2023 Student Journalism Award, Portfolio: Student Team finalist

Dead Wrong

About the Project

Too often, the death of a loved one hits American families with unexpected pain that compounds their grief: The growing, $35-billion funeral industry breeds too many bad actors taking advantage of a patchwork system of state-by-state regulation.

That’s the bottom-line finding of Dead Wrong, an investigation by the NYCity News Service, whose reporters spent months examining court documents, analyzing state and federal enforcement actions and reviewing customer complaints.

Among our reporters’ discoveries:

• Over the past decade, undercover Federal Trade Commission investigators posing as customers have found one in four funeral homes across the nation operating in violation of pricing rules.

• One company uses search-engine optimization to appear to be local when it’s actually located many miles away. The same company has been accused of bait-and-switch tactics, overcharging vulnerable customers — even refusing to release corpses if they were not paid extra.

• The pandemic brought new opportunities for theft — including by funeral home workers who’ve lined their pockets with FEMA dollars.

• The funeral industry had stymied moves to put pricing online and efforts to institute stronger federal oversight.

• Even as an increasing number of Americans seek more environmentally friendly alternatives, the legacy of traditional burial and cremation practices keeps poisoning the soil, water and air.

Our team, based at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, produced a comprehensive package of stories, tackling the fraud and loose regulation — and tight industry hold — whose combined toll runs from environmental harm to additional heartache for the bereaved.

The stories include insight-and-information-filled interactive graphics and embedded documents that back Dead Wrong’s findings, set against a backdrop of stark black-and-white images. The package also offers a service piece that’s a primer for consumers.

Our reporters interviewed multiple stakeholders, from industry leaders to experts to families with horror stories of trying to navigate a minefield of ripoffs when they should have been comforted. Take the experience of one man who said his father’s body was essentially held hostage by an unscrupulous funeral home operator jacking up costs.

“I didn’t take the time to grieve,” he told us.