DEATH BENEFIT: The Federal Trade Commission exempts funeral home directors, like Charles Pattman of Wilson-Wooddale Funeral Home, from having to post funeral costs online. (Staff photo)
Call Charles Pattman, the director of Wilson-Wooddale Funeral Home, and—if you ask—he’ll tell you that one of his full-service funerals typically costs $4,000. Ask how he got to that price and Pattman will invite you to his cozy brick establishment on Wooddale Boulevard and personally guide you through a detailed general price list of service options.
One place where you won’t find the price list, or any other mention of cost—even in 2018—is the funeral home’s website.
Find out for yourself. Scroll through the Wilson-Wooddale site (wilsonwooddalefh.com) and click on either the “Burial Information” or “Cremation Information” tab and you’ll learn all you need to know about personalizing a memorial service and whether to get a casket made from stainless steel or mahogany—except for how much any of these services or caskets will cost. Want to talk money matters or pre-plan a funeral? Then the site directs you to either call the funeral home, visit in person or fill out an online form with the promise that a staff member will call to set up a meeting.
The cost of death, it seems, is even beyond the reach of Google.
A licensed funeral director for more than 30 years, Pattman—like other funeral home directors—is under no obligation to post his prices online. That fact he does not makes him no outlier; the vast majority of people in his position—both nationally and in Baton Rouge—share the same view when it comes to talking the cost of a funeral.
While the Federal Trade Commission’s ‘Funeral Rule’ requires funeral homes to disclose prices over the phone and provide detailed, written price lists to visiting customers, it does not require them to share their prices online. So most don’t.
“Putting price lists online is kind of like saying, ‘Mom passed away, and we’re shopping for a television. Who’s got the cheapest television?’” Pattman says.
Others, however, like the Funeral Consumers Alliance and the Consumer Federation of America, counter the lack of an online provision in the 1984 FTC rule—which predates the internet—is a marvel in today’s tech-centric culture, as it prevents customers from price shopping in a more efficient, objective and transparent way.
The two organizations examined 25 small- and mid-sized state capital cities—including Baton Rouge—that don’t require funeral homes to publish its general price lists online. Of the 16 funeral homes within a 10-mile radius of Baton Rouge, the study found none of the 14 with an active website display their general price lists online, and only two have “some prices” online. Nationally, just 16% of funeral homes surveyed included their full prices lines online and 9% didn’t have an active website.
The FTC is required to review the Funeral Rule later in 2018. Until then, local funeral directors grapple with the intricacies of what an online price disclosure requirement would mean for them.
“Putting price lists online is kind of like saying, ‘Mom passed away, and we’re shopping for a television. Who’s got the cheapest television?’”
—CHARLES PATTMAN, director, Wilson-Wooddale Funeral Home
The mind of a mourner
Death, as we all know, is unavoidable. Yet when it happens to someone we love, few are prepared for the heartache and sense of loss that ensues. Just as few are probably aware of what a traditional burial or cremation costs.
Esther Sachse, executive director of the Baton Rouge Grief Recovery Center, counsels grieving family members throughout her career and says families planning funerals tend to fall into specific groups.
“One tends to shut down in terms of their ability to think clearly and smartly because sometimes they’re so overwhelmed with grief that they don’t have the energy to get out of bed after the death of someone they love,” she says. “The whole task of having to arrange a funeral is quite overwhelming.”
Some grief-stricken mourners don’t even remember the process of planning a funeral, she adds, while others are consumed by the stress of paying for a high-end tribute to their loved one, feeling guilty if they can’t afford all the bells and whistles.
Could online price-comparison shopping help alleviate this psychological burden? Saschse doesn’t necessarily think so, but she does say finding the least expensive funeral is often the best option for these people.
Preplanning remedies some of this stress, Sachse says, with Pattman recommending people visit several different funeral homes, examine their price lists, talk with the director and get a general feel for the place.
“You can negotiate with a car dealer but you can’t negotiate with a funeral director.”
—DOUGLAS CAULFIED, director, Scott’s Bluff Morticians
Would it help?
On a more practical note, some directors argue online comparison shopping doesn’t give an accurate snapshot of the services provided.
“My operational cost might be more than yours,” says Cedric Lawson, whose Winnfield Funeral Home typically charges $6,000 to $7,000 for a basic funeral service ($10,000 to $12,000, including cemetery services).
Overhead costs like staffing, maintenance and other behind-the-scenes operations might cause a variance in expenditures, Lawson says. Given the wide pricing spectrum, the emphasis of the funeral director is educating the customer on what the funeral home can do for the customer.
Douglas Caulfied, director at Scott’s Bluff Morticians, worries that publishing prices online could lead to a price war between funeral homes as well as increasing the possibility of consumer fraud.
“You can negotiate with a car dealer but you can’t negotiate with a funeral director,” says Caulfield, estimating a full-service funeral at Scott’s Bluff costs between $8,500 to $10,000.
Pattman argues the prices customers would see online might not be the prices they end up paying, which would only create more confusion for those in mourning.
Before the FTC rule, Pattman says many funeral homes used a “bait-and-switch” technique, advertising one price to bereft customers and tacking on additional fees once they booked the service. But since the Funeral Rule took effect, he notes the mandate for homes to keep their prices in writing holds directors accountable.
“It keeps people honest,” he says.
While he doesn’t get the final say on whether Winnfield will someday include its price list online—that’s a decision for corporate officials in Shreveport—Lawson predicts, given growing consumer expectations to find whatever they want on the Internet, that the day is bound to come.
“The funeral industry is slowly getting into the advancement of technology,” he says. “In a few years, the majority will put their prices online.”