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CONSUMERS : Wrongs Committed During Last Rites

Question: I know there are federal regulations that must be obeyed by funeral homes, but I need to know what agency and/or office of the federal government enforces the regulations and where to address a complaint.

When my mother died, she left no estate except a cemetery plot she owned here in the state. During the funeral service a synagogue representative abruptly demanded payment of $800. I told him to send me a bill.

They sent a bill for additional cemetery charges, along with a non-itemized lump-sum charge of $400 and another charge for past-due membership for the last years, when my mother was in guardianship and under custodial care.

I wrote to them four times asking for an itemized bill, and I sent them copies of receipts I have for all cemetery charges and perpetual care. When I tried to order a monument for the grave, I found that nothing can be done without a permit and approval from the temple, so I sent them the $50 fee for a monument permit.

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I went ahead and ordered the monument because otherwise the price would go up the first of the year. In the meantime I contacted the cemetery superintendent, who told me that he had orders that nothing is to be done to the grave for the next year! I finally gave in and sent them the money they demanded just so I could be finished with them.

Is a religious organization that is involved in the business of funerals and cemetery ownership/management exempt from regulation? Or must they obey the same regulations as the rest of the funeral industry?

--BEREAVED

Answer: Except for a handful of exceptions dealing primarily with very small cemeteries, religious organizations involved in the operation of their own cemeteries in California are bound by the rules and regulations covering all similar organizations, according to Jim Allen, the executive officer in Sacramento for the California Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers.

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“But I don’t know what the situation might be in other states. I do know, however, that the business about the monument not being put into place for a year might not have anything to do with the fee or permit required. There’s an orthodox custom that monuments simply aren’t put into place until the first anniversary of the death of the deceased.”

The business about not being able to get an itemized breakdown of the bill, however, isn’t so much a matter of state law, Allen adds, but the result of several very stringent regulations promulgated by the Federal Trade Commission in about 1986.

The regulations came after extensive--and frequently acrimonious--hearings before the FTC that began as early as 1972 and that followed on the heels of Ruth Mulvey Harmer’s pioneering book on the funeral industry, “The High Cost of Dying” (1963), and Consumer Reports’ follow-up study, “Funerals: Consumers’ Last Rights” (1977).

And, of course, the FTC regulations about how funeral and cemetery charges must be spelled out, and to what degree, applies regardless of the state involved.

“The only exceptions,” Allen says, “were a couple of states that convinced the FTC that their existing laws were more strict than the FTC’s.”

You can get more information on this by going to the horse’s mouth, Uncle Sam himself. Write to the Consumer Information Center, P.O. Box 100, Pueblo, Colo. 81002, and enclose 50 cents for a copy of “Consumers Guide to the FTC Funeral Rule” (No. 425N).

If, after reading this, you still feel the synagogue was clearly in the wrong, you can file a complaint with the Division of Enforcement, Bureau of Consumer Protection, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580.


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