Houston funeral home accused of price-gouging during COVID-19 pandemic

It can be a tough time for families having to let go of loved ones, especially with hospital restrictions on guests.

One family says the grieving process was made even more difficult when they had to face unexpected funeral fees related to coronavirus.

Keyla Williams says her 83-year-old grandmother got sick with COVID-19 in early April.

“She actually raised me and my two sisters after my mom passed in ’97,” she says this was her first time having to make funeral arrangements.

While preparing for her grandmother to pass away, Williams connected with Claire Brothers Funeral Home through a recommendation. She says she was quoted $600 in cremation costs which included a $75 discount.

However, when her grandmother died of COVID, Williams received a new price.

It included the full cremation costs of $675, plus $495 under ‘Cash Advances’ in personal protective equipment fees. Williams says the owner offered her a half-price discount on the PPE fees, but she didn't feel comfortable paying it at all.

“Once they let me know the price change, I started calling other funeral homes in the area to see if they were charging for personal protective equipment,” says Williams, “They said no.”

She says one of the funeral homes told her it wasn’t allowed.

FOX 26 reached out to Claire Brothers; the owner declined a recorded interview but claimed that Williams was not upfront about her grandmother having COVID. Williams denies the claim.

“I felt like it was no different from a person who has HIV or AIDS or hepatitis or any type of other disease. There's no additional equipment that's needed for them to do their job,” she says.

Claire Brothers says the fee covers recently inflated costs of extra body bags, gloves, masks, gowns, and cleanings.

However, funeral homes are required by the Federal Trade Commission to give clients a general price list with all services and fees listed. The one that was sent to Williams did not list the PPE COVID-19 charge.

Williams went on to file a complaint with the Texas Funeral Services Commission. According to TFSC, Claire Brothers did register an updated price list with the commission after Williams received the new fee.

Executive Director Glenn Bowers says this is the first case in Texas where he's seen a COVID-19 funeral service charge added, and although the price list has been updated, he views the fee as another form of price gouging.

“I was very surprised that a funeral director would be that bold and forward to not only attempt to charge her for the unique cause of death but then also tack on the charges of the PPE’s,” says Bowers.

Bowers adds that the handling of diseases like hepatitis, AIDS, and now, COVID-19 are covered under the service fees from funeral homes based on an FTC ruling from 1984. Additionally, he says PPE’s should be used throughout the process of handling bodies with or without contagious diseases.

“In every funeral school in the United States, that is taught from the beginning to the end. Whether you're a funeral director or an embalmer or both, you are utilizing those standards of practice,” he says.  

Bowers explains that if a family wants to delay the funeral until restrictions on gatherings are lifted, that might present a case for a funeral home to add an additional charge. The delay may require embalming even if the family did not request it.

Claire Brothers stated that other local funeral homes were charging similar COVID-related fees and recommended Compean Funeral Home as a reference. However, when FOX 26 spoke with Compean’s owner, he stated the price of PPE’s has increased, but like many other providers, he is absorbing the costs. He added that the estimated loss is closer to $150.

Williams has since chosen another funeral home for her grandmother. She hopes other grieving families do their research and ask questions to avoid a difficult process of laying someone to rest.