Consumer group says corporation charges 30 percent more for funeral services

Funeral signs along Barre Street in Montpelier. VTD/Josh Larkin

Funeral signs along Barre Street in Montpelier. VTD/Josh Larkin

The last thing grieving family members want to think about is how much the funeral for a deceased loved one is going to cost, but the price point is hard to ignore. In most parts of the country, a traditional funeral requires a serious outlay – about $7,755 on average (minus the cemetery plot, flowers, monument marker and obituary), according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

In Vermont, the average price tag is $4,330, according to a recent survey by the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Vermont. (Cremation costs about $2,200.) The alliance released its 2011 General Price Survey of the state’s 81 funeral homes last week, which includes a breakdown of prices for 29 individual services from embalming to burial that are provided by mortuaries in Vermont.

Lisa Carlson, a funeral consumer advocate and author, said the prices are “particularly admirable because these guys are paying the exorbitant fees for gas and fuel that everyone else is.”

Funeral prices in Vermont are low compared with the national average, but costs have gone up dramatically at a handful of funeral homes in southern Vermont that are owned by a multinational corporation, according to the alliance.

Service Corporation International, a publicly traded company based in Houston, Texas, with assets of $9 billion, owns four funeral homes in southern Vermont. The average total cost of a funeral at these homes, is $6,125, or $1,695 more than the statewide average, as reported in the alliance survey.

Adams & Kenney Funeral Homes in Ludlow and Ker Westerlund Funeral Homes in Brattleboro are two of the local entities that are part of the Dignity Memorial network of 1,600 funeral homes nationwide. Dignity Memorial is a subsidiary of Service Corporation International, which bills itself as “North America’s largest provider of deathcare products and services.” The company generated $1.5 billion in revenues in 2010.

Jessica McDunn, a spokeswoman for Service Corporation International, says the prices at local funeral homes that are part of the Dignity Memorial network are higher because they offer more services.

“It’s not always comparing apples to apples,” said McDunn. “We offer lots of benefits in addition, but we feel that we offer affordable plans.”

Those plans often come in the form of package deals, in which consumers choose a fixed array of services that include all the necessary components of a funeral, plus – according to Carlson – many unnecessary services as well.

Carlson, an author and former executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, said grieving family members often spend more than they have to on funerals because they don’t shop around. Fifty-three percent of funeral consumers choose a funeral home because it has been used by their family in the past, and 33 percent go to the nearest available funeral home.

“A lot of people assume they have to call the only funeral home in town,” said Carlson, co-author of Final Rights, a book on the legal and business aspects of funerals and how they affect consumers.

While Service Corporation International’s higher prices have the potential to hurt consumers, Carlson doesn’t think the corporation is a threat to the industry in Vermont. On the contrary, she says independent funeral homes are “thrilled,” because the corporation’s high prices are driving consumers to local, independently owned businesses.

Carlson expects Service Corporation International will leave Vermont eventually because of increased scrutiny from consumers and competition with local funeral homes that charge lower rates.

Mary Alice Bisbee, board president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Vermont, said consumers should have access to information about funeral home ownership. Currently, the Secretary of State’s Office of Professional Regulation website does not disclose the ownership of licensees.

Chris Winters, director of the Office of Professional Regulation, said his office hadn’t received requests for funeral home ownership disclosure. “We have that information,” he said, “but we don’t publish it.” Winters said there are no plans to make the ownership connections public, but “I bet Vermonters would like to know that.”

For more information about funeral service costs, go to the Federal Trade Commission website at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/products/pro26.shtm

Taylor Dobbs

Comments

  1. The $4330 price quoted in the article does not include a casket. By the time one adds a $2000 casket and a $1000 vault, Vermont is closer to the national average.

    But Vermont has a high cremation rate, about 60%, so Vermonters are spending less on their exits.

    Folks should remember that if you aren’t having services at the funeral home–all at the church maybe–it doesn’t matter if you call an out-of-town funeral home. The funeral home in Bellows Falls is about half the price of the SCI funeral homes half an hour away.

    Check out the price survey at http://www.funerals.org by clicking on “Find a local FCA” and go to Vermont.

  2. Why shouldn’t grieving people think about the finances? I believe they should – you can bet the corpse industry does.

  3. I agree with Lisa Carlson. Funeral costs are much more than the basic fees. If you count caskets, cemetery costs, markers and all the fixings, the price can go way up.
    It is really important that Vermonters become more educated about their rights as consumers and putting their funeral plans in writing. It is a real service to their heirs who may not know what their loved one wanted done at death. That is why FCA-VT offers to provide free community forums all around the State to explore how to save on traditional funerals and other affordable options while assisting with putting these wishes in a binding legal format. Contact FCA-VT at 802-223-8140 to set up a community meeting or to get answers to your specific questions. Our members support our non-profit work and we are always looking for new volunteers.
    Mary Alice Bisbee, President, FCA-VT

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