Business

July 19, 2014

Report: Funeral costs in Columbia vary widely

When grief is at an all-time high for most people, they often face one of the costliest decisions of their lives – how to navigate the often complicated costs of a funeral for a loved one.

The funeral business in the Columbia area is rife with wildly varying charges for services and harmed by creeping corporate takeovers that boost prices, a 2014 consumer report states.

Embalming services, for instance, range from a low of $475 at a funeral home in Eastover to $1,575 at one funeral home in Columbia, which rightfully confuses consumers, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Carolina annual report – and also defies a logical explanation.

The 2014 Funeral Pricing Practices in the Greater Columbia Area survey put out last month by the alliance also criticizes the local funeral home industry for the wide price variances charged for basic services, often defined as “non-declinable charges.”

Basic services include charges for such things as planning the funeral, securing necessary permits, preparing notices and coordinating cemetery or crematory arrangements.

The alliance has surveyed all funeral homes listed in the Yellow Pages in the Columbia area since 2001. Twenty-four funeral homes responded to the request for general price lists for this year’s survey. Funeral homes are required by federal law to supply a general price list to anyone who requests one.

One of the biggest reasons prices can vary so widely for near-identical funeral services, some say, is because only about 13 percent of consumers shop around before paying for a funeral.

Critics still say funeral home price lists should be more uniform so that consumers can more easily compare costs between the funeral homes. When a death occurs, consumers almost always call the funeral home whose name or service is most familiar to them, they said.

In the 2014 funeral home survey, Caughman-Harman charges the highest price in the Columbia area for basic services, $3,545, which is $1,454 above the state average cost for basic funeral services at $2,091. McClary’s Funeral Home in Columbia had the lowest charge for basic services at $945.

“There are wide differences in the prices that area funeral homes charge for the same or similar services and consumers can make smarter decisions about funeral choices if they are aware of these differences,” said Gere Fulton, the alliance’s board president and survey author.

It may be a little-known fact, but embalming – the removal of all liquids from the body for replacement by embalming fluid – involves practically the same procedure everywhere, whether performed at a funeral home across town or a crematory on the other side of the state.

Dunbar Funeral Home (Main) had the highest embalming cost in the survey, at $1,595, which is two and a half times the $600 it costs to be embalmed at the same funeral home’s Hard Scrabble Road location. The national average embalming cost is $695. Good Shepherd Funeral Home had the lowest embalming cost in the area, at $475.

“If you purchase embalming at the Hard Scrabble Road facility (for $600), the irony is that that body is transported down to Devine Street, the embalming is done at Devine Street, and then the body is transported back out to Hard Scrabble. But it would have cost you three times as much if you’d (directly) taken that body to Devine Street,” Fulton explained.

“How can you defend charging a family three times more to come into the Devine Street location?”

Requests for interviews with Dunbar, Thompson, Caughman-Harman and Shives Funeral Home to discuss findings in the survey were not granted. The survey’s findings can be accessed at www.scfunerals.org, where a side-by-side spreadsheet also is available that compares each funeral home’s charges for all items, such as caskets, embalming, basic services and transport.

Caskets remain one of the largest costs of burying someone, typically commanding a 400 to 600 percent price markup, Fulton said. In the survey, the average cost of a casket was just over $11,000. Palmer Memorial Chapel in Columbia sells the highest-priced casket in the area at $30,000, while the South Carolina Cremation Society offers the least expensive casket at $2,495.

The law does not require a consumer to purchase a casket from a funeral home. The purchase can be made from an online dealer or other brick-and-mortar retailer and delivered to the funeral home, which the funeral home is required to use, at no extra cost to the consumer.

Most people don’t do that, in part because of a lack of pre-need planning and a congested timetable from the moment a death occurs until the funeral home is involved.

“People don’t know they have the right to do that,” Fulton said.

The spreadsheet and survey offer consumers valuable insight into how funeral homes conduct their businesses and the importance of options – both for the businessman and the consumer, said Greg Moseley, Kornegay & Moseley Funeral Homes owner and manager.

