Funeral Home Complaints 101
Tune in to any social media outlet today, and you will see complaints. Dozens of complaints in any sitting: bad restaurant experiences; stories of bureaucratic incompetence; tales of customer service woe's, and even outrage over a child's homework assignment.
But complaints about funeral homes are not quite as common – even in this age of complaints. (Though, admittedly, no formal research has been done to back this claim, anecdotal evidence is strong. When was the last time you, dear reader, saw someone post a complaint about rude service at a funeral home? Meanwhile, you are likely to see complaints about bad service from a big box store or a fast food restaurant at least once a day. Right?)
People who work in funeral homes, of course, will smile at that observation and perhaps even point to it as evidence that they, and others in the death care industry, are more doing very well by the families they serve these days.
But critics will point out that funeral homes, by nature, have a relationship with their customers that may naturally lead to fewer complaints on social media forums. When faced with the loss of a loved one, what family member what’s to be the first to go public with his or her animosity (justified though it may be) toward the very business who organized the memorial service? Could it be that the funeral home malfeasance is relatively rare on social media outlet, mostly, because families just don't want turn their loved-one's memorial services into a drove of bitterness on Facebook or Twitter?
A quick Google search for “funeral home complaints” might indicate that's what happening.
Such a search will show that the United States has no shortage of groups to whom grieved funeral home customers may complain. And, presumably, the abundance of those complaint collectors means there is no shortage of complaints. Though few of the complainer's stories end up making the public realm, the evidence is strong that private complaints are rather common. Consumer advocates will note, after all, that most of the funeral home practices and traditions that resulted in widespread public complaints about funeral homes from 1963-1982 (the time during which the Federal Trade Commission's Funeral Rule was debated and then established, as an effort to reform the funeral home industry) are still very much the status quo today. (Though there is evidence that's changing, slowly.) So it stands to reason, the complaints remain common as well (notwithstanding the likelihood that many complainers may have resigned themselves to the idea that nothing will ever be done about their objections and, therefore, proceed on the assumption that future complaints are futile because they will simply fall on deaf ears).
What follows is a guide for those who have complaints against a funeral home but, for understandable reasons, simply do not wish to share it on social media or any other public forum. Submitting complaints to relevant groups who can follow up on them is still a worthwhile idea – for justice sake, if nothing else. But following some well-reasoned tips and ideas can help make justice a more reasonable expectation than it sometimes may seems is common.
Who Hears Complaints About Funeral Homes
Probably the two best places to start for filing a complaint against a funeral home are the two most prominent consumer advocate groups that specialize in the death care industry: Funeral Consumer Alliance (which can famously be found at the legendary URL, funerals.org), and the Funeral Ethics Organizations. Members and leaders of these two organizations tend to travel in the same industry circles and collaborate on a number of projects. The executive directors of these two groups, in fact, teamed up in 2011 to, literally, write the book on consumer rights for families who deal with funeral homes. Joshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson's ground breaking book Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death is, in many ways, a follow up to Jessica Mittford's 1963 best seller The American Way of Death which is widely credited for bringing the historically abusive and complaint-worthy practices of the American funeral industry to a public conscience (and therefore debate). Anyone with a complaint against a funeral home is well advised to share the specifics with one or both of these organizations (though, admittedly, if you share it with one, you are, practically, sharing with both) who may be able to offer good advice for how to proceed relevant to the specific case. As you will see throughout this article, expecting fast and furious results from one's funeral home complaint, may lead to disappointment, but if such results are to be had, these experts will know best how to achieve them. In general, even if an “active” response to your complaint if found lacking in the short run, these two organizations are careful to document all complaints they hear and have them always read to share with lawmakers, other consumer activists, and even funeral home industry groups themselves as needed. (Your story could even find its way into another whole book on this topic. But, never fear, these groups share a sense of ethics that will assure that your personal stories will be used only with your permission, and anonymously, if you require). Special note: The FCA has a network of local offices in most every state. For most direct, personal attention, it may be advantageous to contact the office serving your state before contacting the national office (though, of course, most of the state offices are staffed entirely by volunteers, so patience may be required), but whatever the case, a list of state offices and their contacts – as well as a host of other useful information for people have a grievance against a funeral home – is always available on the FCA's main website.
