I just watched my best friend experience the death of her mother. Not only did she suffer a loss, but making the funeral arrangements seemed more difficult and costly than it needed to be. What is your advice for other families going through this process?
First of all, let me say I appreciate how difficult it can be to make funeral arrangements. Losing a loved one is never easy, and it is especially hard to make important decisions when you feel vulnerable and grief-stricken.
In truth, funeral planning is a subject most of us would rather avoid. But it really is important to talk about because the more you know, the less likely you are to spend more than you can afford. And such services can be expensive. The average funeral costs between $7,000 and $10,000—including funeral-home fees, a casket, a cemetery plot, and the opening and closing of a grave1—and can easily go much higher.
Sad as it is, there are also some unscrupulous funeral directors who may try to take advantage of family members’ grief. They might, for example, show you an expensive mahogany casket before showing a simpler, less expensive one. Or they may encourage embalming—which is not legally required in most states—even if you’re not planning a public viewing.
Fortunately, a lot of good people work in the funeral industry, making these dishonest practices the exception rather than the rule. Still, mourners would be wise to prepare for such meetings ahead of time, if only to lighten the decision-making load. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions to help you navigate the process.
In the best of all worlds, funeral arrangements are part and parcel of a comprehensive estate plan. So whether the forethought is for yourself or a loved one, put all preferences in writing—including whether the person in question wishes to be cremated (the least expensive option), buried after a public viewing (the most expensive option) or something in between—and give copies to family members and an attorney.
Those wishing to be buried in a certain cemetery should make sure there’s a record of the request. There are also options you might not have considered, such as having the memorial service at home or choosing a “green” burial, in which remains are allowed to break down naturally and become part of the earth.
Be sure to ask family members what they want, too. “In my experience, the decedent may say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t need to be much of a bother,’” says Craig Tregillus, franchise rule coordinator at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which oversees the funeral industry, “but family members may need an opportunity to grieve and get past the loss.”
An entirely prearranged funeral is another option, though I’d use caution in prepaying for such services. If you move somewhere else, you may not be able to get a refund. And the FTC has uncovered several situations in which funeral homes have absconded with funds, according to Craig.
In 1984, the FTC enacted the Funeral Rule, which requires funeral homes to reveal their prices over the phone or provide you with an itemized price list when you visit in person. (They’re not yet required to post them online.) If you don’t know what questions to ask, check out the FTC’s “Funeral Costs and Pricing Checklist,” available at consumer.ftc.gov/funerals. There may also be an advantage to exploring smaller, independently owned funeral homes. “By and large,” says Craig, “they have lower costs for consumers.”
It’s also important to note that you’re not legally required to purchase all your goods and services from your funeral provider. A number of big-box and online retailers sell caskets and urns for considerably less than what you might find in a funeral home, and can usually ship to a mortuary overnight. In any event, I’d recommend against stating your budget to a funeral provider up front, because the costs may be less than you anticipate.
Ask for help
Most of us don’t really want to talk—or even think—about death. But your friend’s experience shows how important it is to be informed and make savvy financial decisions, even as you’re grieving a loss.
If you’re having trouble making the arrangements on your own, you might consider asking a close friend to look into costs and options for or with you. Bringing in someone with a little distance from the situation can ease the burden and help you think more clearly about the best way to celebrate your loved one’s life.
1 “Funeral Costs: How Much Does an Average Funeral Cost?” parting.com, 09/14/2017.