Burying Some Grave Concerns

Recently, the Texas Consumers Union called for the state legislature to investigate the nine-member State Board of Morticians because it had “closed its eyes” to misrepresentations and high-pressure sales tactics to bereaved families by the Texas funeral industry. One of the abuses cited by the Consumers Union’s Southwest regional office director, Carol Barger, grew out of a revealing Cable News Network report on a Dallas funeral home.

In “Dying for Dollars,” aired last April, CNN reporters posing as family members visited Pinkston’s Mortuary, ostensibly trying to arrange an inexpensive funeral for a loved one. They were first shown the most expensive and elaborate caskets and burial procedures. Finally, the couple was led to a back room where they were shown the cheapest casket, which was filled with a dead body.

Barger says that the abuses detailed in the CNN report were symbolic of problems in the Texas funeral industry. She says funeral home employees often misrepresent the preservative qualities of embalming or the protective capabilities of caskets and sometimes fail to provide customers with a price list, as required by state law.

“Board members had difficulty defending the actions of their own employees, who clearly violated the law on camera,” she says. “How can they be entrusted with enforcing the law when they cannot be trusted with enforcing compliance in their own business?”

Apparently, complaints from the Consumers Union have awakened the state board. John Schocklee, the board’s executive secretary and a licensed funeral director, resigned the first week in June. He was replaced by a man with no connection to the funeral industry; Larry Farrow, a former administrator with the state Senate and state health department.

Farrow says he found the board very disorganized when he took up his new post last June. Many complaints from consumers and the funeral industry were taking six or seven months to be heard; often, complainants were not contacted about the resolution of their gripes. “There were lots of problems,” Farrow says. “But the board wants to get things cleaned up. They want resolution of all complaints within ninety days.”

A special committee that has studied the complaint resolution process is due to deliver its recommendations to the state board this month. In the meantime, Farrow says he is hiring licensed private investigators to look at some of the more serious complaints leveled against the Texas funeral industry, The board’s complaint resolution committee now meets monthly.

Board member the Rev. William T. Stephenson of Dallas says the hiring of Farrow was not done in response to the CNN report. He says, however, that Farrow’s administrative ability has helped hasten the complaint resolution process.

But Stephenson said the CNN report blew any problems out of proportion. “We just didn’t feel [CNN] gave the whole picture,” he says. “We on the board felt much of the criticism was not well founded.”

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