Aside from those two lead organizations, there are other groups that may have solid advice and information that will be helpful for getting you’re complain heard by a good source:
Among those are the Better Business Bureau (which has the drawback of being a resource for business complaints in general as opposed to specializing in the death care industry), Funeral Watchdog.org (which is based in Canada, but does occasionally assist US consumers, particularly on death care issues that are common to both countries), and OrderOfTheGoodDeath.com (whose mission is more preventative than it is concerned with advising complainants. This group can, perhaps, offer help for airing a grievance, but its best use may be as a sympathetic ear for people whose experiences with a funeral home may have given them reason to abandon the “traditional” death care industry entirely and begin a new, family tradition of “home funerals” and other means of celebrating this increasingly popular idea: “accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety of modern culture is not.”)
Though many of the consumer groups mentioned above may discourage contacting a funeral home industry association directly with their complaints (out of fear that the customers may inadvertently find themselves as unwilling, naive pawns in a national public relations war) , some consumers have reported success in their individual case by simply reporting their issue to the National Funeral Directors Association. This group is the well-financed lobbying arm of the funeral industry. Accordingly, it has a vested interest in assuring ethical behavior of its members, so that lawmakers will be more likely to adopt the policy positions it asserts. (An out of control industry – as least in terms of public perception, would be difficult to effectively represent in the halls of Congress and the state capitols.) So it's often that a particularly egregious complaint against a funeral home can be satisfactorily resolved after an intervention of the NFDA. Likewise for the Cremation Association of North America and the International Cremation, Cemetery, and Funeral Association, though these organizations are generally considered at least little less powerful among funeral home personnel than NFDA, since they do not necessarily specialize in issues that relate directly to funeral homes themselves but, rather, focus on other parts of the death care industry.
The International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards may be another good source for registering a complaint against a funeral home, as this group is the private organization charged with administering most of the standardized tests by which funeral directors, and others in the death care industry, are licensed.
Another good source for registering complaints may be directly with the corporate office of the funeral home itself. Many of the largest, most popular funeral homes in the country are run by large publicly-owned corporations, two of which dominate the market: Service Corporation Inc. (SCI) and Carriage Services. These companies have a vested interest in keeping their customers happy, of course, and, accordingly, may be a good source for achieving concessions from a funeral home after a complaint-worthy incident. Note: it may sometimes be difficult to know whether your local funeral home, indeed, has a corporate office. Consumers should understand that the two companies we mention here (and others that own multiple funeral homes) have been known to have a general practice of downplaying their national presence and, instead, encouraging the public perception that their local funeral establishments remain the independent, “mom-and-pop” businesses that they were in the decades before being purchased by the larger company. In some cases, it may be necessary for a consumer with a complaint to inquire directly with the home in question as to its parent company is. The answer may not always be readily available, even on funeral home letter heads or websites. The exception to this, in a sense, may be SCI, which generally today operates under the brand name Dignity Memorials. Consumers who see that brand at their local funeral home can rest assured that they are dealing with an SCI-owned property and should feel confident in directing their case to the corporate office.
Each American state has at least one governmental entity charged with enforcing laws and regulations related to funeral homes. The rules vary widely according to state, as will the manner in which complaints are received. But, in general, consumers can find the relevant agency relatively quickly through a simple Google search in which the state name is included. While many of these agencies will admit to having few resources by which to investigate complaints and administer any applicable fines or reprimands, this article in the Houston Chronicle gives an interesting look at the day-to-day lives of the two employees of the State of Texas whose full-time job is to investigate, and otherwise address, the hundreds of funeral home complaints that come to the attention of the Texas Funeral Service Commission.
