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CROWNPOINT — The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission is sharing information with consumers about fair practices for funeral services in seminars this week on the Navajo Nation.

Leonard Gorman, executive director for the Office of Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, said the commission decided to address the issue because the number of complaints filed with the office by consumers continues to increase.

Among the complaints about mortuaries submitted to the St. Michaels, Ariz.-based office is that families are not fully informed about costs, and they are not aware of the steps needed to put their loved ones to rest, Gorman said.

The purpose of the seminar on Tuesday at Navajo Technical University was to educate consumers about their rights and share resources that address funeral services, he said.

With only two funeral homes operating on the 27,400-square-mile reservation — one in Shiprock and the other in Tuba City, Ariz. — a majority of families turn to mortuaries located in border towns. But many of those customers are unfamiliar with the rules and statues that govern funeral services.

One way consumers can educate themselves is by reviewing the Funeral Rule, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, which allows consumers to compare prices among funeral homes and allows for the selection of services.

Gorman said the commission sometimes receives complaints centering on the practice of funeral homes retaining a body until full payment is received. He said legal challenges have established that mortuaries cannot engage in such practices.

"Funeral homes have no right to hold the body and demand full payment. …The loved ones have the right to take that body on a scheduled time frame and bury," Gorman said.

Additional research by the commission shows the tribe follows state laws for funerary services, and no tribal program can issue death certificates, he said.

An estimate compiled by the commission showed Navajos spend approximately $20 million for funeral expenses each year, Gorman said.

While the tribe has a burial assistance program managed by Navajo Nation Family Services, the expense remains higher than what a majority of Navajo families can afford, he said.

Nicholas Benally started his casket-making business, Summit Ridge Wood Design, in Dolores, Colo., about 20 years ago. While Benally has helped tribal members secure affordable caskets throughout the years, he also has heard stories about funeral homes intimidating customers into spending more than they can afford.

"You have the right to do what you want. …You don't need to be talked into doing things," he said adding there are mortuaries that provide quality customer services.

Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission Vice Chairman Steven Darden encouraged individuals to file complaints with the commission if they think a funeral home imposed on their rights, including lying about costs or taking advantage of the family's grief.

"People are complaining to us that they're spending too much money on funeral expenses," Darden said, adding the average funeral expense is about $13,000.

In addition to filing complaints with the commission office, consumers also can reach out to the New Mexico Funeral Board, the New Mexico Attorney General's Office and the Federal Trade Commission.

Thoreau resident Ella House said she was attending the seminar because she wants to start planning her funeral service.

"I learned that I have the right to develop a will for myself and to outline the plan for my burial," House said.

Coyote Canyon resident Franklin Tso said he witnessed the financial burden a family can experience when a funeral home demands full payment before releasing a body. He said that situation occurred with his wife's relatives, who had to pay $9,000 to a mortuary before receiving their loved one's body.

"It was not easy," Tso said about securing the amount. "Now I know they can't do that."

The commission will hold a second seminar at 9 a.m. Thursday at the Tó Nanees Dizí Chapter house in Tuba City, Ariz.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.

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