Six-Feet Underhanded

Health care is a familiar issue, but what about 'death care'? The funeral industry in Washington is giving some grief-stricken consumers grave concerns.

After the death last year of World War II veteran and longtime Boeing worker Wayne C. "Ace" Colley, members of his Seattle family turned to Costco in their time of need. "We aren't all Microsoft millionaires," says Marilyn Colley, whose husband of 60 years, a Navy tail gunner who shot down four Japanese Zeros over the Coral Sea and Guadalcanal, died from bone cancer at age 83. Since 2004, Costco, the Issaquah-based warehouse club that specializes in appliances, electronics, and bulk food, has also successfully marketed a lower-end line of caskets. Sold in just a few stores originally, Costco coffins are now shipped to 25 states and the District of Columbia. Some sell for as much as $3,000, but the "In God's Care" model, an 18-gauge steel container from Universal Casket, can be had for $924.99, shipping and handling included. That's hundreds, even thousands of dollars less than some caskets sold by funeral homes and a comparative bargain to Americans looking for a better deal on death.

Except, once their discount coffin arrived at a Seattle mortuary, Colley family members discovered they were required to uncrate it themselves. They undertook the somber task in a room next to the crematory, where the roaring remains of others' dearly departed were being incinerated, and where, state investigators were later told, a mortuary employee said their warehouse coffin was inferior to the funeral home's products. Once they were done with the uncrating, relatives had to haul away the packing materials themselves.

That led to a lot of finger-pointing. Randy Kolar, an attorney for Universal Casket, calls it "outrageous and reprehensible" conduct and a violation of fair-trade practices. The funeral home, Butterworth-Arthur Wright Chapel on Queen Anne, denied its employee said the Costco coffin was inferior, and the state found no violation of its regulations.

But funeral home officials conceded they required the unwrapping and packaging disposal of "third-party" caskets—something the home has now discontinued following an investigation by the state Funeral and Cemetery Office. The home's management, which did not respond to a request for comment, agreed "that changes in its policy were needed," according to state funeral office manager Dennis McPhee. The policy also might have defied federal law to protect consumers from being "penalized" by funeral homes for buying coffins elsewhere.

The do-it-yourself casket unwrapping is a new twist to Washington consumer complaints about the "death care" business, as funeral home and cemetery operators call their work. But it's the more traditional grievances that keep state investigators busy watching over an industry whose services all of us—except for those who choose alternative funerals and burials—will require sooner or, preferably, much later. A review of state files reveals complaints about bodies buried in the wrong graves, cremated when they should have been planted, or occupying plots that have been resold. There are protests over misspelled headstones, mishandled remains, and high-pressure sales pitches by the industry's "grief counselors."

"We have less infractions than most other states, I'm sure," says Kathy Mathews, a member of the state Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers. "We're working really hard to police ourselves and I think we're doing an excellent job of it." Brad Carlson, who heads the separate state Cemetery Board, agrees. "I feel very fortunate we have a high standard of laws and regulations, and operators who want to comply in general." Still, along comes the occasionally impatient funeral director who tells the bereaved they'll have to wait for a viewing while he sews limbs back on—as happened in Kennewick—or the minimalist cemetery operator who puts two teenage homicide victims in a single grave when no one is looking.

"We had no idea it had happened," says Terry McNeal, whose son Terrell, killed in a shooting, was placed in a Renton grave atop a young victim from another shooting. "We didn't know who the other boy was." McNeal found out about the double burial only because a woman, who coincidentally attended both funerals four days apart, alerted the families. (See "A Tale of Two Bodies.")

Like Buying a Honda

When someone fouls up the last act of your loved one's existence, it resonates eternally. And few consumers are more vulnerable to service and sales abuses than the grieving survivors facing the average $6,500 cost of a funeral and burial of a friend or relative. In Washington, as across the U.S., survivors frequently are forced to balance cost with fulfillment of a deceased's last wishes. They may have to negotiate a consumer's obstacle course through the $15 billion funeral industry, wary of what many fear most about death—the cost—and likely unaware that, under federal law, all providers must first provide you with a price list.

And a long one at that. Besides the cost of a casket, there can be fees for collection and transportation of remains, refrigeration, the plot, opening and closing the grave, headstone, etching, funeral service, hearse and limo, clothing, dressing, cosmetology, stationery, flowers, obituary notice, death certificate, and tax. If necessary—or sometimes when unnecessary—there's also embalming and burial vault costs. Under state law, embalming is required only when a public viewing of the body is preferred; vaults, to preserve the coffin and shore up the ground, are optional at some cemeteries.

