Commentary: The Business of Dying in the U.S. is Broken. Here’s How the FTC May Fix It – and Why We’re Worried it Won’t be Enough
By Effie Anolik
February 27, 2023
It’s been over four years since my dad died, and I was forced to Google “how to plan a funeral.” Unlike every other purchase I can remember, there was no information online. How much should a funeral cost? What traditions are important? What are my options? I couldn’t research any decisions before walking into a funeral home, where instead I had to blindly trust the guidance from someone I had just met.
Imagine being compelled to buy a car and your only option is to walk into the dealership and accept whatever the salesperson advises at face value. I was so outraged by my experience planning my dad’s funeral that I quit my job and started Afterword to help other grieving funeral planners make important decisions online.
Years later, I’m still having to advocate for change. Funeral information and prices are guarded by funeral homes, leaving few resources available online for the three million American families a year who have to plan a funeral. To make matters worse, the generational transition is accelerating: 73 million baby boomers will reach the age of 65 by 2030, leaving their millennial children to make their final arrangements without adequate information.
While the funeral industry is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, the current Funeral Rule–which aims to protect families from unfair funeral practices–was enacted in 1982 and is extremely outdated. It mandates transparent pricing in person or over the phone–but not online because the rule was last amended in 1994 before the mass adoption of the Internet.
After nearly 30 years, the FTC is finally reevaluating the Funeral Rule to require funeral homes to disclose their prices online. Unfortunately, the updates will still leave pricing information buried in industry-specific language that consumers are unlikely to understand.
The battle for transparency
Like other major purchases, families want to compare prices from multiple funeral homes before making a selection. Based on consumer surveys, this is already happening. The percentage of families calling more than one funeral home has risen more than 25% in only four years, according to National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) consumer surveys from 2018 to 2022. Comparing prices online would ease this burden by removing the in-person pressure. But in 2023, it’s still not possible.
We analyzed every funeral home website in America across 14,358 unique domains. We found that only 18% of funeral homes list their prices anywhere online. When you account for where prices are listed, for example within the navigation menu or placed in the footer, only a mere 6% of funeral homes put pricing in a prominent location, making it difficult for families to locate it on their website. It should not be this exhausting to find the basic information needed to make important purchasing decisions.
So, why don’t funeral homes put their prices online?
The current Funeral Rule doesn’t require it. In 2013, California became the only state to require that funeral homes disclose their pricing online, yet we found that only 77% of California funeral homes abide by this law. It’s followed by New Hampshire, volunteering their pricing on 40% of their sites. The worst-performing states are Alaska, South Dakota, Mississippi, Wyoming, and New York, all of which share pricing on fewer than 5% of funeral home websites. Texas sits in the middle with 11% and Florida is in the top quartile with 23%.
General Price Lists (GPLs) are confusing. In 2021, the average funeral in America cost $7,848, according to the NFDA. This doesn’t include additional fees known in the funeral industry as “cash advances,” which include third-party fees for the cemetery plot, clergy, and flowers. The GPL format is mandated by the FTC and uses industry-specific language that families don’t understand.
Funeral Homes fear that posting prices online will drive them down. When talking to funeral homes we often hear this sentiment. They take pride in the care they give families and are concerned that the General Price List doesn’t do a good enough job explaining how their services differ from their competitors. However, the feedback from families is that seeing the prices online builds trust because they understand their options. This is supported by the NFDA 2018 Consumer Survey that found the top two decision factors when choosing a funeral home were transparent pricing and an easy-to-access list of available services. We compared the cost of a traditional burial across the country and found no meaningful correlation between online price transparency and funeral cost.
While it’s encouraging that the FTC is looking to amend the Funeral Rule, putting prices online in the current format doesn’t go far enough. Planning a funeral in California is still just as difficult as it is in New York. The larger issue is that the format of the General Price List hurts families and funeral homes more than it helps them.
Why online pricing isn’t enough
The current Funeral Rule describes in great detail how funeral homes should list their prices. The rule is unreasonably particular, requiring that funeral homes make six specific disclosures and include 16 specific items of goods and services that they may or may not even offer to families. For example, funeral homes serving Jewish families are required to include their fee for embalming even though their traditions prevent embalming.
The Funeral Rule also codifies the names of certain services or items. Take one look at a General Price List, and you’ll see they’re littered with funeral terminology that the average person doesn’t understand, nor should they be required to. What is a “burial vault?” Do I need an “alternative container?” What’s included in “Other Preparation of the Body?” Having to decipher industry lingo in the face of a major expense, while you’re at your most vulnerable, quickly induces a high-pressure purchasing experience that can feel almost cruel to someone coping with grief.
And as much as the Funeral Rule hurts families, it equally hurts funeral homes. They’re forced to list services their community may not need (or want) to see. They must use FTC-approved language to describe their services, even if that language consistently confuses their customers. They’re expected to list all possible charges defined by the FTC without being able to educate families in their own words. Simply put, the Funeral Rule currently makes it harder for funeral professionals to provide their services sensitively–a requisite in their line of work.
Hope for the future
The FTC’s push for online price transparency is good for Americans. There’s a reason there are 600 comments on the matter–everyone is coming to the same conclusion. Transparent pricing also enables technology companies like ours to help families understand their options in clear and innovative ways. But the Funeral Rule must go further if it hopes to fix its core problem: help families understand their options and create a pressure-free purchasing experience. The FTC should rethink the GPL entirely, and we urge them to consider these three pillars in their amendments:
1. Focus on consumer education so families can make informed decisions without having to visit or call a funeral home.
2. Use clear and approachable language so families can quickly understand their options and easily compare providers.
3. Emphasize the role of technology, so the FTC can monitor and enforce the Funeral Rule, funeral homes can support all their communities, and families can make decisions the way they’re used to–using the Internet.
Funerals are a large expense and arranging one with care takes a lot of work. Providing easy access to prices online will make the process easier for families and rebuild trust in the industry. I planned a funeral at 28–and made my only offline purchase at the worst possible time.
I expected online pricing, information on how to plan a funeral, and the ability to make these very important decisions from the comfort of my home. The generational transition is already happening, and soon everyone planning a funeral will expect the same. In the four years that have passed, not much has changed. But the FTC has an opportunity to rewrite the Funeral Rule and help millions of Americans. There’s hope that it will.
Effie Anolik is the co-founder and CEO of Afterword.