Many who have complaints against a funeral home have found some relief after their story has been aired in a local news source. Many local newspapers and broadcast outlets maintain “consumer tip hotlines” by which they solicit stories of complaints against business establishments across their communities (not just funeral homes, of course). And, though these news outlets generally hear many more complaints than they have resources (or even air time) to investigate and then air, the stories that make it through to the public typically earn fast and furious attention from the entity named in the complaint. This method of going public with one's complaint against a funeral home may seem counter-productive to those who are reluctant to complain via social media, but it is also quite true that media generally will not run with a story unless the accuracy (and newsworthiness) have been verified and carefully confirmed. This adds an extra measure of credibility to a story that may make a complainant more comfortable in going public via that method than he or she would be at the thought of presenting the story – unchecked – on social media. Additionally, some media outlets may be willing to offer anonymity to the complainant if the newsworthiness is deemed sufficient. (Though, it's important that the media outlet takes a considerable risk in such cases. If, by chance, the story ends up being false or, otherwise, devolves into legal action by the relevant funeral home, the media outlet may become, solely, responsible legally for the content of the complaint that was aired. By naming the complainant, the media outlet typically releases itself from legal responsibility for the complaint, other than if the funeral home in question can prove that media outlet personnel knew, before the publication or broadcast, that the complaint was false. It is for this reason that media outlets are, typically, very reluctant to offer anonymity to people who make complaints – against a funeral home or any business for that matter.) It should be noted that media outlets have many different reasons behind the choices they make for which complaints to investigate and air in their broadcasts or publications. A person who has a complaint against a funeral home should not feel discouraged if, ultimately, the case is not made public by the media outlet. On the other hand, those who have a complaint about a funeral home should also be ready for the opposite to occur: their story, once presented as local news in one town, may quickly attract attention across that particular region or state (or even the entire nation). Generally speaking, a complaint against a funeral home is sufficiently egregious (or otherwise newsworthy) that is picked up by media across the country. (Here is but one example.)
Finally, personal injury law firms can be another effective place by which those who have complaints against funeral homes can appeal for relief. Many such firms routinely offer 24 hour hotlines by which those who have complaints (against funeral homes or any other type of business) may call to report details. Typically, these lines receive hundreds of calls each week, and the operators are trained to select only the most prominent (those that offer the best chance for a lucrative legal victory) for forwarding to legal staff. Once a caller's case has been identified as potentially lucrative – either by settlement or by potential court ruling – attorneys will follow up with the complainant and proceed as both the client and lawyers are comfortable. As is the case in choosing to present a complaint to one's local media, calling a personal injury law firm carries a great possibility that it will not be a panacea. Many negative outcomes are possible: the law firm may choose to decline the case simply because it does not fit the available attorney's skill or style (and because plenty of other cases are available), the case may not result in a high quality judgement or settlement (In fact, it's common for the lawyers to profit more from the financial gains of a case than for the complainants themselves. Don't believe the personal injury law-firm ads, many critics warn!), and sometimes a complicated case may end up requiring a great many more hours of devotion than a family is ready to provide – especially in emotionally charged cases involving the death of a loved one.
In general, the options by which customers of a funeral home have for registering their complaints carry with them a lot of legal and financial risk and potential work. One point that many who have been through the process might offer is this: be careful about putting a funeral home on the defensive. Politeness, reasonableness, and even a dose of humility, may work well in getting the complaint resolved quickly and amicably.
But, on the other hand, if social change is the goal – if you find yourself pursuing a complaint for society's greater good (so that no other family has to endure what you've endured in this experience), then an aggressive, active approach may be exactly what you are looking for. In such cases, experts recommend proceeding, not alone, but with a team of like-minded activists who can help provide the support and resources as your case becomes a part of the public debate.
What to Expect from Funeral Home Complaints
The most important thing to remember when complaining about a funeral home is that there is no guarantee that your case will translate into the results that you may desire. It is the rare complaint, in fact, that results in a significant policy change or in a change to even a single funeral home's overall practice. Many who have complained about a funeral home in the past will testify that, while they were able to use their complaint to negotiate a financially advantageous arrangement for their own family, they ended up with no way to guarantee that other families will not suffer from the same malfeasance. This, realistic activists decry, is simply a fact of life. And those who feel they have a legitimate complaint against a funeral home are well served if they are exceedingly aware that their case may not turn out as they would like.
A case in point: one family in southern Texas discovered one day that a grave plot a funeral home had sold them (at a total price of more than $6,000) was an entirely unnecessary purchase: the loved-one in question was legally entitled to a plot purchased by his father some decades before. But, when the family had inquired about this plot upon presenting the loved one's remains to the funeral for burial, they were told that there was no record of a plot purchased by the father. The family, armed with no record themselves, were forced to simply rely upon the funeral home personnel's word in this case, and (reluctantly) paid for another plot. Some months later, however, a family member wished to visit the loved-one's grave and inquired at the funeral home office about its location. In the ensuing discussion, the family member realized that the funeral home's records did show that the loved one's family actually had several plots already paid for and open for use. A heated discussion with funeral home personnel ensued, and, the funeral home staff and management readily admitted to a “mistake” and offered a number of financially attractive concessions for the family. Indignant, and not fully trusting that the whole ordeal was a “mistake,” the family took its time about accepting the concessions. First, they contacted a lawyer, then they discussed their story with a number of local reporters they knew. In all cases, the counsel was the same: proceeding with the complaint would likely result in the concession offers being withdrawn and was unlikely to result in any sanction against the funeral home (mostly because the funeral home had quickly apologized and offered the concessions). Absent any solid proof (other than a very strong suspicion) that the funeral home's “mistake” was intentional, the family reluctantly accepted the concession: the loved-one's remains were disinterred and moved to the originally-requested plot, and the funeral home reimbursed the family for the entire price of the plot plus another $2,000 dollars. (Amazingly, as far as the family was concerned, the funeral home also was careful to note that it was waving the usual disinterment fee of $600.)
