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How to Deal With Funeral Costs – Planning Guide & Checklist

When a loved one has just passed, it seems heartless to think about money. Unfortunately, with the average cost of a funeral at $7,000, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), it’s something everyone should consider. In fact, that figure doesn’t include burial costs paid directly to the cemetery, which generally range from $2,000 to $4,000 for the plot and grave marker. Additional charges such as flowers, music, obituaries, and the celebrant’s fee tack on another $950, bringing the total cost to $11,000.

Before you resign yourself to spending that much, think about the memorable funerals you’ve attended. It’s unlikely that the first thing you recall is the lavish flower arrangements or brass-handled coffin. You’re more likely to recall the words and memories shared by relatives and friends.

Unfortunately, when you’re grieving a loved one, it’s easy to throw budgetary concerns out the window, or find yourself spending thousands of dollars because there’s just not time to sit down and make careful selections. The best solution is to sit down ahead of time and think about funerals, both your own and those of your loved ones. That way when the day comes, you or your heirs won’t be faced with a hefty bill.

1. Know Your Rights

The Funeral Rule

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) “Funeral Rule” protects people shopping for funeral services. The Funeral Rule guarantees that the bereaved get to choose the specific arrangements they want for a funeral and to know in advance how much those arrangements cost.

Under the rule, you have the following rights:

  • Choose What to Buy. Some funeral homes offer pricey package deals with a casket, embalming, public viewing, and a procession to the cemetery. However, under the Funeral Rule, if you only want to purchase some of these items, you can’t be forced to buy the rest. Funeral directors are allowed to charge a single “basic services fee” for items that every funeral includes, such as death certificates and notices, storing the remains, and coordinating arrangements with the cemetery or crematorium. However, all other goods and services – including the casket, hearse, and use of the funeral home for the service – are optional.
  • Comparison Shop. There’s no need to make an in-person visit to the funeral home to get information – funeral directors are required to give you their prices over the phone if you ask for them, and they can’t force you to provide your contact information first. If you do choose to go there in person, the funeral home is required to give you a general price list for all the goods and services it offers and allow you to take a copy home with you.
  • Choose Your Own Coffin. Funeral homes are required to give you a price list that includes all their casket models, not just the fanciest ones. You can also choose to buy a coffin or an urn from an outside vendor – the funeral home can’t require you to buy one of theirs.
  • Avoid Embalming. Funeral homes sometimes treat it as a matter of course that embalming must occur before burial. However, no law requires this, and funeral homes are required to disclose this fact.
  • Get It in Writing. Before you pay for anything, a funeral home must give you a written statement showing exactly what you have agreed to buy, what each item costs, and the total price. If there are any laws in your state requiring you to buy specific goods and services, these must be explained in the statement.

Dealing With Cemeteries

While the Funeral Rule is a big help in dealing with funeral homes, it doesn’t apply to cemeteries. In most states, cemeteries are not legally required to disclose their prices in writing or to let you pick and choose services.

Cemetery costs can include the following:

  • Cemetery Plot. When you buy a cemetery plot, you aren’t actually purchasing the land – you’re merely buying the right to be buried in a certain space. This can be a full-sized grave, a small spot for ashes, or a spot in an above-ground mausoleum. The cost of this plot can be anywhere from $400 to $10,000. Rural, nonprofit cemeteries typically charge toward the lower end of this scale, while urban, for-profit cemeteries charge higher fees. In addition, there is usually a separate charge of $200 to $500 for “opening” the grave, digging it, and filling it back in.
  • Vault. Also known as a grave liner or outer burial container, a vault goes around the coffin when it’s placed in the ground. It can add another $1,000 to $2,000 to the cost of a burial plot, and cemeteries can require you to have one. Vault installation usually costs around $200.
  • Gravestone. You can choose a headstone that stands upright, or a grave marker that is set flush to the ground. The average cost ranges from $1,200 to $2,000. Cemeteries aren’t required to let you use an outside vendor.

Before you buy any products or services from a cemetery, insist on seeing a printed, itemized price list and a copy of the cemetery’s rules and regulations. If the cemetery refuses to give you this information, go elsewhere.

Cemetery Plot Dealing

2. Compare Prices

When you’re grief-stricken over the loss of a loved one, it’s tempting to cling to anything that’s familiar. That’s why many people automatically go back to a funeral home that their family has used in the past.

However, by doing this, you may be spending thousands of dollars more than you need to. Funeral homes all over the country charge widely differing prices for the very same products and services, so it’s worth making the effort to compare.

The Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) is a nonprofit organization that promotes affordable funerals. It has local branches in all 50 states, and some branches have price lists for all funeral homes in their area, which makes comparison shopping much easier. A few can even arrange discounts for their members at particular funeral homes.

Find Cheaper Caskets

A casket can easily be the biggest ticket item of any funeral. Fortunately, the Funeral Rule guarantees your right to buy a coffin in all price ranges, anywhere you choose.

Here are three good sources of cheaper caskets:

  • Costco. Costco shows a selection of eight tasteful and highly rated casket models priced between $950 and $1,800, significantly less than the average price of $2,400 paid at a funeral home.
  • Online Sellers. Funeral Casket Society has coffin models starting at $690, and Overnight Caskets has prices starting at $535 for a kit you assemble yourself. Both sites offer free shipping. However, before using an online seller, check its ratings at the Better Business Bureau and other online review sites to make sure the company is trustworthy.
  • Local Retailers. The FCA recommends doing an online search for such terms as “caskets,” “retail caskets,” or “casket stores,” plus the name of your city or state. This search should reveal the sellers nearest you.

Control the Extras

There are several smaller charges incurred during a funeral that can quickly add up to a few thousand dollars, including flowers, obituary notices, pallbearers, musicians, and an officiant. You can save on these items either by buying them directly from the vendor rather than the funeral home, or by skipping them altogether.

