The High Cost of Death Certificates
Diary of an Anonymous Funeral Planner - Chapter 10
This is the 10th of a series written by an anonymous man caught unprepared in the expensive web of “death care” in the United States.
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised or too upset when my family ended up with a charge of $57 for the official copies of my father's death certificate that everyone said we would likely need. And truth is, I guess I wasn't. After all, just a few months before, Dad and I had paid $23 for a replacement copy of his birth certificate, and, as far as fees we paid to the funeral home, the death certificate charge was, by far, the tiniest.
But being a reporter schooled in the art of verifying facts and in the realm of public documents, I was a little skeptical of the funeral director's claim that the funeral home was not making a cent off the death certificate charge. And I was miffed at the idea that my state government may be violating the spirit of its own open records rules. Those rules explicitly say that governments are to encourage, not discourage, residents from seeking access to any and all documents put together at taxpayer expense. There are a few exceptions for what can be released publicly, but, by in large, anything that a government clerk puts his or her hands on is supposed to be available for the asking to anyone. (And, in many cases, even asking is not required: the government is supposed to actually publicize the information in newspapers or by mail to affected parties.)
And the government is not supposed to pass along to residents who request a document any charge other than a nominal reimbursement for the paper, ink, and labor involved in making the copies. Courts have even semi-defined “nominal” as the price that a full service copy shop would charge, plus an additional 10 percent to cover the cost of assembling the documents (if applicable). By my experience, that would amount to less than 30 cents per copy. So, in other words, we paid nearly 14 times more than we perhaps should have for the copies of my father's death certificate.
That sort of profit making is exactly the kind of thing I would expect from my funeral home (see the previous articles in this series for details on how my family and I were charged more than $14,000 for services that, had we been in a fair negotiating position, we would have offered about $4,000 for). But it's exactly the sort of thing that I had always learned that my state legislature had specifically outlawed in my state and local government.
So I did a little checking on all this for what it's worth.
And, well, in this case, my funeral home didn't profit. It was, indeed, my state government that profited dearly from our purchase. The funeral home's charge was exactly the amount that the state's website says it charges for death certificates. (Funny thing. Birth certificates cost $2 more.)
What the law says about Death Certificates
It is interesting that governments seem to have taken a lesson from the funeral home industry on this matter of charging an exorbitant amounts for death certificates. Though in many cases death certificates are considered public records that are publicly available to anyone for the asking, they also are given special legal status that allows agencies to charge the higher fees for death certificate copies. In most cases, a government's legal document would have to be presented upon request for a nominal fee that directly reflects the documented expenses that agency would spend in producing and assembling the copy. Death certificates (and birth certificates) are a different matter in all of the jurisdictions I have looked into as of this writing, and I am not entirely sure why.
This, to me, seems akin to the special treatment that funeral homes have received under the fairly unusual legislation that was intended to provide extra oversight to an industry run amuck with abusive practices aimed at taking financial advantage of grieving families. Under The Funeral Rule, for example, funeral homes are required to be very clear about the prices they charge for each service they provide and they are not allowed to hide pride charges in the cost of select goods and services that, under old practices, they required all customers to buy. Experience has shown, however, that funeral homes have thrown this rule back into the face of government regulators (and clients) through a a perfectly legal “basic service fee” that they are allowed to charge to cover all the miscellaneous services a funeral home typically provides but cannot practically be itemized on a bill (or made available for menu-style selection). Congress set no limit on the amount this fee can be, so funeral homes have taken full advantage – charging their customers a mandatory “cover charge' of up to $6,000 for basic clerical work and other overhead charges that, under normal business conditions, would be covered in the (already highly profitable) charges for the services listed on the establishment's “menu.”
Having given funeral homes this “out” as a way to become perhaps even more profitable (and charge families even more) under the regulation originally intended to keep abuses in check, it's easy to see how governmental bodies might have likewise learned to take advantage of consumer vulnerability at the time of a death in the family. People will naturally just be willing to pay a premium for services related to a death. The free market has spoken clearly on that since the early 20th century. So I can understand why governments would be tempted to charge a premium – provided they can justify it legally – for death certificates.
But, I will submit, just because a person, or a company, or a government agency can get away with something like this doesn't mean they should? Right?
Governments that charge a premium for death certificates no doubt realize that the certificate expense is, by far, the least expensive part of any person's final expenses. Faced with having to pay a total of $14,000 or more for a typical funeral, few families are going to protest a $57 charge for death certificate copies. But that doesn't mean they won't resent it anyway.
I submit that government agencies who are charging more than 30 cents per page for certified copies of a death certificate should reduce their prices dramatically, even if no one from the public asks them too.
What Services Do Death Certificate Fees Subsidize
Because governments do not have shareholders with whom to split profits, the following is a curious, and important, question to ask: where does the extra death certificate money go?
When I typed that question into Google search just now, I found that I am about the only person asking it. No other articles that I could find addressed this important question. I am certain that is because, as previously discussed, in the big scheme of what to do and who to pay after a loved one dies, the death certificate charge is a minor concern at best. Few families are going to fret over coming up with $57 extra bucks to pay such charge.
But that money does go somewhere, and the question remains unanswered.
