By GERE B. FULTON
I am writing in response to the column in the July 25 issue of The Times and Democrat, “The real problem with regulation,” by Tejas Renade of the South Carolina Policy Council. I am one of the parties referred to as a representative from the Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Carolina.
The alliance is one of nearly 100 affiliates of the national organization (funerals.org), all of which are not-for-profit and run by all-volunteer boards of directors. Our mission is education and advocacy for prospective purchasers of funeral goods and/or services and we are headquartered in Columbia. I am the current president of the board.
While I appreciate Renade’s report about our participation in the first hearing of Gov. Nikki Haley’s Regulatory Review Task Force, there were some misstatements that need to be corrected. First, the existing regulations of the sale of caskets do NOT place a hardship on the “casket-making industry,” but rather they are in place to protect the “industry” from competition by entrepreneurs who would like to sell inexpensive wooden caskets directly to families in need.
Next to the “basic services fee,” the cost for salaries and overhead (which in our recent survey of funeral homes in the Greater Columbia area averaged over $2,000), the cost of the casket is typically the most expensive item on the consumer’s bill. The typical mark-up on caskets ranges from 400-600 percent and that same survey found caskets ranging from an average of $997 to $11,088, with some as costly as $20,000 to $30,000.
By comparison, simple wooden caskets can be produced and sold for a fraction of that price. In an op-ed that I wrote for The State newspaper published in on May 2, “Circling the Hearses,” I described how a local woodworker was being harassed by the Board of Funeral Service because he wanted to sell $300 wooden caskets to families seeking a simple burial.
Renade reported that the BFS is “... made up of 11 members, nine of whom have close connections and personal friendships with owners of leading funerals companies in the state,” but that’s not quite true. Those nine members are licensed funeral directors and the other two members are political appointees.
The board has the authority to regulate the industry and has recently issued regulations that govern the retail sale of caskets. According to its criteria, if a woodworker wants to sell a casket to the public, he must maintain “clean and accessible public restrooms” and have “six adult caskets on display.” The workshop must also pass an inspection by a licensed funeral director who will assess the “general conditions of the facility.”
If this weren’t enough to convince even the most naive among us as to the board’s intention to keep competition out of the marketplace, the licensing fee for selling a casket is twice as much as that for a funeral director. Moreover, the board is also working to prevent national retailers like Costco and Walmart from selling caskets to residents of the state. And this is all being done at the expense of the taxpayers of South Carolina.
The Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Carolina has urged the task force, which will be making recommendations to the governor, to remove this regulatory authority from the BFS and restore real competition to this part of the funeral industry. We would like to encourage readers to contact Haley and let her know how they feel about this kind of corporate protectionism.
Gere B. Fulton, Ph. D., J.D., is president of the board of directors of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Carolina (scfunerals.org).