This case was resolved amicably, though the family was left with a sour feeling that, perhaps, justice had not been served. But the fact is, fully pursing justice in this case would have involved a great deal of risk (of not being successful, and, perhaps, of having their own reputation and motives publicly questions), and would have definitely cost the concessions that were offered. So, though the decision was a reluctant one, the family, in the end, determined that registering a complaint, beyond the immediate staff and management of the funeral home itself, was simply not the wisest move to make for its purposes.
Such is the fate of many potential complaints that are never heard by the public (or anyone, outside of the parties directly involved) each year. This is a fact that is regularly bemoaned by the country's more active funeral consumer activists. But is is a fact, nevertheless.
Make Sure Your Complaint is Reasonable
A big issue with complaints about funeral homes is that, in many cases, families who believe they have been wronged by a funeral home are simply being unreasonable. A review of some of the common situations that funeral consumer advocates hear about regularly from disgruntled funeral home customs may be enough for the harshest funeral home critics to sign up for a funeral director's license and join the industry out of shear frustrated sympathy. Activists simply cannot help you with the following types of complaints that nationally known funeral consumer advocates Josh Slocum and Lisa Carlson discuss in a particularly poignant, some may even say brutally honest, chapter of their book Final Rights, Reclaiming the American Way of Death.
Situations in which “you think funeral directors are probate court judges”: The fact is, funeral directors and other funeral home employees often find themselves in uncomfortable, legally tense, and entirely unwinnable situations when the families who come to them are quarreling among themselves about how to handle a body and/or memorial services. “We urge you to do everything possible to avoid this – it's painful and often ugly,” Slocum and Carlson plea in their book. “Though it might not seem so at the moment, it's usually better to grit your teeth and hash it out with the family members you just can't stand than it is to drag the affair into court. But do not blame the funeral director, who has no control over the situation.”
Situations in which “you think funeral directors are psychic”: Slocum and Carlson point out that funeral directors are generally not legally or morally obligated to confirm in detail whether family members who come to them are, indeed, legally entitled to contract for memorial service arrangements. They cite on particular case in which an indignant woman contacted consumer advocates for help in suing a funeral home that had “carried out a burial for her father without notifying her or asking permission. It turns out that dad had a girlfriend who'd lived with him for many years. When he died, the girlfriend arranged the funeral and didn't tell the funeral home that there were living children.” In this case, and in the many that are similar each year, the funeral director simply did nothing wrong, and pursing a complaint is unreasonable. “There isn't any comprehensive next-of-kin database to consult. A funeral director has no way of know that the person who show up in the arrangements office is or isn't the decent’ s wife. There's no way for the undertaker to know whether there are six children scattered around the country. 'Well, shouldn't she have had to produce a marriage certificate?' the woman asked. Well, no, funeral directors aren't obligated to 'card' their customers, and its easy to see how offensive this would be to many families. Carlson isn't even sure where hers is.” The bottom line: the woman's legal beef in this case – if there is any to be had – would be with the dad's girlfriend, not the funeral director. Funeral consumer advocates, already overworked and under financed, would frankly prefer if complaints like these were directed toward the proper party. There is simply nothing a group like the Funeral Consumers Alliance can do to assist in a situation such as this.
Situations in which “you think of the funeral home as a credit agency”: In short, funeral homes are not obligated to extend credit to the families they serve, and it is unreasonable to complain when they do not. “In years past, many funeral homes offered payment plans, but few do so today, having learned a hard lesson from the number of customers who have skipped out on the bill,” Slocum and Carlson point out. The consumer advocates reasonably point out that there are many affordable options available – some thanks to the very work of advocates themselves – for families who will struggle to afford the cost of a “traditional” funeral. These include, low-cost “direct burial” or “direct cremation,” and “in all but eight states, a family can handle the entire affair, including preparing the body, without a funeral home.” Funeral consumer advocates have fought hard for these concessions from a funeral home industry that, if it had its druthers, would likely prefer that all families be legally required to contract their most costly services. An ethical funeral consumer advocate, therefore, will not likely take much interest in helping you to either obtain credit a funeral home does not generally make available to others or to skip out of paying a bill for services you knowingly (and willingly) ordered and received.
