This story is part one of a two-part investigation. Read part two here.
Ellen Bethea sat alongside her husband's hospital bed after doctors told her that Archie, the man she had been married to for almost five decades, wouldn't make it.
"As soon as everybody else was asleep and I was sitting there with him, he passed on," she remembers. "So I think he kind of waited for me to be with him."
Bethea says her husband had several health problems and died of liver disease.
Later that day in November 2015, the staff at the hospital near her Jacksonville, Fla., home asked Bethea something she hadn't prepared for: Which funeral home did she want to use?
Bethea had never planned a funeral before, but knew of only one in town — Hardage-Giddens Funeral Home of Jacksonville. Some of her family and friends had used it and, she said, it had a good reputation. She and her family went there the next day.
After meeting with a staff member, they walked out with a bill of over $7,000.
Bethea provided a copy of the itemized funeral bill to NPR. One thing quickly stood out, but only if you know something about Jacksonville's funeral market.
The cost of Archie's cremation — $3,295 — was more than twice the amount charged elsewhere in Jacksonville by the company that owns Hardage-Giddens. The cremations are done in the same place and in the same way.
In a months-long investigation into pricing and marketing in the funeral business, also known as the death care industry, NPR spoke with funeral directors, consumers and regulators. We collected price information from around the country and visited providers. We found a confusing, unhelpful system that seems designed to be impenetrable by average consumers, who must make costly decisions at a time of grief and financial stress.
Funeral homes often aren't forthcoming about how much things cost, or embed the information in elaborate package deals that can drive up the price of saying goodbye to loved ones.
While most funeral businesses have websites, most omit prices from the sites, making it more difficult for families to compare prices or shop around. NPR reporters also found it difficult to get prices from many funeral homes, and federal regulators routinely find the homes violating a law that requires price disclosures.
In Jacksonville, Hardage-Giddens and several other businesses in and around Jacksonville are part of a large, corporate-owned portfolio of about 1,500 funeral homes and several hundred cemeteries.
The owner and operator is Service Corporation International (SCI), a multibillion-dollar company traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
The Houston-based firm claims 16 percent of the $19 billion North American death care market, which includes the U.S. and Canada. Company documents say it has 24,000 employees and is the largest owner of funeral homes and cemeteries in the world.
In Jacksonville, SCI sells cremations under the Hardage-Giddens/Dignity Memorial brand at large, luxurious funeral homes.
The company also sells them for lower prices at strip-mall storefront outlets under other brands such as Neptune Society and National Cremation Society.
In communities around the country, it's common to find wide swings in prices for funeral services.
"That to me, starts to cross a line into consumer deception," says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a death care industry watchdog group based in Burlington, Vt.
Slocum was talking generally about markets such as Jacksonville, where a company's centralized crematory handles remains from a variety of differently branded outlets — from posh funeral homes to humble storefront cremation societies.
The cremations are all the same, but some will cost much more than others, depending on where the consumer made the arrangements, and which of the company's brand names appears on the invoice.
"You only get that lower price for the cremation society if you happen to know that it exists and is owned by the same business," Slocum says. "I'm not saying they're doing something illegal, but I am questioning whether or not we can really say, 'Oh, they give a much higher level of service.' "
The cremations arranged through all those outlets are performed in a large crematory at 517 Park St. in Jacksonville. The crematory's supervisor, Troy Brown, wrote on his LinkedIn profile that the Park Street facility serves 14 funeral homes.
"Direct cremation is the same no matter where you go," says Slocum. "When we're talking about situations where some consumers do not know or can't find out that that same business offers the same service at a lower price, maybe at a similar location, that is when I would have a problem with it."
But Scott Gilligan, a lawyer for the National Funeral Directors Association, says comparing the two cremations is "like saying all weddings are the same."
"Just like if I want a hamburger at a gourmet place, it's the same hamburger I'm going to get at McDonald's. But it's going to cost more because of the atmosphere, because of what is being done. It's choices," Gilligan says.
According to Gilligan, when consumers choose a funeral home, they're generally not making that decision on price. They're looking at other factors, such as reputation and location.
When it comes to identical services, such as Jacksonville's cremations, which have different brand names and different prices, Gilligan says: "Well, that is simply someone offering a service, or offering a division, which is going to cater to people who are looking for the price."
One thing the storefront and the larger funeral homes have in common is an upselling strategy. Both try to sell consumers packages that bundle together multiple goods and services. This makes all of the funerals more expensive.
