WASHINGTON -- A burgeoning funeral industry has increased competition and provoked aggressive sales practices that could be cheating grieving survivors, consumer advocates say.
The Senate's Special Committee on Aging, after receiving complaints about unscrupulous practices, opened hearings Monday on the issue.
''Consumers should not fear being defrauded by a dishonest funeral provider who sells them more than they need, or who does not provide itemized prices to comparison shop,'' said Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, the ranking Democrat on the panel.
Industry groups pointed to last year's annual industry survey which said 80 percent of consumers were satisfied with their funeral services experience.
''Consumer problems are low in volume and are efficiently resolved,'' Paul Elvig of the International Cemetery and Funeral Association said in testimony prepared today, the second round of hearings.
Over the years, the funeral industry has evolved into a multibillion dollar industry with about 22,152 funeral homes nationwide. The industry has expanded to allow consumers to buy caskets and other items online, at coffin retailers or directly from cemeteries.
At the same time, funeral and burial expenses have risen faster than inflation since 1990, Grassley noted.
An average funeral cost $5,020 in 1998, up 5 percent from the previous year. Burial costs can drive the price as high as $7,520.
Advocacy groups have expressed concern that in the midst of an increasingly competitive industry, companies are targeting consumers for huge sales pitches.
Of particular concern are what are known as ''pre-need services,'' advance funeral and burial arrangements purchased by a consumer.
Many witnesses testified about aggressive sales tactics that lure elderly consumers into buying unnecessary items. They also complained about inadequate contracts that don't cover a variety of expenses, such as embalming after autopsies or tissue donation, unexpected refrigeration costs or cemetery charges for setup of chairs and awning.
''With all these and more extra charges, there is little 'peace of mind' for survivors,'' said Lamar Hankins, president of FAMSA-Funeral Consumers Alliance, a group which monitors the industry.
Hankins told the committee of an 80-year-old Florida widow who was persuaded just months after the death of her husband to purchase more than $125,000 in unneeded funeral goods and services.
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