How much does a funeral cost? Here’s why you probably won’t find prices online

Basic services can cost thousands of dollars more at one funeral home compared with another.
Basic services can cost thousands of dollars more at one funeral home compared with another.

This article was updated Feb. 6 regarding funeral homes in Topeka.

Adele Kieffer is making plans for the day she and her husband will need funeral services. It would help if prices were standardized and online.

“Oh, my gosh, yes. It would keep people from being scammed,” the Olathe resident said. “People can be ripped off for sure.”

There are big reasons to shop.

Basic services can cost thousands of dollars more at one funeral home compared with another. And most arrangements are made quickly when a family member dies. It means high-dollar decisions are made under the duress of grief, the press of time and usually with no experience.

Funeral homes already are required under the 1984 federal Funeral Rule to provide a “general price list” to anyone who visits and asks about services.

Two consumer groups have called for an update to the rule. They want the Federal Trade Commission to require funeral homes to post their general price lists online.

“This would empower consumers to do their share of the dance that happens between the vendor and the buyer,” said Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. “We want the marketplace to work.”

The Funeral Consumer Alliance and the Consumer Federation of America said they are petitioning the FTC to update the Funeral Rule to require funeral homes with websites to post their general price lists online.

Some Kansas City area funeral homes already do. But estimates put that number nationwide at between 10 percent and 16 percent of funeral homes.

A federal rule requires funeral homes to hand consumers a general price list. Two consumer groups say homes should have to post prices online, too.

Funeral industry spokesman also call for the marketplace — rather than a change in the Funeral Rule — to decide online price disclosures.

Most visitors to funeral home websites read obituaries and check on services, and few homes sell items or services directly online, said T. Scott Gilligan, general counsel for the National Funeral Directors Association.

“A lot of funeral homes don’t feel people go there for price. If they do, they put it on there. It’s market driven,” Gilligan said.

He said the funeral industry is being singled out. No federal rules require other kinds of service providers to hand out prices upon meeting a potential customer.

“When doctors, when lawyers, when engineers, when plumbers, when hardware stores, (when) everybody else is required to put their prices on there, sure, we have no problem putting our prices on there. Why are we the only business?” Gilligan said.

The Funeral Rule emerged from findings by the FTC that funeral consumers are uniquely vulnerable.

Slocum said decisions are easier to make in California, which is the only state that requires funeral homes to post pricing information online.

“A consumer, a grieving family really ... can much more quickly compare the prices on everything from a modest cremation to a full service funeral without leaving their house,” Slocum said.

The Funeral Rule sets the disclosures required in a general price list, covering 16 items such as a basic service, direct cremation, embalming, caskets, hearse and forwarding remains to another funeral home.

A survey of Kansas City area funeral home prices in 2016 found that a standard funeral’s price ranged from $3,700 to $9,455 in the metropolitan area’s seven central counties. The cost covered embalming, body preparation, visitation, a service and a graveside service. Those prices did not not include the casket, grave liner or burial costs.

Direct cremation — the least costly alternative — ranged from $675 to $3,035, based on the survey by the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Greater Kansas City.

The funeral industry says that price comparisons aren’t always complete. For example, a funeral home that charges less for funeral services may significantly mark up prices on caskets for a higher profit.

Some Kansas City area funeral homes that post a general price list also include prices of their funeral or cremation packages. Their general price list, however, must advise consumers that they can buy services and items individually, selecting only the ones they want.

General price lists posted online locally often include information about the funeral home’s history, community involvement and ownership.

Maple Hill Funeral Home in Kansas City, Kan., posts its general price list online and includes a version to download. Others make their general price list available to download, including Speaks Family Legacy Chapels in Independence and the Amos Family Funeral Home in Shawnee.

Mark Smith, a funeral director at Amos Family Funeral Home, said its general price list has been available online since at least 2010. He remembers reactions at an industry conference he attended that year.

“People thought we were crazy,” he said.

Smith said the online price list has been good for business. It allows him to go over costs with consumers who call for information. Most callers already have been to the funeral home’s website to get its phone number.

Cathy Boomer said she began posting the general price list for Signature Funerals online a year and a half ago. She said it is the best way to get the most information to consumers.

“I don’t see why every funeral home doesn’t do it,” said Boomer, owner of the 8-year-old Kansas City business.

She’s not keen, however, on the idea of requiring others to post theirs. Boomer sees posting Signature Funerals’ prices as an advantage over the competition.

The Funeral Rule already is overdue for a scheduled review by the FTC. Gilligan said it has been delayed from last year because the agency has only two commissioners, one of whose term already had expired, and needs three to review the rule.

Like the consumer groups, the industry would like to see some changes in the Funeral Rule.

The Funeral Rule applies to businesses that provide goods and services, said Don Otto Jr., executive director of the Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association. He said a funeral home that sells caskets is covered, but a company that sells caskets but provides no services isn’t.

Gilligan said the rule also doesn’t cover urns, though more than half of Americans choose cremation.

Most funeral homes that have websites include no pricing information online, according to a survey of 211 homes in 25 state capitals — including Jefferson City and Topeka. The Funeral Consumer Alliance and Consumer Federation of America said 16 percent of 193 homes in those markets posted a general price list online. An additional 9 percent posted package pricing.

Researchers at the Funeral Consumer Alliance found no general price lists on any of six Jefferson City area funeral homes’ websites they checked, or any of 10 Topeka-area funeral home sites they checked, according to the report.

The Penwell-Gabel and Dove homes’ websites in Topeka have displayed their general price lists since 2015, said Ren Newcomer, president of the Newcomer Funeral Service Group. They are available under links to Plan a funeral online or Plan a Cremation online rather than links for Our Prices and Pricing on the websites, which contain other forms of pricing information.

“We couldn’t find it. We made a very good faith effort to find the prices,” Slocum, of the consumer alliance, said of the general price lists.

Newcomer responded in an email that Slocum was right: “We need to make it easier to find and are working to do so.”

Mark Davis: 816-234-4372, @mdkcstar