Here are several ways to keep these costs down:

  • Obituary. If the funeral home charges a markup to place the obituary for you, contact the newspaper yourself. Remember that including a photo typically increases the cost.
  • Service. Funerals need not be held at a funeral home. You can choose to hold the service at your place of worship instead, and let the funeral home handle the burial arrangements only.
  • Incidentals. Deal directly with vendors for extras such as flowers, guest books, programs, and thank-you cards. That way you can purchase only the items you want. Also, you’re likely to find a better selection at more affordable prices.

3. Plan Ahead

It may seem strange to compare funeral prices now, but planning ahead can be beneficial for several reasons:

  • No Time Pressure. Following a death, you have a week at most to make all the arrangements and notify family, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for price comparison. If you do your shopping in advance, you can take your time and decide which funeral home is best.
  • No Emotional Pressure. By shopping early when emotions aren’t a factor, you can avoid feeling pressured into buying goods or services you don’t want or need.
  • Making Your Wishes Known. You can talk to your family about what the funeral should and shouldn’t include. You can discuss the choice between burial and cremation, where the final resting place should be, and what kind of service to have. The FCA offers a booklet called “Before I Go,” available as a spiral-bound book or a digital download, that can help you plan your own funeral.
  • Easing the Burden on Family. If you do your shopping and make a written a funeral plan ahead of time, all your family has to do is follow your instructions. At some funeral homes, you can even choose to fill out a prearrangement form and leave it on file.

Avoid Prepayment

As the FTC explains, millions of Americans elect each year to buy a cemetery plot ahead of time, or even to make a contract with a funeral home and prepay for some or all of their own funeral costs. Unfortunately, this has serious risks:

  • If you move to another state or change your plans, it isn’t always possible to get a refund.
  • You might die while out of town, and your family would need to use a different funeral home.
  • If your heirs aren’t aware that your funeral has been prepaid, they could end up going to another funeral home and paying again.
  • The funeral home could go out of business.

The FCA recommends planning in advance without actually paying in advance: Talk to funeral homes, decide what you want, and give a detailed plan to your family.

Avoid Funeral Prepayment

4. Evaluate Alternatives

A traditional, full-service funeral includes a viewing, a formal service, a hearse, and burial or cremation. This is the most familiar type of funeral, and also the most expensive.

Thankfully, it’s not the only option. Instead, you can opt for direct burial or direct cremation, or you could choose to donate your remains to medical science and have a separate memorial service afterward.

Direct Burial

With direct burial, the body is immediately laid to rest in a simple container. Although there is no viewing or visitation, you still have to pay for the following:

  • The funeral home’s basic service fee (about $1,975)
  • Transportation and care of the body (around $800)
  • A burial site (between $2,000 and $4,000)
  • A burial container, which can be a simple box of unfinished wood (as little as $100)
  • A burial vault, if the cemetery requires one (between $1,000 and $2,000)

All told, a direct burial costs around $7,000, about $3,000 less than a traditional funeral. That doesn’t include the cost of incidental expenses such as flowers or the officiant’s fee. If you choose to have a graveside service, the funeral home may charge an additional fee.

Cremation

In 1970, fewer than 5% of all funerals involved cremation. By 2013, that number had risen to 45%, making cremation nearly as popular as burial. The NFDA estimates that by the year 2030, more than two-thirds of people may choose cremation.

Most funeral homes work with a third-party crematory, which typically charges between $200 and $400 for the service, according to the FCA. This is roughly one-tenth of the $2,000 to $4,000 that most cemeteries charge for a burial plot and grave marker. However, cremation can be part of a traditional funeral, with a viewing, service, and procession, in which case the $7,000 charge remains unchanged.

Direct cremation, when the body is cremated shortly after death, ranges in price from $700 to $1,200. However, adding visiting hours, a funeral service, or a casket tacks onto that price significantly.

One cost associated with cremation is an urn or other container to store the ashes. According to TheFuneralSite.com, urns can cost anywhere from $80 to $2,000, with $300 being the average. However, you are not required to buy an urn. The crematory can also place the ashes in a plain container and you can choose to scatter the ashes or keep them in a container that has meaning to you.

Body and Organ Donation

Many organizations, such as Anatomy Gifts Registry and Science Care, accept bodies for medical research and education. To donate through one of these programs, the family has to complete a short screening to make sure the body fits the organization’s current research needs. Then they must sign a consent form authorizing the organization to use the body for research purposes. After the research is complete, the body is cremated and can be returned to the family.

Some organizations also send the family a letter explaining how their loved one’s body has been used to promote scientific knowledge. Another option is to donate the body to a medical school, also for research and training purposes.

5. Consider At-Home Funerals

It’s possible – and in most states, completely legal – to have a funeral without involving a funeral home. Some states require a funeral director’s signature on the death certificate or require a funeral director to be present to supervise the burial or cremation, but every state allows the family to hold the funeral at home.

Choosing a home funeral saves money, but its advantages go beyond cost. Many people who have done it say that tending personally to the bodies of their beloved dead gives them a greater sense of closure. Both National Public Radio and New Republic tell moving stories of people who chose to have home funerals for their loved ones.

The nonprofit organizations Crossings and the National Home Funeral Alliance promote home funerals as a more natural and caring alternative to the traditional American funeral. Both groups offer education and resources for families who are interested in home funerals.

Consider At Home Funerals

Final Word

Death isn’t a subject that most people like to talk about, but facing the topic head-on can make the burden of planning and cost a lot easier for you and your family. Get together with your loved ones today, speak openly and review your options, and rest assured that everything has been taken care of well in advance.

What else can you suggest to discuss with your loved ones regarding funerary matters?

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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