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Cremation society applies specific contractual rules

My wife and I bought pre-need contracts from the National Cremation Society in 1986 for $450 each. That amount included $95 to cover us throughout the United States and Canada when we traveled.

My wife died in Mobile, Ala., on Dec. 4. After finding no listings for the society or crematoriums other than a mortuary in the Mobile phone directory, I called the society's Clearwater phone number on my membership card.

The woman who answered told me to make local arrangements for cremation, pay for it and send the bill to the society. I would be reimbursed in about 30 days.

The bill (for a simple cremation with no extras) was $1,089. Several days ago I received the society's check for $450. It tells me that is all I am entitled to because it was not allowed to seek a "low bidder."

When I asked why the woman who answered my call did not tell me that, I received no response.

I thought the "national" in National Cremation Society meant nationwide. Now I know the company performs its services directly only if you die in Florida.

I feel I was treated unfairly and am entitled to be paid in full for my costs.

Wade Harding

Response: Christa Turner, National Cremation Society manager, said the company's optional travel protection plan extends coverage beyond Florida so that if you die anywhere in the continental United States or Canada, the society will arrange for a comparable, direct cremation service at no extra cost through an affiliate selected by NCS.

That extended program justifies the "national" in NCS, she said.

The plan is easy to understand and involves no more effort on the part of the family than calling the phone number on the membership card, she said, adding that NCS' phones are answered 24 hours a day 365 days a year by trained arrangement counselors.

But, she said, it is a "specific, written condition" that NCS receive first notification of the death, that NCS be notified of the death before an out-of-state funeral home or crematory becomes involved with arrangements, and that the selection of the funeral home or crematory be at the sole discretion of NCS.

Failure to do so releases NCS of financial obligation beyond returning the original contract amount.

The problem, she said, is that you did not call NCS until 8 or 8:30 a.m. The death certificate showed your wife died at 3:12 a.m. The funeral home said it received a call from the hospital at 4:09 a.m. to pick up her body, which it did at 4:15 a.m. Hospitals do not, as a rule, release bodies without permission from an authorized representative of the deceased, Ms. Turner said.

In your case, NCS was not given the opportunity to choose the funeral home or crematory and is therefore under no further financial obligation to you.

We can understand NCS' refusal to pay top dollar to a funeral home not of its choosing. We can also understand that a death in the family is not conducive to clear thinking.

But we can't understand why you were told when you did call NCS four hours after your wife's death to go ahead with arrangements at a funeral home it had not chosen. Nowhere in your contract is it "specifically" written that NCS must be called "first" _ only that it gets to choose the funeral home or crematory whose bill it pays.

We put that question to Ms. Turner.

She said you must have told the NCS phone representative that your wife's body had already been picked up by another funeral home or she would not have told you to go ahead with the arrangements yourself. You were probably told you would be reimbursed for the amount of your wife's membership fee, Ms. Turner said.

But why weren't you warned that in order to get a full reimbursement of costs your wife's body would need to be transferred to NCS' funeral home affiliate?

A transfer would have cost you money, Ms. Turner explained. The first funeral home would have charged for the hospital pickup, paperwork and other expenses already incurred.

Those expenses surely would have been far less than the $640 you are now paying, we argued. Why weren't you given that option when you called?

Because NCS' affiliate would have incurred the wrath of the other funeral home by taking away its business, she explained. That would reflect badly on NCS and result in the loss of affiliates. Without nationwide affiliates, NCS would cease to be national.

Sorry we couldn't help.