WASHINGTON - In a crackdown of the entire funeral industry, the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia has sent warning letters to nearly a dozen funeral homes they suspect may not be in compliance with the law.
It is the result of a months-long investigation that also shut down Austin Royster Funeral Home, as FOX 5 first reported in November.
Of all 38 D.C. funeral homes investigated, the Attorney General's Office said Austin Royster Funeral Home was the worst case it has seen.
The funeral home is accused of operating without the proper licenses and taking money for services not provided.
In one case, a family accuses the funeral home of taking $47,000 from a life insurance payout. Other families are out hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Because they lacked the proper licensing, Austin Royster could not provide death certificates. According to the Attorney General's Office, Austin Royster had five bodies and 103 cremains in their possession when authorities stepped in. Investigators are still determining which remains relate to the lawsuit the Attorney General's Office filed against Austin Royster.
On Tuesday, the lead lawyer on the case told FOX 5 that one body has been released to loved ones. D.C Attorney General Karl Racine would not give an exact timeframe, but hopes to get all remains returned in the next several weeks.
Dozens of families have come forward seeking help.
"It's been incredibly difficult for our team," explained Racine. "Because our team, while we are lawyers and investigators, we are seeking to do our job. We also care very deeply for the individuals we work with and who live in this city. We have seen firsthand families, understandably, show a lot of emotion around the uncertainty regarding the remains of their loved ones."
Racine also identified a handful of other funeral homes they suspect may not be in compliance.
The Attorney General's Office found violations such as inflating third-party costs for profit, not informing customers of their full range of choices and disparaging outside casket vendors.
To strengthen consumer protections in the funeral industry, the Attorney General's Office has filed the Funeral Services Consumer Protection Amendment Act of 2017. It is an amendment to the Funeral Services Regulatory Act of 1984 and would establish a "Funeral Bill of Rights."
"Funeral homes will have to post their three price lists - the general price list, the casket price list and the outer burial price list on any website that they maintain for the business," explained Assistant Attorney General Wendy Weinberg. "This means that consumers won't have to go door to door or make a bunch of phone calls, which could be embarrassing and could be a big strain on them at a time when they may not have the emotional resources to make that extra effort."
The law would also require funeral businesses to provide customers with the bill of rights.
The Attorney General's Office has also created price and planning guidelines for consumers that can be found here: https://oag.dc.gov/publication/consumer-alert-shopping-funeral-services
Victims of Austin Royster Funeral Home or any other funeral home can call the Consumer Hotline at 202-442-9828.