Purchasing funeral products and services is something most people have almost no experience in, and when it comes time to do so, the effort is generally rushed and takes place under extreme emotional stress.

That, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Southern Arizona, can lead to unwise purchases and eventual buyer’s remorse.

The nonprofit FCA was formed on a national level in the late 1930s with the purpose of educating the public on funeral options and to make consumers aware of their rights. The local affiliate celebrated its 50th anniversary on March 6 with a visit from national director Josh Slocum, who spoke to an audience of nearly 200.

“He talked about things wrong in the industry,” said Dawn Jacobs, executive director of FCA Southern Arizona. “He put a fun spin on it, and he talked about the Arizona chapter of his book.”

“Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death,” will be released this June.

Jacobs pointed out that funeral homes aren’t necessarily trying to be misleading, but their customers are not in the state of mind to make decisions they know little about, including pricing.

“When it comes to funerals, most are a last-minute decision, since 40 percent of deaths are unexpected,” Jacobs reported. “And they don’t know what questions to ask. We make sure they’re equipped in advance.”

FCA does that by providing education concerning funeral purchases, such as what choices consumers have and what their rights are. In 1984 the Federal Trade Commission established the Funeral Rule to protect consumers. Several issues fall under this protection, said Jacobs.

“It requires price lists to be made available. You have the right to request a general price list of products and see cheaper options,” as opposed to being given only a package rate that may include some unwanted or more expensive items, she said. “It also makes sure funeral homes can’t say something is required, such as embalming, if it’s not. (Individual state laws may vary on funeral requirements).

“The Funeral Law allows you to see a written casket price list before seeing the caskets. You also have the right to receive a written statement so you know the costs before making arrangements. You have the right to use an alternate container instead of a casket for cremation,” she added.

These protections refer to funeral homes and do not include crematories and cemeteries. In 2009 Slocum testified to a congressional committee in support of the Bereaved Consumers Bill of Rights Act, which would extend the FTC’s Funeral Rule to cemeteries, crematories and third-party merchandise sellers, such as monument companies. The bill failed, but was reintroduced in Congress in March, and Slocum is hopeful it will pass this time around.

Slocum has researched each state’s funeral laws and feels Arizona has some areas that should be changed.

“One problem is there is no regulation of cemeteries and no specific rights under the law. Another problem with state regulation is prepaid funerals. In Arizona, funeral homes skim 15 percent off as commission. So if a person changes his mind – moves or changes from burial to cremation – you’ll lose 15 percent right off the bat.”

He went on to say, “This is the most emotional purchase and has the potential to be the most expensive. We recognize the customer is not on equal footing and is vulnerable to be pushed into more expensive products,” which is why Slocum is so passionate about passing laws that side with the consumer.

Education on a local level, Jacobs maintained, consists of going into the community to visit civic organizations, retirement homes and other senior groups. FCA gives a talk titled “Shop Before You Drop” to teach folks what to look for when making funeral purchases.

Overall, Jacobs encourages shopping around ahead of time, although that doesn’t necessarily mean buying in advance. There are some benefits of prepaying for funerals, but Jacobs warns people to beware because there also are dangers.

If the purchaser moves to a different state, she cautioned, the plan may not be completely transferable. A funeral home might go out of business and the money is not recovered. Or there may be a problem with buying a casket that is later discontinued.

“Sometimes prepaying has worked out tremendously,” Jacobs said. “Look for a funeral home that is ethical and has good customer service and longevity.”

For more information about Funeral Consumers Alliance of Southern Arizona, visit www.funerals.org/affiliates/tucson or call 721-0230.

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