Funeral Legislation: Pay Up or We’ll Keep the Body

December 6, 2013

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Caskets

Rep. Sandifer and the ‘funeral cartel’

Although he’s a funeral home director and owner, S.C. Rep. John King doesn’t see any conflict of interest in sponsoring legislation that would allow funeral homes to keep the bodies of families’ loved ones until their funeral tabs are paid.

“By no means are funeral homes trying to hold a human body hostage,” the York County Democrat told The Nerve on Thursday. “We just want to be compensated for the service we provided.”

A bill (H. 4370) prefiled by King on Tuesday for the legislative session that starts next month would allow a funeral home, funeral home director or embalmer to “refuse to release a dead human body to the custody of the person or entity who has the legal right to effect a release until any financial obligation related to services provided by the funeral home with respect to the dead human body have been fully satisfied.”

Funeral directors and embalmers can have their professional licenses suspended or revoked under state law if they refuse to “properly release a dead human body” to a person who has a legal right to the body. Under King’s bill, they wouldn’t face that risk “when the refusal is related to the payment of related financial obligations.”

King, owner of and director at Christopher King’s Funeral Home in Chester, said other funeral home operators have told him that more often in recent years, new competitors are convincing families to transfer their loved ones’ bodies to the competitors’ businesses – typically by offering cheaper prices – after the more-established funeral homes have picked up and embalmed the bodies without receiving payment for their services.

“I don’t want to come across as self-serving, but I have colleagues who are out tens of thousands of dollars each year,” King said, noting that transportation and embalming costs can run $2,000 to $4,000 depending on the situation.

“I’m not immune from it, just like any other funeral home,” said King, who has served in the House since 2009, though he denied he introduced the bill to help his own business.

“I don’t think it’s a conflict of interest,” he said.“I think it serves the citizens, and it happens to be there are funeral directors who live in my district. Because I’m a funeral director, I should not be precluded.”

Contacted Thursday, Scott Gilligan, a Cincinnati, Ohio attorney who represents the Wisconsin-based National Funeral Directors Association, said he is not aware of a law in any other state that is similar to King’s bill, though he didn’t dispute King’s reasons for introducing the legislation.

“It’s probably becoming more of a problem as people shop more on the Internet,” he said.

Gilligan said that “as a courtesy in the old days,” funeral homes had agreements with each other to bill families for services provided by one funeral home if a family decided to switch to another home, adding, “That doesn’t happen so much anymore.”

The Nerve this year has pointed out that the Palmetto State’s funeral industry has its supporters in the Legislature – chief among them being Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee and a licensed funeral director and embalmer, who since 2002 has authored eight laws that focus on governing aspects of funeral pre-planning. In South Carolina, only licensed funeral directors can sell “pre-need” contracts.

Sandifer is chairman of the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee; King’s bill likely will be assigned to his committee. The Nerve’s review found that King and Rep. Anne Parks, D-Greenwood and a mortician-funeral director, have played smaller roles compared to Sandifer in pushing bills for the funeral industry.

Gere Fulton, board president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Carolina, a nonprofit group that educates people on funeral-related goods and services, told The Nerve on Thursday that although he doesn’t think “anyone should argue that a business person should not be compensated for the services that are provided,” he doesn’t have “sufficient information at this point” to form an opinion about King’s bill.

“Right now we’re more interested in what the governor is going to do with the recommendation of the Regulatory Review Task Force,” he said.

Among other things, the task force, established by Gov. Nikki Haley through an executive order in February, recently recommended the repeal of certain state laws regulating the definition and permitting of funeral “retail sales outlets.”

“The (S.C.) Board (of Funeral Service) has used and interpreted these regulations in a manner that appears not related to public safety as much as it might be construed as economic protectionism,” the Nov. 15 report said.

In earlier interviews with The Nerve, Fulton said most members of the 11-member board are industry insiders, which he contended creates a “cartel” against competition.

The task force recommendations came after The Nerve reported on the case of Swansea resident Mike White, who faced a fine of up to $10,000 after he was accused of selling $300 “pre-need” wooden caskets without a state license. The S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs dropped its case against White in May.

King said Thursday under federal law, funeral homes are required to tell clients about their fees, and also must annually file their price lists with the Board of Funeral Service, which is part of the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

King, who noted he also is a bail bondsman, said his bill is not intended to stifle competition in the funeral industry.

“But at the end of the day, we have funeral homes that are losing money,” he said.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.