The Feds Probe the Funeral Industry

Ralph NaderFuneral industry leaders in the early 70’s tried to redirect the public interest in reforming funeral traditions by touting the sociological and psychological benefits of traditional services that were the offering of local funeral homes, says Gary Laderman in Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America, but their efforts were thwarted because the funeral industry was called on the carpet, not this time by a writer like Jessica Mitford, but by the federal government.

In the early 1970’s, the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Bureau of Consumer Protection began a survey of funeral prices in Washington, D.C. This investigation and subsequent investigations into the 1990’s served among other things to call into question whether funeral directors were trustworthy voices in the larger cultural awakening to the reality of death — and this at a time when the funeral industry was striving to participate in bringing death “back” to American consciousness.

Eventually, in 1984, a funeral trade rule was the result of the investigations. The rule, which for example specified that embalming may not be misrepresented as necessary or required by law, mandated changes in the way funeral homes did business and sent a message to those who in the future would be purchasing funerals, that they might beware, be clear about their rights and be better prepared to shop for the best deal.

The FTC was created 1914; one if its first actions against the funeral industry was in 1939, when it served well-known Washington, D.C. undertaker William Chambers with orders to stop using misleading information in the sales of caskets and vaults. Though there were roughly 80 investigations of the funeral industry carried out by the commission between 1922 and 1963 (focused mainly on casket and vault manufacturer), according the FTC’s own reports, the early 70’s saw a more serious investigation. During the previous period, before the release of Mitford’s book (The American Way of Death), complaints against the funeral industry were relatively rare.

But the probe which took place in the early 70’s was not fueled by large numbers of consumer complaints; but instead, a 1978 report says, was necessary because of the large number of consumers who did business with the funeral industry and their vulnerability at the time of bereavement. The 1960’s had seen the emergence of Ralph Nader and the consumer movement; Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, which demanded more regulation of the auto industry, had appeared in 1965, and it was in a similar activist spirit that the FTC took on the funeral industry.

There had been, however, certain questions circulating in the public arena, that had been raised in antitrust hearings, magazines and books. These questions, the 1978 report said, compelled the agency to investigate. They collected data from industry publications, visited funeral homes, interviewed lawyers, members of memorial societies, state officials, funeral directors, and consumers. The report also relied on data compiled from the survey of funeral prices in D.C. The initial report [PDF] appeared in 1974 (now available by mail order); it found enough irregularities to raise serious questions about unfair practices in the funeral industry.

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