Situations in which “you think funeral directors are security guards”: The fact is, a funeral is a publicly announced event, and, accordingly, a funeral home is under no obligation to keep certain people from attending. “If you don't want certain people showing up, don't tell the world about the event,” Slocum and Carlson advise. The advocates say, if you do suspect there may be trouble at your loved-one's funeral, it's a good idea to notify the funeral home staff, but “remember that it's the job of the police, not the funeral home, to handle the problem.” Most funeral homes are very experienced in handling these sorts of sticky, emotionally charged situations, and Slocum and Carlson advice following their suggestions – and not complaining about them afterwards. Some potential solutions that many funeral homes implement are private services (in which times and dates are not listed in obituary announcements, and all who inquire at the funeral home are told, simply, that arrangements are “private.”) and separate services geared for particular audiences of mourners. Those sorts of solutions are perfectly reasonable, but, bottom line is this: a family has a moral obligation to inform funeral home personnel of any potential problems they anticipate, and to rely upon the funeral home's experience and wisdom to create a solution.
Situations in which “you think Aunt Jane will look like Sleeping Beauty”: While there are cases in which embalmers and other funeral home employees can legitimately be said to be worthy of a complaint (“failing to put in the dentures, obvious sutures leaking embalming fluid, eyes not fully closed”), but, in general demanding perfection from a funeral home's job of body preparation is simply unreasonable, Slocum and Carlson say. “Many factors affect how well an embalmer can present a body. Was the person emaciated or morbidly obese? What medications did he have in his system? Was the death physically traumatic? A sensitive funeral director will explain candidly what the family can expect and make recommendations.” But many complaints about funeral home body preparation fall into the category of “unreasonable,” the advocates report. Simply put, “there's not much that can be done to avoid the distinctly funereal look of lying permanently on one's back.”
Situations in which “you demand a pound of flesh for an ounce of sin": it's important that those who have complaints about a funeral home be reasonable in their expectations for punishment, Slocum and Carlson say. They cite one case in which “one woman wrote to FCA with a complaint that contained what seemed to be some legitimate grievances … But the complaint went too far. The woman sought a full refund, criminal and civil charges against the funeral home, reimbursement to her and her four sisters for the time they spent compiling paperwork, the state stripping every employee of their licenses, and permanent closure of the funeral home. We think the funeral home (if guilty) should pay a hefty fine for the casket swap-out and should be placed on tight probation under the supervision of state regulators. But to call for every employee of the business to be de-licensed, and to have the whole enterprise closed by the state is unreasonable.”
Bottom Line: Wisdom and Caution Needed When Complaining About Funeral Homes
Consumer advocates and other experts want you to realize that complaining about a funeral home is not the same as complaining on Facebook about the limited number of checkers at one's local grocery store during rush hour. The very emotional nature of what funeral homes do is the main factor in this comparison. Complaining about the funeral services of a loved one can lead to many unwelcome consequences for an entire family, and should, therefore, be done only with great care and caution. Further, those who complain about a funeral home should be well aware that it's likely their case will not attract the attention – or result in the change – they may desire. While it's probable that the funeral home's management may offer concessions that will be of financial benefit to the family in question, recent history has shown that it's unlikely that the benefits will be passed along to others, much less society as a whole.
And, probably the most important tip that experts have for pursing a complaint against a funeral home is this: be wary of an emotional response in yourself. Many complaints (such as most of those described above in this section) are borne from the simple, emotionally laden grief of losing a loved one. The anger and frustration that one can sometimes experience at such a time can lead to negative outbursts towards others that, upon reflection later, will be reveal themselves as unwise, or even unfair.
Owners and operators of funeral homes can as flawed as all other parts of society, and, when their bad actions harm others, they definitely deserve to be held accountable and reprimanded, and the public deserves to know when their local, seemingly honest and good, funeral home, represents a significant threat to their emotional – or financial – wellbeing.
But, above all, patience, wisdom – and maybe even a measure of forgiveness -- are necessary when going public with one's complaint against a funeral home.