Tennessee Funeral Directors Try–But Fail–to Shut Down Competition

Summer, 2005 — The Spring, 2005 issue of the FCA Newsletter carried an article (see article below this one) about five bills backed by the Tennesee State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, and the Tennessee Funeral Directors Association. The bills purported to better regulate funeral homes and crematories, but in reality, they would have done little to protect the consumer and a lot to protect the mortuary business. The worst of these, Senate Bill 102, would have raised the requirements for running a funeral home so much that smaller operators with lower prices and less capital would have been put out of business.

FCA of Middle Tennessee and FCA National submitted testimony opposing these bills, and Wes Grantham of FCAMT testified against them at a legislative hearing. Several Tennessee funeral directors also opposed the bills. Grantham reports the bills were quietly referred to a subcommittee (meaning they were given a quick burial). “It’s nice to occasionally see the legislative process come out on the right side in consumer issues,” he said.

The industry interests in Tennessee will have to look for another insider to carry forth their agenda, too. State Senator John Ford, a well-known Democratic senator and funeral director who introduced these and other funeral-related bills, was led away from the senate floor in handcuffs on May 26 after an FBI sting. The Associated Press reported Ford and three other legislators took bribes from a phony company and then lobbied for fake legislation that would have benefited the FBI’s dummy corporation.

How it all started . . .

Spring, 2005 — Apparently the state didn’t learn its lesson about protectionist laws after a federal court overturned its restrictions on retail casket sales. This time, the state is targeting low-cost, low-overhead funeral homes in a blatant attempt to shut down competition.

The FCA of Middle Tennessee and FCA National have submitted testimony protesting several bills that will restrict consumer choice and raise costs. Senate Bills 99, 100, 101, 102, and 103 deal with various aspects of funeral home and crematory licensure. Senator John Ford, a well-known funeral director now embroiled in an unrelated senate ethics investigation, is sponsoring the bills.

Senate Bill 102 would shut down low-cost, low-overhead funeral homes. SB 102 would require every funeral home to be in a stand-alone building that will “reasonably accommodate the general public for all standard and customary services,” to have an area for viewing the body, an area for “religious or meditative observance,” a merchandise area, a parking lot with room for 20 cars, and a body-removal vehicle.

These requirements would shutter many funeral providers who contract with other funeral homes as needed, or who use churches for viewings, to keep overhead down. These funeral directors – several of whom FCA recommends and trusts – pass the savings along to customers. Under Ford’s scheme, only the richest and priciest funeral homes could afford to meet the new standards.

It seems funeral director Bob Arrington, vice president of the Tennessee Funeral Directors Association, and a member of the state board that is supposed to protect the public, has been shepherding the bills along. After a funeral director leaked earlier versions of the proposals to FCA, we called Arrington. He claimed “consumer protection” was behind the effort.

“People have applied to state board for license, and according to law, we had to give it to ’em,” he said. “I don’t care if they give funerals away. What I have is a problem is where they’re putting [funeral services] up . . . in a mobile home, on the second floor of an office building. They’re not in business for the good of the public, they’re opening up to sell preneed and get a commission.”

Arrington also told us the legislation would “grandfather in” existing low-cost establishments. But two versions of the proposals, and now the legislation itself, contain no grandfather clause.

Expect to see more attempts in some states to use the law to shut out competition and protect the undertakers’ old guard as it faces rising cremation rates and declining profits.

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