Funeral homes and cemeteries have occasionally charged for identical services, according to complaints. Consumers may not be aware that, while some funeral homes operate their own cemeteries, many don't. It can be confusing for someone unsure of—or not told of—what's necessary. A current price list from one Washington funeral home offers a "complete" $3,350 service that doesn't include a casket. Also not included are a burial container, headstone, and even the grave; that's a cemetery's sales turf. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) pegs the average funeral at $4,000 to $5,000 with perhaps $2,000 more for burial. Some consumers spend half of that on coffins alone, although there are cheaper ways to go: A Better Casket of Los Angeles sells a coffin for a blowout $275—assuming you have nothing against particleboard. A proper send-off, AARP notes, can be one of the major purchases of a lifetime. Try to be at least as picky as you would be buying a used Honda.

Some plan ahead with "pre-need" insurance policies or "prearrangement" services and burials that are paid in advance. But even then, all costs might not be included. Two years ago, a Seattle woman complained that her late father paid $33,000 in advance for his funeral and plot—yet, as KING-TV reported, the package didn't even include a grave marker. And he was cremated. The late muckraking author Jessica Mitford, in the updated version of her memorable expose of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death Revisited, called prearrangement the "pay now, die poorer" plan in part for the residual cost. (Pre- arrangement funds are placed in trust accounts, and under Washington law can be returned if a buyer cancels the contract prior to death). Consumers, knowingly or unknowingly, may not purchase full coverage, which can lead to standoffs. The Tacoma Memorial Society refused to release the ashes of a deceased woman until her family paid the prearrangement bill in full, according to a complaint. Some costs—oddly enough, for a cremation container ($75) and an urn ($29)—weren't included in the limited contract the customer had signed, and other charges were added as required by law, such as initial refrigeration of the body ($135) and death certificate ($50). It's unclear why these standard charges weren't initially included. There was also the cost ($45) to remove a pacemaker, potentially explosive when cremated. Who'da thought?

Chaining of the Dead

For the unprepared—those confronted with important decisions in the space of a few days—there's pressure to buy more costly containers and unnecessary add-ons in what is becoming a shrinking marketplace. A multinational chain, Texas-based Service Corp. International, is about to corner more than 15 percent of the U.S. market by buying the second-largest U.S. mortuary chain, the Alderwoods Group of Ohio. It will position SCI, already the world's largest funeral-cemetery provider, to take over even more of the competition. When the $856 million deal is completed later this year, SCI will operate 2,202 funeral homes and cemeteries in North America, including more than three dozen in the Puget Sound region. Of Washington's 389 funeral homes and cemeteries, SCI, which operates under the brand name Dignity Memorial, will own more than 60, making it Washington's largest funeral- cemetery chain. "I think it's too soon to see how that will shake out," says Kathy Mathews of the state funeral board. "The majority of funeral homes are individually owned. With a corporation, with that overhead, typically prices are a little higher." SCI has run into a number of regulatory actions and lawsuits locally and across the United States. The company is operated by Robert Waltrip, longtime friend and contributor to both President Bushes. Tony Coelho, who ran Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign against George W. Bush, sits on the SCI board, and was caught in the crossfire of a campaign issue, dubbed Funeral-gate, alleging then–Gov. Bush stopped a 1990s Texas investigation into some of friend Waltrip's funeral practices.

SCI has more recently been accused of, among other things, selling an impaired elderly Florida woman funeral services amounting to $125,000, including a $40,000 casket. SCI and Alderwoods, along with giant Batesville Casket of Indiana, are also being sued by consumer groups in federal court for allegedly conspiring to fix prices (SCI and Batesville call the allegation bogus). At an SCI operation here, the body of a man was buried in the wrong grave, apparently due to a clerical error. The cemetery, Sunset Hills Memorial Park in Bellevue, corrected the mistake and paid $15,000 compensation last year to the family without admitting liability, according to recently released state records. SCI's CEO Tom Ryan says the forthcoming merger will enhance product and marketing strategies "across an expanded geographic footprint." But more centralized market control can make the challenge even greater for the sudden consumer.

