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Making decisions about how to honor a loved one who has died is a heart-wrenching task, and there's not a lot of mental or emotional space to think about comparison shopping. There is a federal regulation on the books called the Funeral Rule that's supposed to protect consumers who have lost loved ones. It requires funeral businesses to provide potential customers with clear pricing. But Robert Benincasa from NPR's investigations team reports it doesn't always work like it's supposed to.
ROBERT BENINCASA, BYLINE: Shortly after Ed Howard's father was diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer and given six months to live, Howard and his sister sat down and talked about what to do. They decided she would call around to some funeral homes to figure out how much their father's arrangements would cost.
ED HOWARD: And I got a call from her, nearly in tears. And she said that she had spent pretty much all day on the phone and on the internet simply trying to price funeral services, and she couldn't do it. She actually just couldn't get a straight answer about what products and services were being offered and how much they cost.
BENINCASA: Howard confidently told her that he'd take care of it. After all, he isn't just any consumer. He's a lawyer specializing in consumer issues for the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego. He's also the group's head litigator and lobbyist. Getting the information, he thought, would be pretty easy.
HOWARD: It took me, as a longtime lawyer and a professional consumer advocate, literally an eight-hour day just to get a solid list of what funeral services were offered by nearby funeral establishments and how much they cost - eight hours.
BENINCASA: Howard's problem may have been frustrating, but it isn't new. The National Funeral Directors Association used to prohibit members from advertising prices. It ended that ban in 1968 after being sued by the Justice Department.
That culture of secrecy persists in the self-described death care industry. A kind of strategic ambiguity about prices is part of the business model.
In our investigation, NPR found that funeral directors prefer to keep price information to themselves until a consumer is inside their premises, where it's easier to make a sale and harder for consumers to go elsewhere.
JOSHUA SLOCUM: The consumer stands firmly in 1951 because that seems to be the technological level and the transparency level that the majority of American funeral homes are stuck at.
BENINCASA: Joshua Slocum is executive director of Funeral Consumers Alliance, a death care industry watchdog group.
SLOCUM: In an era when you can go online and look up the price range for products as trivial as eraser caps for a pencil to a new smartphone, good luck sitting down and finding anything from your local funeral home websites.
BENINCASA: The Federal Trade Commission has sought to fix the industry's lack of price transparency and rein in a variety of deceptive and anti-consumer practices. The Federal Funeral Rule, enacted in 1984 after years of resistance by funeral businesses, requires an itemized price list, known as the general price list. Consumers must be given the list when they show up at the funeral home, and they're entitled to prices over the phone. The list is supposed to ensure that if a customer wants to buy, for example, a memorial service but doesn't want to buy programs, cards or elaborate floral arrangements, it's easy to specify that.
But in recent years, FTC regulators shopping undercover have found that about 1 in 4 funeral homes break the rule and fail to disclose price information. That's even though they risk large fines from the federal government. Slocum and other critics say it's time to bring the disclosure requirements into the age of mobile platforms, searchable data and social media. Price lists, they say, should be online. Many in the industry don't agree.
SCOTT GILLIGAN: I have to think that most of this is going to be market driven.
BENINCASA: Scott Gilligan is a lawyer for the National Funeral Directors Association, which represents thousands of funeral directors around the country.
GILLIGAN: If people want price information on websites, funeral homes are going respond by putting it out there. But I'd rather do that because that's my business decision than do it because I'm afraid of getting fined $40,000 by the federal government.
BENINCASA: In San Francisco, Will Chang is betting that there is demand for online price information and that he can capitalize on it.
WILL CHANG: That's the goal. We're hoping that we can disrupt the funeral industry.
BENINCASA: Chang heads a Silicon Valley startup that has collected thousands of funeral home price lists and posted them on a site called parting.com. He did it by having a team of workers pose as consumers and repeatedly call funeral homes until, he says, most of them turned over their price lists.
CHANG: Sometimes it took months, and sometimes we couldn't even get the prices at all. But we were able to get about 75 percent of all the funeral homes across the United States.
BENINCASA: Chang was shocked that many funeral directors wouldn't even use email and preferred fax machines, a fact borne out by NPR's reporting on the industry. And the resistance Chang faced in getting the price lists means it could be challenging to keep them up to date. So his strategy is to convince funeral directors to partner with his site and pay him a referral fee. Some have reacted badly, even threatening to sue him. But...
CHANG: A lot of these funeral homes now have younger funeral directors in their 30s or 40s, and they totally get what we're doing. And they've completely embraced us. So we feel very good about the direction of where the funeral industry is heading.
BENINCASA: In looking at the data he's collected, Chang found wild swings and prices for similar services. In our analysis of prices in several NPR member station markets, so did we.
In the Nashville area, for example, we found the minimum fee for using a funeral home varied from less than a thousand dollars to more than 4,000. The cost of a simple cremation in that market started below a thousand dollars and topped out at over 2,700.
At the national level, prices are up. The Funeral Rule was last amended 23 years ago, and since then, funeral prices have risen faster than the rate of inflation.
As for Howard, the consumer advocate who suddenly became a consumer, he went to the California legislature about a year after his father died and lobbied to require funeral businesses to post price lists online. After initial opposition from the industry, a compromised law took effect in 2013, and the state now requires some information to be posted online.
Robert Benincasa, NPR News.
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