60 Minutes Story on Cemeteries

May 22, 2012 | 0 comments

Last night on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper reported on abuses by cemeteries and asked if dishonesty and mismanagement was rampant in the industry.

Here was Cooper’s introduction:

Everyday in this country, grieving families spend thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars on funerals, cremations and burials. They often have to make decisions quickly, at a difficult time, without doing much research or reading the fine print on contracts. And while the bereaved may believe they’re dealing with mom-and-pop operations that have been in the community for many years, a lot of funeral homes and cemeteries these days are owned by big corporations, part of a multibillion dollar industry known as the “death-care” business.

The nation’s graveyards are a lucrative and little-noticed part of the industry. Most of the time they’re every bit as orderly and peaceful as they seem. But when things go wrong, they can go very wrong, for many years, without anyone noticing. And for the families involved, it can be a nightmare.

(The link to the story has been discontinued online)

As you might imagine, the International Cemetery Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA) had some words in rebuttal to the story. Below is the official ICCFA statement sent to the media in response to the CBS 60 Minutes segment, “Final Resting Places,” broadcast on Sunday, May 20, 2012:

The ICCFA understands that a 12-minute television segment does not permit much detail or nuances. However, since 60 Minutes chose to relate the atrocities that occurred at Burr Oak Cemetery in 2009, we believe that it had a journalistic responsibility to also report that the cemetery staff involved were prosecuted and are now serving prison terms. No mention was made of this.

More troubling, there are several misstatements of fact, especially by the consumer advocate, Mr. Slocum. For example, he states that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) does not regulate cemeteries. This is incorrect: Section 5 of the FTC Act prohibits misleading and unfair sales practices and there exists no exemption or exclusion for cemeteries, funeral homes or crematories. References to the FTC Funeral Rule not covering cemeteries ignores the fact the Rule is mainly a price disclosure requirement and the problems highlighted at Burr Oak and other cemeteries are not addressed, prevented or remedied even if cemeteries were covered under the Funeral Rule.

More significant, unsubstantiated claims were made of “a wild west out there” in terms of the lack of cemetery regulations and oversight. The segment made no reference to the December 2011 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) of State Funeral/Cemetery Laws that found specific regulations for cemeteries at 88 percent, up from 77 percent in 2003, based on responses from 42 states. Also, references to the proposed Bereaved Consumers Bill of Rights Act (H.R. 900) made no mention that the bill addresses none of the issues at Burr Oak Cemetery with the exception of recordkeeping.

Unsubstantiated claims of the volume of cemetery complaints should have been  questioned, especially since the FTC reported earlier this year that out of a total of 1.8 million consumer complaints filed during 2011, including reports from all North American Better Business Bureaus, funeral-related complaints tallied at 1,228 or 0.07% of the total amount.

Again, the ICCFA understands that the limited nature of television restrict an extended exploration of the issues. However, extravagant claims should be subject to increased scrutiny, especially given the recent and publicly available reports from the FTC and the GAO. The fact is that out of the daily 5,000 to 6,000 funerals, burials, cremations and related services, there are a remarkably low number of problems and complaints. The ICCFA believes that even one complaint is one too many but it is important to place such issues into context to avoid misleading the public.

The ICCFA Government and Legal Affairs Committee has developed a set of 28 model guidelines for state laws and regulations, which have been approved by the Board of Directors. The guidelines combine a sensitivity to consumer protection issues with the need for all industry members, whether for-profit or not-for-profit, cemeteries, funeral homes, retail monument dealers or crematories, to conduct their operations according to sound business principles.

Founded in 1887, the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association is the only international trade association representing all segments of the cemetery, cremation, funeral and memorialization profession. It’s membership is composed of more than 7,500 cemeteries, funeral homes, memorial designers, crematories and related businesses worldwide.

A Good Goodbye