Published April 11, 2013
No one wants to even think about a funeral, let alone plan one. But working things out in advance and buying life insurance to cover the costs protects family members from the unpleasant job of negotiating services as they grieve for a loved one.
The average cost of a traditional funeral, including embalming and a metal casket, is almost $6,600, according to the most recent data from the National Funeral Directors Association. Cemetery services, including the gravesite and vault or liner, can cost an additional $3,000, says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance.
Funeral directors say you don't want to skimp because funerals aren't just about the deceased. The ritual involved in burying a loved one provides support and healing to the family, they say.
But consumer advocates caution that this is how funeral directors make a living. "When you hear the 'value of a funeral,' you're hearing the recitation of the business mantra," Slocum says.
Follow these tips to know your rights, and avoid overpaying for a funeral.
Most people pick the closest funeral home or one their family has always used, Slocum says. That doesn't mean you're getting a good deal, though.
Comparing price quotes from three funeral homes could save you thousands of dollars, he says.
"If you only call the first funeral home on the hospital's list, you've got the meter running without knowing what the rate will be," Slocum says. If that funeral home is owned by a big, corporate chain, the meter will rack up even higher rates, he adds.
You'll want to compare costs such as: the transport and care of the body; caskets or urns; arrangement options (wake versus quick burial or cremation); and embalming charges.
Funeral directors are required to give you a written, itemized price list for their products and services, according to the "Funeral Rule" enforced by the Federal Trade Commission.
The list will include their "basic services fee," which all customers must pay and can range from $500 to $5,000 but usually costs between $1,000 and $2,000, Slocum says. It covers the professional services of the funeral director and staff and can include planning, permits, death certificate copies, storage of the body, and coordination with the cemetery or crematory.
The FTC says you're also entitled to a written price list of all caskets, including any lower-priced models that may not be on display.
Funeral directors are business people, not ministers. But people often think they are quasi-clergy, Slocum says. Make that mistake, and you'll tend to believe everything they say, he says.
"Remember, funeral homes are in business to make money," he adds.
But directors can conduct services, especially when a family doesn't want a minister from a specific denomination, says Walker Posey of Posey Funeral Directors in South Carolina. A funeral director will lead the service as a "celebrant" -- and some directors opt for formal training to do that, says Posey, who's also a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association.
Funeral directors may require you to buy services that are not really necessary under the laws in your state.
For example, a funeral home may say embalming is necessary for a wake. But the FTC says no state routinely requires embalming unless the body is not buried or cremated within a certain time. If the arrangements will be delayed, ask about refrigeration to preserve the body, Slocum says.
Similarly, cemeteries often insist on casket vaults and liners to prevent graves from sinking as the casket deteriorates. But the FTC says state laws do not demand a vault or liner.
Cremations average $3,200 -- less than half the average cost of a traditional funeral, says Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America. The urn can cost as little as about $20, and you can buy one at a number of places online, including the websites of major retailers such as Costco.
The federal Funeral Rule states that funeral directors can't require a casket for a cremation. They must offer other choices, including a simple cardboard box.
The cremation association says nearly 41% of all deaths resulted in cremation in 2010, up from about 34% in 2006. The cremation rate is expected to rise to almost 56% by 2025.
Funeral costs can seem steep, even when there's life insurance to cover the costs. Caskets can be very expensive, but they don't have to be. Sure, you can spend $10,000 on a mahogany or bronze casket, according to the FTC. But you can go online and pay as little as $500 for a simple "pine box."
Beware the sales pitch for a sealed casket to help keep out "gravesite elements" -- meaning water and bugs. That seal is often just a cheap rubber gasket, Slocum says, and can add hundreds of dollars to the casket cost.
"I advise people to stop, sit down and rethink whether it makes sense to 'protect' a dead body," he says.
The Federal Trade Commission says a funeral home may not refuse to use a casket or urn you bought on the Web or at a local store. Also, the funeral director cannot charge you extra to handle a casket or urn purchased somewhere else.
Funeral directors may offer a "discounted package price" on the entire funeral if you include one of their caskets -- but there really isn't a discount, Slocum says. Or they may offer reduced casket prices but have the difference rolled into their basic services fee, he says.
Embalming uses toxic chemicals, and steel caskets aren't biodegradable -- and both add substantially to funeral costs, says Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council.
So say no to embalming. Instead of a steel casket, a biodegradable shroud (basically a sheet wrapped around the body) costs as little as $40. If you prefer the shape of a coffin, a biodegradable wool "casket" will run about $350, Sehee says.
Cemeteries that accept shrouded bodies are called "natural burial grounds." There are only 22 operating in the U.S., with a few more under development, according to the Natural Burial Cooperative.
Skip the formal services and you might save thousands of dollars with a "direct burial" or "direct cremation," which involve no embalming, viewing or visitation.
Families can opt for an economical memorial service at home, a church, park or community center. You can print memorial cards on your computer, decorate the room with your loved one's pictures or favorite items, and ask everyone to share memories.
"One family had a wine-and-cheese memorial service in the art gallery that the deceased had volunteered for," Slocum says.
The more a funeral costs, the more it eats up life insurance money that surviving family members might need to keep their home or for the kids' college expenses. Women have $129,800 of individual life insurance, on average, while men have $187,100, according to the life insurance industry organization LIMRA.
One last way of holding down funeral expenses is to turn to one of a number of nonprofits, usually volunteer groups set up in most states to provide funeral planning information.
These affiliates of the Funeral Consumers Alliance may offer price surveys to assist with comparison-shopping. And some even offer discounts negotiated with local funeral directors. The affiliates are listed on the alliance's website, Funerals.org.