Cost variations between funeral homes come down to ownership – private or corporate, Moseley said. Other factors include size and location of the funeral home, how large the licensed staff is, whether the staff is full-time or part-time and other “bottom-line” factors, he said.

For most people, the cost of the funeral service has no bearing on who they ultimately choose to handle arrangements, Moseley said.

“It’s going to be all personal preference,” Moseley said. “Ultimately, whether I’ve got a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility or a double-wide trailer, the family’s personal preference of who’s going to serve them is going to win out – it doesn’t matter the price.

“There is such a small percentage of people that go to a funeral home based on price,” said Moseley, who has been in the funeral home business for 25 years.

Reputation, word-of-mouth service, geography and other factors come together to drive that decision, he said. “I try to tell everybody that uses us to try to be a smart consumer like they would be in anything else. If they were shopping at Wal-Mart, they’re going to go to Kmart just to see if there is a better price.”

Kornegay & Moseley, an independent, family-owned funeral home, operates in a $2 million, brand-new, 12,000-square-foot building on Hard Scrabble Road in Northeast Richland, and has a partnership funeral home in Camden. Kornegay & Moseley also is renovating an old mansion on Meeting Street in West Columbia, which will open in about two weeks.

Some industry watchers say there are too many funeral homes in today’s market, despite the aging U.S. population, and suggest funeral prices are high because of it. Moseley disagrees.

There are 19,391 funeral homes in the U.S. currently, down 95 from last year, according to the National Directory of Morticians, The Red Book.

McClary’s Funeral Home owner Ross McClary said a funeral home’s prices reflect a combination of overhead costs and desired profit margins. “The cost of funerals has gotten completely out of hand,” McClary said. “You need not think if you walk into a funeral home with millions of dollars in the building and hundreds of thousands in limousines, it’s not going to cost you.”

In business 23 years with homes in Kingstree and Columbia, McClary said he got into the business to provide service, though he has nothing against profit. “It just shouldn’t be that when you walk into McClary’s Funeral Home (the perception is) that you (automatically) owe us something.”

McClary also said people shouldn’t simply call the funeral home that they have always dealt with, or that their family has always dealt with merely out of habit. “I like for people to shop around and look at the prices. They’ll be surprised at what they find.”

Three major former family-owned funeral homes in the greater Columbia area are now corporate-owned, Fulton said, though they still operate under the old family names.

Dunbar Funeral Homes in Columbia and Caughman-Harman Funeral Home in Lexington both are owned by Texas-based Service Corp. International. Thompson Funeral Homes in Lexington is owned by Foundation Partners, which also owns area funeral service providers South Carolina Cremation Society and Woodridge Funeral Home.

“The highest costs in our survey for basic services, which is the only thing that everybody has to pay, a non-declinable fee, are among funeral homes that are corporately owned,” Fulton said. “This is throughout the country and this is true in Columbia.”

Consumers are further confused, Fulton said, because when they drive down Devine Street, for instance, past Dunbar’s main location, they don’t see an unfamiliar, corporate name in front of the home, but the familiar name of a known family that’s done business in the area for decades.

“Whenever you go to a corporately-owned funeral home, consumers not only are paying the cost for the salary of the funeral directors, they are paying the fees that go to shareholders. Corporations are in the business of making money for their shareholders,” Fulton said.

“And whenever corporations take over the market place, prices go up.”

Still, the alliance recognizes funeral homes’ rights to set prices as they see fit, Fulton said, and has no desire to unify prices across the industry. They simply want consumers to know their rights and have full access to pricing information so they can make informed decisions.

The Federal Trade Commission passed something called the Funeral Rule in 1984, reissued it 10 years later and it remains in effect today, outlining consumers’ rights at the tragic time of a death. Many people never complain, though, about costs, services or the quality of service they receive from a funeral home, Fulton said.

Nearly half the funeral homes in South Carolina fail to comply with FTC regulations regarding general price lists, the state Funeral Services Board says, which would give consumers a fair chance of understanding their choices.

“The reason people don’t complain about these things is because, if you don’t know what your rights are, then you have no way of knowing when your rights are violated.”

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