An Olympia-area family, for example, brought their own casket to the funeral of their mother—buying it at a lower rate from an outside seller. But when they arrived for a viewing at Mills & Mills Funeral Home in Tumwater, part of the merging Alderwoods/SCI chain, the home had put the mother's body in one of their caskets, according to a state investigative report. The family's casket was another color, and, unlike the home's casket, had the word "Mother" imprinted. "They said [theirs] was a far better casket than what we had ordered," said a family member, and the survivors were pressured to buy it as a replacement. At one point, said a relative, a home representative "even compared my mother to a used car, talking about payment and repossession." (The home says it offered to leave the mother in the casket and did not recall trying to sell it as a replacement).

Employees finally took the casket to another room, switching the body to the family's casket while people were awaiting visitation. When the mother was wheeled back in, "her whole facial expression had changed," said the relative, referring to how the jostling had recast the mother's contented look. In a statement, Mills & Mills said the family had seemed pleased with the home's services, and termed the casket foul-up an honest mistake. The state found no legal wrongdoing.

Bribes, Creepy Pictures, Billing Disputes

Mathews, the state board member, notes that some of these cases come to light because the industry and state take active oversight roles. "We are totally regulated in Washington," says Mathews, director of a Centralia mortuary. "Some states do very little regulation." The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) created a new code of conduct in 2004 that includes a public complaint procedure. The NFDA says it became necessary to "raise the bar" on ethics to reassure the public. It's clear there are more than a few unsatisfied customers. A stack of investigative files compiled in the past three and a half years by the state Funeral and Cemetery Office— a division of the state Department of Licensing—and the state Office of the Attorney General, includes more than 60 complaints ranging from small contract-language disputes to serious law-breaking. The state, which licenses 240 funeral homes, 149 cemeteries, 71 crematories, and 569 funeral directors, pursues complaints as well as regulatory violations, some replete with horror stories. Among them:

•James D. Stark, an apprentice embalmer in Olympia, was suspended for at least three years and fined $500 for repeatedly taking pictures of the deceased in a funeral home, including "photographs showing significant trauma and other sensitive details" such as a disinterred baby and a large autopsied woman. An investigator said Stark confirmed he snapped the photos, some which were developed at Costco, and that he at least once took home a child's casket, supposedly to photograph it.

•At Columbia Funeral Service in Longview, the director went ahead with a cremation despite the protests of a majority of the deceased's family, who wanted the woman buried. Director Norman K. Nisbet Jr. said he was following the wishes of another family member who made the original arrangements. Nisbet was charged with violations of the state funeral-directing law for failing to seek permission from a majority of the woman's nine children. An investigation also turned up alleged billing irregularities and at least five other instances of cremation ordered by one family member when others had the right to decide. Nisbet agreed to sanctions and was fined $4,000 in February.

•Zane Fitch, a director and embalmer at Upper Room Funeral Chapel in Tacoma, was charged with intentionally sending a body to Texas for burial by relatives there even though relatives here asked for a service and viewing locally, following the deceased's wishes. Fitch was sanctioned and fined $8,000. In a separate case, Fitch was accused of charging relatives for the funerals of crime victims whose costs were actually paid in full by the state crime- victims compensation program. Fitch belatedly returned a $2,400 advance payment to the relatives.

•An Eastern Washington funeral director, Michael R. Meyer, was fined $7,500 and his license suspended 10 years after he was convicted in Benton County and sentenced to six months in jail for stealing funds from prearrangement clients—a case uncovered by state funeral board probers. Meyer, who was also disciplined in 1993 for "improper" use of such funds, would convert client trust funds to cashiers checks and use the money to prop up the finances of his Prosser funeral business, the state said.

•The state was investigating—and U.S. prosecutors were charging—Fort Lewis mortician and civilian liaison officer Rolf G. Evans of Tacoma for extortion when he died in January this year. Authorized to arrange local funerals for soldiers killed in action, Evans was accused of extorting bribes from a Tacoma funeral home in return for funeral assignments. The funeral home operator claimed Evans originally wanted $100 to $300 per body, then demanded $500. Evans' family says the allegations were untrue.

•In Stevenson, Skamania County, Brown's Funeral Home was discovered to be advertising its services without having obtained a state license. The state notified the operator, who continued to advertise anyway. Four months later, the home capitulated after being threatened with a state cease-and-desist order. That case came to light because a competitor complained, and the state urges both the industry and the public to alert inspectors to any possible violations.

