Death isn’t cheap these days.
Critics say regulations of South Carolina’s funeral industry block competition for those who want to buy an inexpensive casket. But they likely won’t get a sympathetic ear from a state lawmaker-funeral director who has successfully pushed funeral-related bills in recent years.
The nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Carolina (FCASC) wants Gov. Nikki Haley’s regulatory-review task force to push reforms in an industry where nine of 11 members of the state Board of Funeral Service are, according to the alliance, industry insiders. Alliance President Gere Fulton has contended that the board’s makeup creates a “cartel” against competition.
“South Carolina’s a right-to-work state unless you want the right to build a casket, and then you have to join the union (comply with all state rules),” Fulton told The Nerve earlier this week.
A wooden casket can sell for $300. In comparison, the cost of a metal casket in the Columbia area ranges from $957 to $11,000, according to a 2012 pricing study of Columbia-area funeral homes conducted by the FCASC. One Columbia-area funeral home listed a casket for $32,700, that study revealed.
South Carolina’s funeral industry has its supporters in the state General Assembly. A review by The Nerveof recently passed laws impacting the funeral industry found that Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee and chairman of the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee, has been particularly successful in that area. Sandifer is a licensed funeral director and embalmer, S.C. Labor, Licensing and Regulation (LLR) records show.
Since 2002, eight of 10 Sandifer-sponsored bills that focused on governing aspects of funeral pre-planning have become law. “Pre-need” funeral planning is a key area in the funeral industry because it involves contracts, insurance policies or the potential establishment of a trust, among other things.
In South Carolina, only licensed funeral directors can sell pre-need contracts. The S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs enforces the rules for pre-need contracts, and the Board of Funeral Service licenses funeral directors.
Two other lawmakers who also are funeral directors, Rep. John King, D-York, and Rep. Anne Parks, D-Greenwood, have had a smaller role in pushing bills for the funeral industry, The Nerve’s review found.
Sandifer identifies himself as a “businessman” in his S.C. House biography listed on the Legislature’s website. However, his connection to the funeral industry is obvious as he received an award from the South Carolina Funeral Directors Association “for (the) highest office held by a member of the association.”
Sandifer also is identified on the Legislature’s website as a past president of the state Funeral Directors Association. He was the owner of Seneca Mortuary, according to this biography from 2011.
Sandifer did not respond to multiple requests from The Nerve for comment.
King identifies himself in his S.C. House biography as the funeral director-owner of Christopher King’s Funeral Home in Chester. Parks identifies herself on the Legislature’s website as the mortician-funeral director of Parks Funeral Home in Greenwood.
H. 3615, sponsored by Sandifer and co-sponsored by three others including Parks and King, was signed into law on June 2, 2009. H. 4763, sponsored by Sandifer and co-sponsored by four others including Parks and King, was signed into law on June 18, 2012. Both bills amended rules regarding pre-need funeral plans.
Efforts this week by The Nerve to reach Parks were unsuccessful. Contacted Thursday by The Nerve, King said he does not believe he has a conflict of interest as a funeral director seeking additional laws for the industry.
“It’s a moot point,” King said, adding the same thing could be said of attorneys, teachers and social workers, among others. “I want to make sure the industry I’m a part of is innovative.”
“I don’t think funeral directors care about competition,” he continued. “They care about the families they serve.”
Although South Carolina’s Board of Funeral Service is stacked with industry insiders, critics contend, that makeup is common in other states. But it is coming under intense scrutiny as consumers seek ways to save money on funerals, such as purchasing wooden caskets.
The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision in March against the funeral industry in Louisiana, which had closed the casket market to competition, the online investigative website Watchdog.org reported. The Louisiana case has been appealed, Fulton said.
Fulton, whose group has been active in the state since 1993, recently had a guest column printed by The State describing a problem Mike White of Lexington County had in building wooden caskets that he sold for $300. White did not respond to a request from The Nerve seeking comment.
Once the Board of Funeral Service discovered that White was making inexpensive caskets, he was told he could pay a non-refundable application fee of $400 to be an “outlet,” which would require that he display six caskets, Fulton said in his column. A complaint against White generated attention from the Department of Consumers Affairs, which informed him that he could resolve the issue without a hearing for $750, according to the column.
White then received a “cease- and-desist” order, with failure to comply resulting in civil and criminal penalties, Fulton wrote.
Fulton is a former college professor at the University of Toledo but has been active as a volunteer leader with the FCASC since 2000. The group has completed some pricing surveys – six in Columbia, two in Charleston and one in the Upstate – to monitor whether funeral homes are following federal law that requires no misrepresentation of pricing information. Fulton told The Nerve the Board of Funeral Service hasn’t been fond of his work, noting that in his initial meeting in 2002 with the BFS that members demonstrated a “palpable” hostility and disdain regarding his report to the panel.
Fulton wrote a letter earlier this month to Holly Pisarik, director of the state licensing agency that oversees the funeral board, seeking regulatory reform of the panel.
“While ostensibly the Board of Funeral Service was created to serve and protect the public,” Fulton wrote in his letter, “in placing barriers in the path of those who would like to sell inexpensive caskets to buyers who are seeking exactly that, the board has chosen to support a cartel that serves only the interests of the funeral industry. It has become the classic case of the foxes guarding the hen house.”
LLR spokeswoman Lesia Kudelka did not respond to The Nerve’s inquiry about Fulton’s letter.
Fulton told The Nerve that actions by the Board of Funeral Service and Consumer Affairs create a “chilling effect on people who want nothing than an inexpensive casket.”
He said Haley’s regulatory-review task force and lawmakers have a question to answer:
“Should the Board of Funeral Service have the right to regulate the sale of a wooden box?”
Olson can be reached at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_curt and @olson_curt. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.