When someone close to us dies, we’re hardly in the right frame of mind to handle logistics and practical matters. Yet often this is the first thing we’re forced to confront.
There’s the matter of the deceased’s body and how it will be handled, but also funeral arrangements and ceremonial planning to honor the life of the person we’re grieving.
Funeral planning requires people to make multiple decisions while experiencing difficult and intense emotions. Making matters even more challenging, funeral arrangements are financially taxing, and many families in the U.S. find themselves unable to provide their loved ones with the funeral they desire.
In America, the funeral industry is essentially unavoidable after someone close to us dies. Because the funeral industry is ubiquitous and homogenous — offering the same services, same processes and procedures for after-death care — we rarely question it. But there’s a lot about the funeral industry you may not know.
Here are five facts about the funeral industry that would probably surprise you:
1. The funeral industry pulls in big dollars.
In the U.S., funeral homes are a $20 billion dollar annual industry. Most funeral homes are privately owned, and increasingly more funeral homes are owned by large corporations.
Service Corporation International, the largest death-care corporation in the country, has more than 1,900 locations in North America and brought in more than $3 billion in revenue in 2018. StoneMor Partners, the second largest funeral company in the U.S., made $316 million in revenue in 2018.
“Families are hurting. They are not only losing someone meaningful in their lives, their losses are compounded by the soaring costs in burials and cremations,” says Evermore founder Joyal Mulheron. “The funeral industry is well-funded, made only more profitable by our nation’s concurrent mortality epidemics.”
According to the National Directory of Morticians Redbook, there are more than 18,800 funeral homes in the U.S., yet there remains a surprising lack of competition in the industry. In the past several decades, larger funeral service companies have bought up smaller, family-run businesses that were well-known and trusted in their communities.
These corporate parent companies typically hold on to the name of the original business, but bring in new salespeople and staff and increase prices. The result has been a growing monopoly on the industry by fewer wealthy — and powerful — businesses.
2. The funeral industry is poorly regulated.
The funeral industry is primarily regulated by the Funeral Rule. Introduced in 1984 by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Funeral Rule was established to prevent vulnerable families from being exploited by licensed funeral homes.
The rule was developed after it became public that businesses in the industry were committing widespread deceptive practices that limited consumers’ ability to make informed decisions. According to the rule, similar violations are now punishable by fines of up to $40,000 each.
This seems like a strong deterrent, but there’s a loophole: funeral homes found to be in violation of the Funeral Rule can opt into the Funeral Rule Offenders Program (FROP), a training program run by the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), which is the industry’s largest trade association and lobbying group. The offending funeral homes who enroll in the program become members of the association.
Essentially, the organization that most heavily lobbies lawmakers for fewer regulations in the industry is the same entity responsible for “policing” and penalizing offending businesses that pay dues to this same lobbying group, which effectively conceals violations from public knowledge.
“This is not new,” says Mulheron, “When the private sector regulates itself, it never results in better outcomes for everyday Americans. Just look at other social issues, the list is long — tobacco, food and beverage, banking, or oil. We know what happens when big, wealthy industries regulate themselves. Children and families are left behind.”
3. Profit-seeking and poor regulation lead to predatory practices.
Although regulated by the Funeral Rule, it’s been documented since the 1970s that the funeral industry has used predatory practices to increase profits.
For example, part of the business model in the industry is to up-sell customers on additional services by making these services seem essential when they’re actually not required.
Embalming is required by many funeral homes before a viewing, and morticians are often taught as part of their certification that embalming fluid is required in the burial process. But no state law actually requires embalming when refrigeration is available to preserve a body until burial. Nevertheless, funeral homes sell this service to customers as though it’s mandatory, usually for an additional charge of about $800, according to the NFDA.
4. There’s no price transparency in the funeral industry.
In 2020, the FTC revealed that investigators working in five states found failures to disclose itemized pricing information, as required by the Funeral Rule, in 17 of the 90 funeral homes they visited since 2018.
However, the Funeral Rule doesn’t require funeral homes to provide online pricing information, which deprives the general public of important information that could protect them from predatory pricing practices.
“Imagine losing your child and then having to negotiate where their body goes and how much you’ll pay for it, all of which must happen within hours,” says Mulheron. “In most states, there are no price controls, so the price you pay for a funeral can depend on the car you pull up in.”
And funeral costs for a single death event are significant, especially for families who struggle to cover the ongoing costs of housing, food, and medical care. According to the 2021 NFDA, the average cost of a funeral with a viewing and burial is nearly $8,000. A funeral with cremation costs is only about $1,000 less. For a burial with a cement vault — as required by most cemeteries, notes the NFDA — the cost jumps to almost $9,500.
These costs don’t take into account the cemetery, monument, or marker costs, or other, miscellaneous costs, such as flowers. These added expenses often increase the total cost of full funeral services by $2,000 or $3,000, according to the Funeral Alliance Association.
5. The federal government could reform the funeral industry, but it’s not.
The Federal Government could take action to change all of these aspects of the industry, but so far it’s done very little.
The FTC has been sitting on a decision to review the Funeral Rule and better regulate the industry since the Trump administration, but it has yet to take action.
In fact, to date, more than $2.5 billion taxpayer dollars have been distributed to families bereaved by COVID-19 to reimburse for funeral expenses.
Furthermore, President Biden wants to provide more taxpayer money to the funeral industry as part of the administration’s National Preparedness Plan for COVID-19. This would only reinforce existing practices that benefit the industry instead of grieving Americans.
“The FTC is just sitting on the Funeral Rule, to the detriment of families,” says Mulheron. “By doing nothing, the federal government is effectively supporting the funeral industry’s predatory practices by not ruling in favor of the consumers.”
Evermore believes the current practices of the funeral industry and their regulating body are not in the best interest of consumers. It’s time for the federal government to step in and protect American consumers by bolstering regulations for an industry with demonstrated predatory practices.
We welcome readers to share their experiences working with funeral homes — positive or negative, confusing, frustrating, or supportive. If you have a story to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.