Undercover investigation finds big markups, confusing charges and pushy tactics at major funeral home chain
Arbor says it 'does not condone any behaviour in our staff that results in customers feeling pressured'
When Judy Wood's sister, Diana Parent, died at age 56, the family knew what she wanted: a simple cremation and a celebration.
But when Wood went to Victoria Greenlawn funeral home in Windsor, Ont., to finalize arrangements Parent had prepaid before her death, she was surprised to find her sister's planning didn't cover any funeral services, just the cremation, urn and a burial spot.
"We were shocked," Wood says.
Staff at the funeral home, a branch of Toronto-based Arbor Memorial Inc., recommended a funeral package they said included everything Wood needed.
Once they finished going through all the services included in the package, the bill was close to $10,000, on top of the $4,000 Parent had already prepaid to an Arbor funeral home.
"I didn't want to seem like I was asking a lot of questions about money," Wood says.
Wood and her family looked at the bill and tried to keep costs down, cancelling items like memorial cards and a catered reception. But the funeral still ended up costing them an additional $4,300.
An investigation by CBC's Marketplace and the Toronto Star has found that Wood's experience is indicative of a pattern of assertive sales tactics and upselling taking place at some funeral homes run by Arbor Memorial, the largest Canadian provider of funeral and cemetery services.
'It was terrible'
Wood says one service staff insisted on was identification of the body, even though her sister had previously been identified in the hospital.
Arbor says this is company policy to "protect the family and the funeral home" but there is no law requiring identification and many funeral homes don't insist on it.
"Why would we identify her? We were with her when she passed away in the hospital, we were holding her hand," she says.
Staff strongly recommended embalming the body too, Wood says, at a cost of $525 and a further $200 for a preparation room.
"It was terrible. It was almost like she died a second time," Wood says of the viewing of the embalmed body.
"We saw her, and we didn't want to do that."
Arbor Memorial Inc. has revenues of over $140 million annually and a 10 per cent share of the Canadian market, with branches in every province except Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador. (Wood's sister, Diana, made the original arrangements at an Arbor branch in London, Ont.)
It owns and operates 92 funeral homes, 41 cemeteries and 28 crematoria and it's expanding.
After hearing complaints from several Canadians, Marketplace and the Toronto Star sent reporters with hidden cameras posing as customers into six Arbor Memorial locations in Ontario, including the Windsor facility Wood used. The journalists said they had a terminally ill aunt and wanted to make arrangements for a simple cremation and possibly a closed-casket service.
They experienced upselling or misleading sales tactics at all six locations.
Staff at several Arbor locations insisted that a $1,195 plain wooden casket would not be appropriate for a funeral service. The undercover journalists were told it was "not painted" was "simply an identification container" or had inappropriate handles. Staff at those locations instead directed the undercover reporters to rent a traditional hardwood casket at a cost of more than $2,200 a day.
Caskets are often available at substantially lower prices online and from specialist retailers, but when the journalists asked about bringing in an outside casket, they were told that a fee of $595 would be added for the use of Arbor's equipment. A senior staff member at Arbor's location in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough said on tape that this was "a strategy" to maintain profits if consumers bought caskets elsewhere.
Marketplace and the Toronto Star obtained a wholesale price list from Batesville, Arbor's main supplier of caskets and urns. It revealed that caskets and urns can be marked up by more than 400 per cent. The simple cremation casket that Judy purchased for her sister cost $895, over four times the listed wholesale price.
And the rental casket the Marketplace team was offered for over $2,200? The cost to rent it for a single day is more than the wholesale price of buying it — and the cremation container inside — outright.
Embalming is another service that was often pushed at the funeral homes Marketplace visited.
The procedure is used to give bodies a more life-like appearance for viewing and visitation and is rarely necessary in closed-casket and cremation funerals, such as the service the undercover journalists were requesting. While staff said it wasn't mandatory, they strongly recommended it for a variety of reasons, ranging from elimination of infectious diseases to preventing "potential embarrassment" from "odour."
Josh Slocum, executive director of the U.S.-based Funeral Consumer's Alliance, watched some of the footage filmed by Marketplace and the Toronto Star.
Slocum says embalming has been shown to have "no public health benefit" and that the funeral homes seem to be "selling anxiety to get you to pay for embalming."
Arbor staff routinely told the undercover Marketplace and Toronto Star journalists they required every service included in the package they were promoting. One staff member said that 98 per cent of the services were "mandatory." The journalists showed this package to industry experts, who said it included about $2,000 worth of unnecessary charges.
"Very, very little that a funeral home offers is mandatory," said Slocum. "Their customers are being lied to and taken advantage of."
When Marketplace looked at Arbor's job postings, they found the company advertised "generous commission" for staff with "unlimited earning potential" depending on the services they sell. The job ads listed "sales mentality," "skillful negotiation" and "closing abilities" as qualities the firm was looking for.
Funeral home regulator 'disappointed'
Marketplace showed some of the footage captured inside Arbor funeral homes to the Bereavement Authority of Ontario, the province's funeral industry regulator. The registrar, Carey Smith, said that while no laws had been broken, he was "disappointed" with some of what he was shown and promised to follow-up with Arbor.
Arbor refused requests for an interview but told Marketplace that "we are confident that our business practices are fair, rooted in our service values and in keeping with industry norms and best practices."
"Arbor Memorial does not condone any behaviour in our staff that results in customers feeling pressured," the company said.
When asked about their staff's approach to embalming, Arbor said they "strongly believe" that it provides "the best possible final memory of a loved one."
But that's not how Judy Wood sees things.
"We didn't get better closure for Diana," Wood said. "She didn't get her final wishes the way she wanted it."
With files from Virginia Smart