The high cost of saying goodbye (pg. 5)

  @Money November 9, 2012: 9:25 AM ET

Complaints about cemeteries

The hard sell you may get at funeral homes can happen when you're arranging the burial too. There's a crucial difference: At the cemetery, there are no federal statutes like the Funeral Rule to protect you, and few states have regulations about sales practices either. Only six states require price lists, for example, says the Funeral Ethics Organization.

Yet equally big bucks are at stake. A single plot runs about $1,500 to $6,000, depending on where you live, according to IbisWorld, and you'll pay from $600 to $2,000 or more for cemetery workers to dig and re-cover the grave (you'll pay more if the burial is on a weekend).

Then there's the grave marker, which could mean $250 for a basic headstone or thousands for an elaborate bronzed, personalized monument.

To boost sales, cemeteries are also expanding offerings for cremation customers -- only 15% buy merchandise, and when they do, they spend $700 on average, vs. $1,600 by families opting for a traditional burial, according to Janney Capital Markets.

Among the more common products: a niche, which is a recess in a wall where families can store an urn with cremated remains; and a bench ($3,000 at one Fort Lauderdale cemetery) or a "bench estate" for multiple family members ($15,000) in a "scattering garden," where relatives can spread the deceased's ashes and later visit.

Although no state or federal agency tracks cemetery complaints, Carolyn Jacobi of Eternal Justice, a cemetery consumer advocate, says she gets as many as 40 calls a day from families detailing problems similar to those heard about funeral homes.

A typical one, says Jacobi: operators telling families they have to buy a grave marker from the cemetery, not an outside vendor. Or a cemetery says the "law requires" a burial vault (average price: $1,195) to prevent the earth from sinking as the casket deteriorates. It's the cemetery, not regulators, that requires the container, which makes the grounds easier to maintain; a $400 concrete box called a grave liner is as effective, Jacobi says.

Related: Death be not a ripoff

Since cemeteries, unlike funeral homes, are not required to give you a price list, you also can't tell if you're being charged fairly, Jacobi says.

A sales manager at Memory Gardens Memorial Park in Medford, Ore., lost his license last year after a judge found he had charged an elderly couple $495 each to dig and then fill in "urn garden plots." The price on the cemetery's internal list: $95.

The manager also slipped in a nonexistent $75 processing fee, according to Oregon cemetery-board records, violating laws on misrepresentations. The manager's lawyer, Dean Alterman, says the mispricing was an "honest mistake," and the state overreacted.

Consumer advocates say cases like this underscore the need for oversight.

Congressman Bobby Rush (D.-Ill.) has twice proposed legislation to extend the Funeral Rule to cemeteries and intends to try again next year.

The International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association (ICCFA) says examples of wrongdoing are real but not pervasive enough to justify more regulation. It would be "legislation by anecdote," says executive director Robert Fells, adding the group does encourage members to disclose prices and offers training to improve sales practices.

The one aspect of cemeteries that states do regulate: ensuring that the money consumers pay for ongoing maintenance, called perpetual care, is invested properly. Most states require that a percentage of revenue from plots be set aside in a trust -- 10% in Virginia and 15% in Michigan, for example -- that pays for upkeep of the grounds.

But some cemeteries may collect the money and not do the job, according to state regulators; in Texas, for example, poor care and maintenance are the most common consumer complaints, says deputy banking commissioner Stephanie Newberg.

Fells acknowledges that inadequate funding sometimes hinders proper upkeep; by law, he notes, cemeteries can tap only the income from the trust, not the principal, and low interest rates have eaten into returns. This particularly affects independent cemeteries, which make up 64% of the industry (the remainder are three large chains) and can't spread costs among multiple facilities.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

Follow your own Cemetery Rule. Although not required to do so by law, the cemetery should give you a price list on request, says Fells. Also ask for its rules in writing, Carlson says. When cemeteries hedge, Carlson explains, "it's a red flag that they're making things up as they go along."

Enlist an advocate. If a cemetery insists on a burial vault or anything you're not sure is necessary, contact Funeral Consumers Alliance or Eternal Justice (eternaljustice.com). They can help you distinguish real rules from misinformation to get you to spend more.

Claim military benefits. Did your deceased loved one serve in the armed forces? Honorably discharged vets, their spouses, and dependent children are entitled to be buried free within a military cemetery. Find one at www.cem.va.gov.

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