeps those prices updated, calling it a “trade secret.”
“This is giving a transparency that’s been needed to the funeral industry, and maybe that’s going to help the reputation because so many people feel so, in a grief-stricken state, taken advantage of,” he said. “They have no idea what the prices are, and the fact that we can take a lot of that mystery away for them is a good thing for the industry.”
The companies follow different profit models, though neither charges the consumer. Parting.com sells advertising packages to funeral homes that allow them to update their profile. Funeralocity receives a fee when consumers book funeral homes that are part of the company’s Excellence Program. Member funeral homes apply free and can update their prices and profiles. Consumers who book through these businesses get a 5 percent rebate. A quarter of Atlanta’s funeral homes are part of the program.
If consumers on either site want to buy services, however, they have to directly contact the funeral home.
But start-ups alone can’t solve the problem of price transparency, said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the watchdog group the Funeral Consumers Alliance. That is where the FTC comes in. The Funeral Consumers Alliance and the Consumer Federation of America are petitioning the federal agency to revise the Funeral Rule to require disclosing prices online.
Slocum said third-party price comparison websites shouldn’t be necessary for publicizing funeral prices online. Clear online pricing should be a baseline requirement of all funeral homes, he said. “We have an industry that is so difficult to get prices out of that we’re actually discussing another, additional third-party industry as a tech start-up to get the prices out of the primary industry,” Slocum said. “That’s sort of extraordinary, isn’t it?”
Reggie said start-ups have a place in the funeral industry as price aggregators. Slocum agreed, adding that these companies could normalize comparing costs.
“We really encourage people to break this artificial taboo of refusing to talk about the cost of funerals as a reasonable part of the process,” Slocum said. “Just the act of looking at prices and comparing them in the same context that you’re used to doing with cars and books and Amazon helps to make this less taboo and more normal.”