Recently NPR's Morning Edition investigated funeral pricing in a story called "Despite Decades-Old Law Funeral Prices are Still Unclear."* Listening to the story I wondered, is a funeral home that offers green services likely to list costs and services up front?
Funeral costs have been a consumer problem for a long time. When people prepared bodies in their homes there weren't alot of outside costs, but embalming techniques developed during the Civil War encouraged Americans who wanted embalming for their loved ones to move death care into professional places of business, and by the start of the 20th century the country had a national funeral directors' group (NFDA).
When Jessica Mitford's examination of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, came out in 1963 it echoed the discomfort and distrust many people felt with after death care, and in the decades since funeral homes and directors have been corralled by attempts to get them to be up front with service options and prices. The FTC Funeral Rule spells out what funeral homes must do, including provide costs in person or on the phone. But the rule, enacted in 1984 and amended in 1994, is pre-internet and today, when many people depend on the web for information, funeral businesses are all over the place with what they divulge and how internet-savvy they are. Even if this is a result of poor business practices, it encourages an antagonistic/distrustful relationship between customer and business.
Natural burial obviously involves burial and cemeteries, but handling the body, getting it to the cemetery, and protocol at the cemetery is what funerals are about, whether natural or home or alternative funeral. I published The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide because it was time-consuming to gather useful information on green burial cemeteries and I decided to share my work to make the process easier for others. The guide also lists a selection of funeral homes that offer green services. Criteria for inclusion was a willingness to work with customers who want green burial and efficiency of communications--i.e., the business got back to me, generally by email. I did not go into details about service or price.
The Green Burial Council certifies providers and says in its standards for funeral homes "A GBC approved funeral home must define in their general price list, and make reference to on any published website, their 'green' offerings, which include the sanitation and temporary preservation of a decedent using approved GBC methods, including the option of a private visitation." Nowhere does the council specify where the general price list must be available or what it must contain.
The photo that accompanies this article is a screenshot of a green burial package online offering by a good, competent, certified green funeral provider. It lists services, and if you contact the business directly they readily provide the costs. But if you are truly comparison shopping (hard to do when someone is dying/has died so remember to do it AHEAD of time) you may want to do preliminary weeding out before actually contacting businesses.
The NPR interviewer spoke to Will Chang, whose startup Parting.com collects funeral home price lists and posts them on the web. I found 3 out of 5 New Jersey businesses that are listed in The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide also listed on Parting.com.
The subject of the NPR story, a consumer advocate who examined the funeral business when his father died, petitioned the California Legislature to require funeral homes to post general price lists online. A compromise bill that took effect in 2013 requires them to either post prices online or tell consumers that prices are available on request. In the wake of the bill most homes chose to post their prices.
Funeral homes seeking certification as green providers should be required to be up front about prices. Creating an atmosphere which encourages family participation is an important aspect of green/natural burial. Just as in relationships between human beings, it's tough to participate and cooperate without a clear channel of communication.