I will submit that, since a death certificate is an official government document that will be produced, and filed and kept by a government agency no matter whether a family requests a copy or not, it should be available at the aforementioned rater of 30 cents or less. A charge of any more than that deserves an inquiry, such as the one I have put on my to-do list and will likely report on in future editions of this series. Are the nation's directors of bureaus of vital statistics driving better cars, and living in better houses, than we might think? Well, it could be the case. We'll see.
Why Death Certificates are Issued
The practice of issuing death certificates dates back to at least the early days of organized government in Europe. And in these cases, historians tell us, the certificates were not so much used as they are today – as a means for family members to prove a death so that they can close out bank accounts and such – but rather, they were the government's own tool for keeping up with its residents, keeping track of population growth and the need for various services and such. Also, historians have used death certificates since their earliest days to help answer questions of a genealogical and biographical nature.
Clearly, those sorts of uses for death certificates are still relevant and, clearly, those are uses that do not necessarily benefit the families who will be asked to pay the exorbitant costs for copies of the certificates. So, it seems exceedingly unfair to me to require that families bear the brunt of these costs, especially given that these costs seem to be subsidizing some other services provided by the government.
Further, since banks and other financial institutions tend to be the ones who tend to require their customers to show death certificates in order to finalize transactions, perhaps laws should be in place that require these establishments to at least divide the cost of the certificate with the customer. Given the lobbying power of financial institutions, it seems likely such a law would quickly come about putting limits on the prices that government agencies can charge for the document (the same sorts of limits, ironically, that are already in place in regard to most other public documents).
Thinking of the original intent of death certificates brings to mind another hidden social problem that a high cost of death certificates has probably already silently brought about: a discouragement of historians and the quest for historical research. In the relatively recent past, as prices for death certificates were rising, it was common for newspapers to be the place of record for all deaths and births. While these lists of births and deaths might not stand the rigorous tests of, say, a courtroom looking for legally verifiable evidence, they have routinely been sufficient for much genealogical research and even academics in the area of history are not above citing them in published papers.
In today's world in which birth announcements have become almost non-existent in newspapers (due mostly to privacy laws that affect the way hospitals share information with media outlets) and obituaries are becoming a thing of the past (because customers are doing their own announcements of funerals via social media and many other sources that do not charge the sort of rates for obituaries that newspaper have come to ask), it seems that the world may soon end up losing access to a lot of free or low-cost historical data. So, I submit it would behoove governments, from a social perspective, to simply put a cap on the cost of all death certificate requests.
But, of course, this would require a huge change in the way a society views the funding of death care needs. Currently, death is simply not something that people are interested in talking about when it is not directly a part of their lives, so the topic of keeping death certificate prices in check is simply not something that will generate much interest in public debate. (Especially, as I have said several times already, when prices for death certificates already are tiny compared to the other expenses that a family must pay at the time of a loved one's death.)
In the 1960's through the 1980's activists such as the late Jessica Mittford – who wrote the book “The American Way of Death,” which eventually spawned The Funeral Rule – had helped created a political climate in the United States which was sympathetic to the plight of families that did not appreciate being taken financially advantage of during a time of emotional crisis in their lives. That climate reached its peak in the 1990's when the Federal Trade Commission routinely publicized its sting operations against funeral homes that remained in consistent violation of The Funeral Rule.
But gradually, things have changed, and now, families today seem to sort of just expect that death is going to be expensive. Advertisements from financial planners, and life insurance companies, and even funeral homes themselves simply encourage families to be resigned to the idea that final expenses will be even more than they realize and that they will increase exponentially every year.
This attitude has now become so much a fixture in American political life that even state and local governments are not bashful about jumping in to the fray of profiting unfairly at the expense of those who are grieving. Having typed all of this, I am now tempted to do something drastic like create a t-shirt and bumper sticker campaign urging governments to “Lower Death Certificate Fees.” But I can't envision such a campaign being taken seriously in today's world – especially when a lot of people, as I say, will consider $57 for 9 copies to be a “good” price compared to all the other costs of a funeral and burial.
So, I'll just wait, I suppose, for attitudes to change. Once people who are not in the throes of grief begin to protest on behalf of those who are (or will be), – as they once did in sufficient numbers in the late 20th century – things may change (again).
What Funeral Homes Could Do
In the meantime, funeral directors and funeral parlor owners with a conscious could begin to do something dramatic: toss death certificates in as a “free” service provided under their Basic Service Fee. As I demonstrated in several of my previous articles about the costs my family incurred after the death of my father, the $3,700 Basic Service Fee we paid was pure profit for the company – on top of the profit the company made on all the other, highly profitable, services it charged us for. Covering the $57 charge for death certificates would have been a decent gesture – that may have even earned the company a thanks from me – that would have felt like nothing to the company's stockholders and employees. (Or if it did end up feeling a pinch, the company could probably easily afford a lawyer or two to help lobby for even lower costs. )
Because I have a relatively small family, I'm uncertain whether I'll end up in the position of chief negotiator with a funeral home over for the costs of services again. But if I am, I think I'll more or less insist that the company toss in the death certificates for free. Given the friendly, caring demeanor that the funeral director my mother and I dealt with in the case of my father's funeral, I think she would have found a way to do that. I wish I would have thought to ask. (Actually, no. I wish would haven't had to think to ask.)
Continue To Chapter 11: Newspapers No Longer Best Place for Obituaries