Saturday, May 4, 2013
Due to a cease and desist letter I received in the mail by a certain corporation. I can not use them by name, but they will continue to be referred to as Corporation Service International, or CSI.
TRAGEDY STRUCK JENNIE MORROW’s family twice this year. After her sister died of lung cancer in the spring, her mother succumbed to a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease in the summer. But the two funerals couldn’t have been more different.
While she says her sister’s funeral was fairly priced, she says her mother’s funeral was a costly affair punctuated by forced package deals, misleading funeral directors and disingenuous contracts. In a province with the most expensive traditional funerals in the country, Morrow’s experience sheds light on a potentially troubling underside of the funeral industry.
It was a warm July morning just before dawn when her 89-year-old mother passed away quietly in her sleep. Heeding the octogenarian’s wishes for a funeral mass and burial at the Catholic church near her childhood home, Morrow’s family called a funeral home in Digby. Jeyne’s Funeral Home sent a hearse to collect the body and Morrow went to meet with the funeral home. She was dumbfounded by what she was told.
“When my mother died and we called to make the arrangements, they didn’t say anything about having to buy a package,” Morrow said in an interview. “But when I sat down with the funeral director, I was told they don’t sell funerals, they sell packages.”
The funeral director of Jayne’s Funeral Home, a division of Corporation Service International, based in Houston, refused to offer a price list and instead insisted on a package deal, she said. The packages started at $9,099 but didn’t include taxes or the cost of the church mass or reception, Morrow said.
After she expressed concern with the cost and asked where her mother’s body was being held, the funeral home did not offer her a price list but instead knocked $1,100 off the price, she said. “It was almost time for the funeral and they already had her body. It’s like they’re holding you hostage.”
Jayne’s Funeral Home referred calls to its parent company, which owns funeral homes across the United States and Canada, including nine in Nova Scotia. Jessica McDunn, a spokeswoman for the international provider of funeral goods and services, declined to comment on personal matters. “We’re very sorry for the family’s loss,” she said. “We take very seriously our commitment to our families, and that includes guarding their privacy.”
However, McDunn said the firm does not have a policy that requires funeral homes to sell packages rather than select services. “But we believe that our pricing is fair, given the services and benefits we provide. We do follow the guidelines and rules that are set before us for each province, state or country.” Mark Duffey, president and CEO of Houston-based funeral planning and concierge agency Everest, said Corporation Service International is the largest funeral home operator in the world. “They’re a publicly traded company on Nasdaq and their business model is about maximizing revenue,” he said in an interview. “They are generally the high-price leader in every market they’re in. In the United States and Canada, on average, they are 38 per cent more expensive than an independently owned funeral home.”
Duffey said the corporation has a package pricing policy that requires employees to show clients a package price. However, he said every Corporation Service International funeral home has a general price list. “If she wasn’t shown a price list, it was probably a violation of their corporate policy.” Shortly after her mother’s funeral, Morrow received a call from the funeral director asking her to come in for a meeting. She said it was not possible, and the director offered to visit Morrow at her home near Yarmouth. “I just told her just to send the paperwork out in the mail but she didn’t want to.” While the funeral director told her it was a bill, what Morrow received in the mail was a “Statement of Funeral Goods and Services Selected/Purchase Agreement.”
The contract broke down the funeral package prices. It included a $499 online obituary (garbage), or what Jayne’s Funeral Home referred to as a “Memorial” Internet archive. It also included a $375 “ Tribute Burial Memorial Package (garbage),” which Morrow described as a black box with thank-you cards and other items. “We didn’t want all this silliness. They charged us for so many trinkets and foolishness that we didn’t need.” Other fees included a $199 compassion helpline (garbage), a $299 aftercare planner (garbage) and $99 estate protection (garbage).
And while every service included a fee — $1,065 for transportation, $595 for attending the church ceremony, $395 for “other care and preparation” and $295 for registration and documentation — the funeral home tacked on another $1,948 in professional staff and service fees.
Total Extra Fees is $5,769 that has nothing to do with burial. Total funeral package was $9,099 before tax. The difference in cost is $3,330 for merchandise and services.
“Their methods of doing business are appalling, given the vulnerability of the people who they do business with.” But Morrow said the most alarming thing about the contract wasn’t the fees but the fine print. Below the list of costs is a paragraph indicating that Morrow acknowledged having the option to purchase either a package or select services a la carte. The purchase agreement says: “You also confirm that you have been informed of your right to select only such services and merchandise as you desire.”
Unlike the wording of the contract, Morrow said she had specifically asked for a price list and was told by the funeral home she had to buy the package normally provide clients with contracts before the funeral, McDunn said it depends on the situation. Morrow complained to the Digby funeral home that she was being asked to sign a contract that indicated she had the option of obtaining services a la carte when she was compelled to purchase a package. The funeral home called her and tried to negotiate a lower price, asking what would make her happy, she said. “I said what would make me happy is to go to bed at night knowing they couldn’t do this to anyone else.” deal.
Another red flag was the date above where she was to sign. It had been filled out by the funeral home as July 24, the day before her mother’s funeral. “I realized this was a contract, not a bill, and that by signing it using a date before the funeral, it appeared as though I agreed to all this in advance.” Morrow also noticed that the third and final page of the contract was missing and called the funeral home. A few weeks later, she received the third page, the terms and conditions of the purchase agreement. The sixth item says: “You acknowledge that you were offered a copy of the current price lists.” When Corporation Service International was asked if its funeral homes. Morrow said that out of respect for her mother she wants to be clear that she has the money to pay the $10,172.17 bill.
“My mother had plenty of money, and I have excellent credit and pay all my bills on time. “It’s a matter of principle. It’s wrong for them to do this.” Morrow made a complaint to the Nova Scotia Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors.
Two months later, the board responded with a letter. “The board is not in a position to intervene in the settlement of an outstanding account,” the letter said. Morrow said the issue is not about an outstanding bill but rather what she considers the shady business practices of a funeral home. No one from the board was available for an interview this week. According to the provincial Embalmers and Funeral Directors Act, these sorts of complaints are within the board’s mandate.
The act says the board can “investigate a complaint of any misrepresentation, negligence, professional misconduct or fraud by (a)funeral home.” The average cost of a traditional funeral in Nova Scotia is $10,495, according to a recent survey conducted by Everest. That makes the province the most expensive place for a traditional funeral in the country.
Halifax is the priciest city to die in Canada, with an average funeral cost of $11,152, the survey found. Everest’s Duffey said the cost of a funeral has increased and recommended planning ahead to cut costs. Morrow’s “experience, unfortunately, is not uncommon. It shines a light on the fact that you need to plan ahead or have a funeral planner so that you’re not negotiating these matters under emotional duress or strain.”