Utah Counties Take Advantage of Home Funeral Families

3/25/2010 — Thanks to the incredible advocacy of Joyce Mitchell, President of the FCA of Utah, lawmakers repealed a 2006 that had made Utah families’ deceased loved ones the virtual property of the funeral industry. The 2006 law made it illegal for anyone but a commercial funeral director to sign and file a death certificate, thereby forcing families to pay whatever the funeral home demanded of them. In 2009 consumer advocates and casketmakers David and Marcia Robles joined Mitchell to successfully lobby for a bill to preserve citizens’ rights to conduct a funeral without interference from the commercial mortuary industry.

We thought the barriers to family-directed funerals were gone, until we discovered that county health departments across Utah are charging outrageous fees to families who file a death certificate, fees ranging from $100 to $300. Recording a death certificate is the equivalent amount of work state employees perform when you file a renewal on your car registration. And guess what—these Utah counties aren’t charging funeral directors anything when they file death certificates.

And the justification for these excessive fees? Utah County Vital deputy vital statistics officer Andrea Schoell seems to believe it’s very, very complicated for her staff to figure out how to deal with a paper death certificate. She told the Salt Lake Tribune that her staff has to process the certificate by hand then enter it into a computer.

“My staff is not used to filling it out,” Shoell said. She said the three family-filed death certificates her department processed since the law changed took 45 minutes each — including calling the doctor to verify the signature on the cause of death.

One wonders how the staff managed just a few short years ago before Utah moved to electronic death registration.

The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board put the matter in perspective:

The fees are clearly unjustified, especially since family members are dealing with so many other demands in their time of grief. The only reason for a city or county to adopt such an unreasonable fee schedule would be to try to force families to use the services of a funeral director, someone local officials are probably used to working with.

But that decision should be left to family members, and they shouldn’t be punished if they choose to have a funeral at home and avoid paying a funeral director to do things they would rather do themselves. At-home childbirth is not discouraged by charging extra fees for filing a birth certificate. The same should be true of Utahns who want to handle a death in the family on their own terms.

Several Utah counties say they’re now going to reconsider these fees. Let’s hope they do, but it’s quite disturbing that such excessive fees (levied on people in a time of grief and shock) seemed reasonable or ethical to any public official in the first place.

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