Bethea says it happened to her.
"Well, actually, I think they only showed us one package that they had," she says.
That package, known as the Honor Cremation Service, included a number of extra charges, including $495 for stationery and $345 for an Internet memorial.
That price premium is a problem the federal government has tried to fix with "the Funeral Rule," a regulation in place since 1984.
It requires itemized price lists. But funeral directors are still free to emphasize packages in the sales process, as they did with Bethea.
"You know, Archie didn't have hardly very much life insurance — maybe 5,000 — and I had, you know, a little bit of money in the bank, and it took everything."
SCI, whose officials declined to speak with NPR for this story, tells consumers in sales materials that buying a funeral package saves them money.
But company executives tell investors a different story. In a presentation to Wall Street investors last year, the company said consumers spend an extra $1,900, on average when they buy a package, versus an "a la carte" funeral.
For some context, the national median cost of a funeral with a burial, not including cemetery costs, is over $7,000.
SCI CEO Tom Ryan told investors: "Think about society today. We are in a hurry, right? Everybody is on the clock ... What we find is when we deliver these packages, people tend to spend more money because they're buying more products and services."
He added that consumers, in fact, like the packages.
"And most importantly, we survey our customers, and the highest customer satisfaction scores come from people that select the packages. So we know we're doing the right thing. The packages allow us to do that for all parties involved," Ryan said.
Company executives told analysts in July they're rolling out a new point-of-sale system that also increases per-funeral revenue.
Packaging goods and services under multiple brands and setting different prices for identical services are strategies the company uses in many of its markets, which span 45 states and the District of Columbia.
In Raleigh, N.C., for example, the company's full service funeral home and storefront cremation office are across the street from each other. Crossing that street can save you — or cost you — $1,895.
Riley Beggin of NPR, Brian Latimer and Emily Siner of Nashville Public Radio, Marisa Demarco and Ed Williams of KUNM, and Joe Wertz of StateImpact Oklahoma contributed to this story.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
When a family member dies, there are lots of decisions to make, often quickly. There are funerals to plan, burial plots or urns to buy. Many businesses want to help families make those decisions. But an NPR investigation found that some of those businesses steer families toward more expensive choices, sometimes offering the same services at wildly different prices. Here's NPR's Robert Benincasa.
ROBERT BENINCASA, BYLINE: Ellen Bethea's husband, Archie, died just over a year ago after almost 47 years of marriage.
ELLEN BETHEA: It was a Wednesday night. And, you know, we had kind of dozed in and out. And I told my son - I said, you need to get some rest. Let me sit with him.
BENINCASA: Archie had liver disease. After a series of tests and meetings with doctors, it had become clear that, despite his family's best hopes, Archie wouldn't recover. But they signed the papers to remove him from life-support machines. And she sat alone with him in his hospital room.
BETHEA: As soon as everybody else was asleep, and I was sitting there with him, he passed on. And I've heard it said before that - you know, that people that are dying - they kind of wait for the right moment. So I think he kind of waited for me to, you know, be with him.
BENINCASA: Soon after that, the staff at her local Jacksonville, Fla., hospital asked Bethea a question she hadn't prepared for.
BETHEA: When we were finishing saying our last goodbyes there, I was immediately asked which funeral home I wanted to use.
BENINCASA: Bethea gave the hospital the name of the only funeral home she knew in town, Hardage-Giddens. She made an appointment there for the next day.
BETHEA: I went with the rest of my family. My children, my grandchildren were there, too.
BENINCASA: They walked out with a bill of over $7,000. Looking at that bill, one thing might stand out, the cost of Archie's cremation - $3,295. Here's why that matters. Elsewhere in Jacksonville, the company that owns Hardage-Giddens sells the same cremations done in the same place and in the same way for less than half that amount.
In our investigation of pricing and marketing in the funeral industry, NPR spoke with funeral directors, survivors and regulators. And we collected price information from around the country. We found a confusing system that's often impenetrable by grieving customers. Funeral homes often aren't forthcoming about how much things cost, or they embed the information in package deals that drive up costs.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ERIC TANZBERGER: We're the largest owner of funeral homes and cemeteries in the world.
BENINCASA: That's corporate executive Eric Tanzberger of Hardage-Giddens's parent company, Service Corporation International or SCI. Company officials declined our request for an interview. This is from a presentation Tanzberger gave for investors in 2015.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TANZBERGER: We own about 1,500 funeral homes and, roughly, about 5 - 400 to 500 cemeteries - all in North America, which is U.S. and Canada.
