If you’re going to preplan your eventual passing and make your “final arrangements,” you may wish to consider the services of a funeral home—as opposed to, say, direct cremation and the simple gathering of close friends at one of your favorite places. If so, there are a number of things you’ll want to consider.
While many websites swear that a funeral is the third most expensive item you’ll ever purchase (after a home and a car), that is actually far from the truth—as anyone who’s ever paid for a college education, wedding or even a moderate home improvement loan could attest.
However, that doesn’t mean that the products or services of a funeral home are inexpensive. The average cost of a funeral with burial is around $8,500 (not including a burial plot and marker) and the average cost of a funeral with viewing and cremation is around $6,000.
So, unless you have unlimited resources, you’ll want to shop around and ask questions to ensure you make the most informed decision and receive the best value.
Remember, all funeral homes offer the same basic services so it should be relatively easy to compare prices and reduce your costs. You could start by visiting a website such as Parting to compare costs locally or call around (funeral directors are required by law to provide pricing over the phone), but after you do, you’ll also want to make a personal visit.
Though a friend probably won’t ever thank you for it, you might also think about inviting them along for moral support, a second opinion and to help you stay within budget.
First, visit different funeral homes
Yes, you could just visit the funeral home down the street or the one that “took care of Uncle Joe last spring.” But then, just like buying a car after visiting only one dealership, you wouldn’t know if you’re getting the best value.
If possible, you’ll want to meet the funeral director. Get a feel for their personality. Actually look at and handle the range of products they offer. “Kick the tires.” And, most importantly, ask questions like:
Can I have a copy of your General Price List (GPL), please?
Before you look at any caskets or outer burial containers, ask for a copy of the general price list with specific prices for each item you will see. If you visit in person, the funeral provider is required by law to provide you with a printed price list itemizing the costs of products and services they provide.
Although they’re not required to provide you with a copy of the casket price list and the outer burial container list, you can certainly ask to see them and ask for copies of those, as well.
The Funeral Rule (A federal law that regulates funeral services and purchases) allows providers to charge a basic fee for overhead and services. The basic services fee commonly includes:
- Coordinating arrangements with a cemetery, crematory, or other providers
- Funeral planning
- Preparing the death notice
- Securing the necessary permits and copies of death certificates
- Storing the body
Beyond the basic service fee, this same law requires that the funeral home provide you with the costs for the following items, as well:
- Direct cremation
- Immediate burial
- Other preparation of the body
- Transferring remains to the funeral home
- Receiving remains from another funeral home
- Forwarding remains to another funeral home
- The range of casket prices
- The range of outer burial container prices
- Use of equipment and staff for graveside service
- Use of facilities and staff for funeral ceremony
- Use of facilities and staff for memorial service
- Use of facilities and staff for viewing
You may find that funeral homes offer packages that may cost less than buying individual items or services. This is certainly allowed—as long as an itemized price list also is provided.
However, you’ll want to review any packages offered to determine if they include only the items you want. Much like the unwanted “options” that increase the price of a car, you shouldn’t pay for things you don’t want or can’t use. Remember, you do have choices. You can pick and choose off of their general price list. And, with the exception of the basic fee, all prices are negotiable. Remember:
- Embalming is rarely required by law, is not necessary at all for cremation and can add thousands of dollars to the cost of a funeral. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission and many state regulators require that funeral directors inform consumers that embalming is not required except in certain cases—such as if you’re delaying burial or planning on public viewing, refrigeration is not available and/or the body is being transported across state lines.
- If you can’t afford or don’t like the cost of the coffin, it is perfectly legal to purchase one from a third-party retailer and have it shipped directly to the funeral home. Once again, funeral homes are required by law to use the casket you provide and can’t charge any additional fees to handle them. Or, if you prefer, just pass along the knowledge that you are aware of these sites and are considering them. You may suddenly be able to negotiate a better price.
- Even if you hire a funeral home to handle your burial, you don’t have to use their visitation and memorial services, unless this is something that is important to you or your family. Memorials can instead be held at your home or a place that holds special significance, providing a meaningful service at a much lower cost.
Are there other products or services you contract out which may not be on this list?
Many funeral providers pride themselves on being able to provide everything needed, from refrigerating, embalming, and cremating a body to supplying vehicles to transport friends and relatives from the funeral home to the burial site. They may even own the cemetery and be able to sell you a burial plot and memorial stone. However, it’s just as possible that they may use outside vendors for incidentals such as:
- Limousine services
- Flowers arrangements
- Obituary notices
- Honorariums for the officiating clergy
- Cremation urns or other containers
- Vault or coffin container
- Memorial stones and engraving
- Cost of opening the ground, placing the remains in the ground and burial
As a result, you’ll want to learn if they charge any additional fees to cover amounts paid up front for these products and/or services.
Remember, you may be able to purchase any or all of these items on your own without incurring the mark-up and save a substantial amount of money.
When estimating your total costs, it’s important to add all the different services and products from different providers together.
What other options do you offer in addition to burial or cremation?
You may be perfectly happy with plans for internment at the local cemetery or cremation. However, unless you ask, you’ll never know what else is possible through your local provider—when there is actually an extremely wide range of options available. These include (but are not limited to):
- Above-ground burial in a mausoleum
- Donating the body to a medical school or clinic
- An “eco-burial”
- Burial at sea for military veterans and their families
- “Green cremation” (also known as “resomation” or “aquamation”)
- Keepsake jewelry and other containers or products for your cremains
- Part of a fireworks display (literally going out with a bang!)
Are you locally or nationally owned?
Although your hometown may still have a funeral home that has been in operation for decades and run by generations of the same family, it’s worth asking if it is still locally owned or now part of a multi-million dollar, sales-driven, national corporation. That’s because many formerly family-owned funeral homes have been purchased but retain the family’s name on the signage to appear locally-owned.
For better or worse, their policies and procedures could be dictated from hundreds of miles away—as could their generally higher prices (as much as 72% higher!) and pressure to meet sales goals. It could also make a difference down the road should you or your family encounter any problems to which you expect a local, personalized response.
What are my payment options?
If you’re going to the effort or preplanning your funeral, you don’t want to stick your family with the bill afterward. Will the funeral homework with your life or burial insurance company regarding any existing policies? Or, if needed, can they help ensure the least expensive services possible or arrange for financial assistance?
Pre-planning your own funeral or that of a loved one won’t be fun. And it probably will be stressful. But you can ensure that you get the best value along the gray mile by being prepared and asking the right questions.