Did you know that there’s a Walmart of death care? That’s often a comparison used to describe Service Corporation International, which uses the public-facing brand Dignity Memorial, and operates more than 1,000 funeral homes across the country. That kind of economy of scale should mean Walmart-style discounts, right? Only a recent price survey shows that SCI-owned funeral homes charge more than their independent counterparts.
That shouldn’t be the case. After all, when SCI acquired its largest competitor to form a bereavement Voltron, the companies said that it would lead to $60 million in cost savings across the whole company. Wouldn’t that be passed on to consumers?
Nope, says a new study from the Funeral Consumers Alliance and the Consumer Federation of America. The problem is that while people all know that we ought to comparison-shop between different funeral homes and pre-plan our services, we don’t actually do it.
Instead, we leave our survivors to muddle through and make decisions without complete information. That’s what investigators discovered:
The metropolitan areas studied were the same ones that the same groups included in another study based on their undercover investigations, which found that more than one-fifth of funeral homes didn’t include the actual cremation in the price quoted for a direct cremation service. That’s a bit like quoting someone a comprehensive price for a wedding while leaving out the cost of the ceremony: There’s a lot of other stuff to pay for, but that part is the entire point.
The researchers asked about pricing for different kinds of services, and also researched whether they listed any of their price information online. The Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule requires them to provide itemized prices to customers in person, but they are not required to give out any information online, which is something that consumer advocates are encouraging the FTC to require after its next review of the Funeral Rule next year.
Comparing funeral homes across metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Washington, DC, Tucson, Indianapolis, and Philadelphia, the groups found that the median and average cost of funerals depended on the funeral home type.
They sorted funeral homes into three very revealing groups: Independent funeral homes that list their prices online, independent funeral homes that don’t, and SCI-owned funeral homes. You can probably guess that those are listed in escalating order by average price.
Yes, depending on the type of funeral that a family is looking for, consumers get to benefit from the economies of scale at SCI by paying 47% to 72% more for the service. Not less, as the Walmart comparison might make one think. You wouldn’t know that unless you inquired or were in the middle of paying and planning for a funeral, since no SCI funeral homes list prices on their websites for the public to see.
The only way to fight this kind of pricing is to do something very hard: Discuss funeral plans and wishes with people before they die, and make plans when you’re not grieving. That will give you time to gather prices to comparison-shop properly, even if you simply gather prices for different kinds of services over the phone.