BENINCASA: The company claims 16 percent of the $19 billion North American death-care market. In Jacksonville, SCI sells cremations under the Hardage-Giddens and Dignity Memorial brands at large, luxurious funeral homes. It also offers cremations for much lower prices at storefront outlets under other brands such as Neptune Society and National Cremation Society. But here's the thing. The company performs all the cremations identically and in the same place, its large crematory at 517 Park Street.
JOSHUA SLOCUM: That, to me, starts to cross a line into consumer deception.
BENINCASA: That's Joshua Slocum, executive director of the watchdog group Funeral Consumers Alliance. He says when companies price the same service differently depending on brand, customers only get the lower price if they know where to find it. And, often, they don't. In Raleigh, N.C., for example, SCI's full-service funeral home and storefront-cremation office are across the street from each other. Crossing that street can save you or cost you $1,895. The logo on your bill might be different, but you'd be paying the same company to do the same job. Here's Slocum again.
SLOCUM: That storefront cremation business and the full-service funeral home - both of them offer what's called direct cremation. They have to by law. Direct cremation is the same no matter where you go. When we're talking about situations where some consumers do not know or can't find out that that same business offers the same service at a lower price - maybe a similar location - that is when I would have a problem with it.
SCOTT GILLIGAN: That's like saying all weddings are the same.
BENINCASA: Scott Gilligan is a lawyer for the National Funeral Directors Association. He says that when consumers choose a funeral home, they're generally not making that decision on price. They're looking at other factors such as reputation and location. But what about identical services that simply have different brand names? I asked Gilligan what he thinks consumers are really getting when they make that choice.
GILLIGAN: Just like if I want a hamburger at a gourmet place, it's the same hamburger I'm going to get at McDonald's. But it's going to cost more...
GILLIGAN: ...Because of the atmosphere, because of what is being done.
BENINCASA: But, Scott...
GILLIGAN: It's choices.
BENINCASA: Scott, I went to Jacksonville. And there's a funeral home that charges 3,200 bucks for a cremation. And there's a storefront that charges 1,600. They're the same company. The cremation's done by the same people in the same place. The body's carried by the same van. So I think your analogy falls apart.
GILLIGAN: Well, that is simply someone offering a service or offering a division which is going to cater to people who are looking for the price. So it's nothing more than GM offering a Chevrolet and a Cadillac. A lot of them...
BENINCASA: The person's getting the same Chevrolet because it's the same cremation. But they're paying - in one case, they're paying a Cadillac price.
GILLIGAN: It's going to depend on - you know, you're going to have to take a look at the actual circumstances of what's going on there.
BENINCASA: One thing that is going on throughout the industry, from the storefronts to the fancy funeral homes, is the bundling of multiple goods and services into packages with sentimental names and higher prices. It happened to Bethea when she visited the funeral home.
BETHEA: Well, actually, I think they only showed us one package that they had.
BENINCASA: That package, known as the Dignity Memorial honor cremation service, included a number of extra charges, including $495 for stationery and $345 for an internet memorial.
BETHEA: It was like, this is what comes in the package.
BENINCASA: Federal regulators have long required funeral homes to offer itemized price lists. But funeral directors are free to emphasize packages in the sales process, as they did with Bethea.
BETHEA: You know, Archie didn't have hardly very much life insurance - maybe 5,000. And I had, you know, a little bit of money in the bank. And it took everything.
BENINCASA: In the sales materials SCI gives customers, the company says buying a package will save them money. But the company tells its investors a different story. At a conference in 2015, the company said that consumers who buy a package, as opposed to services a la carte, pay an extra $1,900 on average. And with consumers paying more, some investors like what they see. Over the last year, SCI's stock is up 30 percent. Robert Benincasa, NPR News.
SIEGEL: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, our investigation continues with a look at the Funeral Rule. It's a federal regulation that requires funeral businesses to provide customers with clear price information, but it doesn't always work as intended.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It took me, as a longtime lawyer and a professional consumer advocate, literally an eight-hour day just to get a solid list of what funeral services were offered by nearby funeral establishments and how much they cost - eight hours.
SIEGEL: You can hear that report on MORNING EDITION.
(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN SONG, "JYNWEYTHEK YLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.