A history of complaints helps establish patterns of misconduct by funeral homes and cemeteries, on which the state bases enforcement action. (Complaints also provide leverage for the public in service and billing disputes).

Records from earlier years show that Tacoma funeral director L'Ray Scott, who died in a car crash in 2001, may have had the most complaints lodged against him in the shortest period—four in two years. Among the violations was leaving a body outside his cooler for 24 hours because the woman looked so lifelike and he wanted "to be sure" she was dead. (See "Neptune's Graveyard," July 18, 2001.)

Wrong Casket, Wrong Grave

Not all consumers are pleased with the state's level of enforcement and think regulators can be too cozy with the industry. State funeral office manager McPhee, a former funeral director, believes many complaints can be resolved without legal action and regularly closes cases with the explanation there's little he can do since neither the state nor the federal government regulate costs. "The fact that prices seem high or unreasonable," McPhee tells consumers, "does not violate [government] regulations." Cemeteries, for one, are allowed to require the purchase of burial containers even though state law doesn't require them. Cemeteries also are allowed to establish their own rules and regulations that in turn take on the effect of state law, McPhee says.

For the most part, the state can do little about minor personal misconduct such as rudeness or impatience, though the mere fact that a director or cemetery operator might receive a call from the state has a deterrent effect. "Personalities, attitudes, and one's personal character are difficult to use in establishing a charge of unprofessional conduct," McPhee wrote to an Eastern Washington woman whose son was one of two teenagers killed in a car crash. She complained she had been anxious to see her son's body at Mueller's, a Kennewick funeral home, but was made to wait while the body was being groomed for presentation. When the woman said appearance didn't matter, she claims she was told by a director "Well, I could just let you see him right now!" all torn up. She had to be physically restrained, she said. The director told the family of the other dead youth they'd have to wait, too, because "I am trying to sew your son's foot back on," according to the complaint. No state disciplinary action was taken, further upsetting the woman. She thought state investigators were just sloughing it all off to a funeral director "having a bad day." Funeral and Cemetery Office administrator Jon Donnellan agreed that Mueller's director had displayed poor behavior, but said it was the first such complaint against him.

Understandably, there's a lot of emotion involved here. Complainants vent their grief in long letters and e-mails to the state over lack of courtesy and caring, and slights real and perhaps exaggerated—complaints that are generally dealt with by notifying the funeral home, in some cases triggering a letter of apology. Some operators are willing to negotiate disputed costs, acknowledging that funeral arrangements are typically made in a rush, and even those seemingly well-planned can come up short. "It is quite common for family members to inform other family members that all funeral-related expenses have been taken care of" because the person has signed a contract, McPhee explains. Some consumers could also have been misled into thinking they were fully covered.

Counties will pay costs to cremate remains of the indigent, in some cases burying them en masse once a year—in 2005 at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Renton, King County buried the ashes of 200 people, mostly poor, homeless, and unclaimed, in a single grave on a single day. The law allows directors to apply for financial assistance, including the cost of cremation. Nonetheless, a Tacoma woman who couldn't afford a funeral for her sister was told by a director, she says, to either pay up or he'd take the body back to the hospice where the sister died. Another relative paid the tab, she told officials.

Other funeral/cemetery complaints include the temporary misplacing of a loved one's ashes, only to be suddenly found, leaving family members to wonder if it's really Uncle Bob in that urn. Missing, misplaced, unkempt, or, perhaps worst of all, misspelled headstones are a constant drumbeat. A Seattle-area woman says her mother's name, Ethelyn, was etched in as Evelyn at a local cemetery. (The cemetery, Greenwood Memorial Park, made the correction and, in a gesture of apology, offered to place a bouquet of flowers on the grave free for 12 months.) Consumers also complain about the makeup and cleanup of their loved ones, such as the Tacoma family that discovered blood around the nostrils and a waxy substance on the ears of their patriarch during viewing; he had also been placed in the wrong casket.

Then there is the grave already occupied. As her husband neared death, a South King County woman bought a grave site that, it turned out, held the remains of another man. The cemetery promised the remains would be moved to another section. But when her husband died a month later, the woman discovered the other body had not been relocated, according to state documents, and was told there were two contracts for the same grave. The woman, a former real estate salesperson, says she pointed out to the cemetery that in the real estate business, "When people sell the same property to two different parties and get caught, they go to prison." That seemed to work. She was promptly given an agreeable burial site.

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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