Unless you have planned ahead, you and your family will be dealing with professional sales people, often working on commission, at a time when you are vulnerable. Because of their training, experience, and understanding of your situation, it may be easy to forget that they are there in a sales capacity. They may also work for a large corporation with their goal being to make as much profit as possible.
Funerals and burials are among the most expensive purchases we will make.Be sure to treat this purchase like any other major purchase. Plan ahead and compare prices. Be informed.
How much the funeral costs depends on what is chosen. Remember that you may select only those services that you want.
The average funeral costs about $5000 with additional costs adding up to $10,000. With the exception of package deals, funeral homes charge for every separate thing that is done. Be wary of package deals. They only make sense if you would have chosen each service anyway. Remember, too, that there will also be cemetery charges. Know if they are included.
You don't need a costly funeral to show your love or respect. Make arrangements that are best for you and your family. Figure out what you want before you go, shop around, and negotiate.
How to Read the Funeral Home's General Price List
Taking the Mystery Out of Funeral Costs
What's Your Funeral IQ?
Your Rights When Buying Funeral Goods & Services
If you didn't pre-plan, you will be one of the people dealing with a professional sales person when you are vulnerable and emotional. Take someone you trust with you when you go, such as a member of the clergy or a friend. They can be good emotional support. And they can help you resist emotional buying and help you resist the often subtle pressures to buy more or to spend more than you want to spend.
Caskets are typically the largest expense. Casket is the term now used for the older term coffin.
The mark-up on caskets alone at funeral homes is much like that on jewelry; 300-500% mark-ups are not uncommon.
Caskets come in a variety of materials, most commonly woods or metals. The material used and the cost to produce the casket will determine the base cost, before markup. Just as in furniture, hardwoods, such as cherry or mahogany, typically cost more than softwoods like pine. Lighter-weight steel costs less than heavier steel or precious metals such as copper or bronze. Then, there are many choices for the inside. Depending upon what you choose, a caskets can be purchased for as little as several hundred dollars or as much as $25,000. The Internet offers many online options and recently, local stores such as Costco offer an inexpensive line of caskets. The funeral home must allow you the option of buying your casket somewhere else. And, they are not allowed to charge you extra for using one they didn't sell you (Funeral Rule). Decide what you want and shop around. Note: If your state doesn't allow you to purchase a casket from anyone other than a funeral home, know that there is no requirement that a person be buried in a "casket". They may be buried in a "hope chest", or other named suitable "box".
Be aware that there has been some controversy about "sealed" caskets. Sealed caskets are more expensive. The presentation is that it keeps out water and dirt and preserves the remains. However, reports are that a sealed casket usually stays sealed for only a few years despite the twenty five year plus guarantee. And, there is the issue of some bodies decomposing and then exploding within the sealed casket. The force of the explosion sometimes breaking open a sealed casket. Research these caveats before deciding if the extra cost is worth it to you. And remember, no casket whether metal or wood will preserve a body forever.
Should you pre-pay for a casket offered by an independent store? If you plan to store it at home, perhaps. Otherwise, it is best to wait until close to the time it will be needed since the company you choose may no longer be in business.
The Funeral Consumer's Alliance has links to discounted casket dealers as well as links to "make your own" kits (scroll to the bottom of the page). Internet search engines are also a good source of information for savvy consumers who pre-plan.
Funeral Consumer's Alliance
No state requires a burial vault or grave liner. However, many cemeteries require the use of a vault or grave liner to prevent the grave from sinking over time, reducing maintenance for the cemetery workers. Cemeteries are allowed to set their own rules. If the cemetery requires something you don't want to pay for, check around for another cemetery.
What is a vault?
A vault encloses the casket in the grave. A burial vault is stronger and visually more appealing than a grave liner, and hence more expensive. Typically, vaults are constructed of steel-reinforced concrete and lined with other materials. The cost varies, just like caskets, based on construction; and the prices can range from several hundred dollars to many thousands. Under the Funeral Rule, funeral homes are not allowed to tell you that a vault can indefinitely preserve a body in the grave. It cannot; just as a sealed casket cannot.
What is a grave liner?
There are two types of grave liners. One is "sectional" and one is "solid".
A sectional grave liner is assembled in the grave by hand. Six sections of concrete reinforced with chicken wire are fit together with the help of grooves. It is not waterproof and holds together from the pressure of the surrounding dirt. It can be broken under pressure. A solid grave liner is made of concrete reinforced with iron mesh and is lowered into the grave prior to burial. It is a much stronger option, but is also more expensive.
There is also a lawn crypt. A lawn crypt is more sturdy than either type of grave liner. It is designed for two bodies, one on top of the other. Typically, the cost is included in the price of a burial plot.
Both types of grave liners are a less expensive option than a burial vault and will often fulfill the cemetery requirement. The cost is typically less than $200. They are not watertight or airtight but, over time, the watertight and airtight vault will decompose as well.
For more information on the options, written by a gravedigger:
If you are worried about the decomposition of the body, know that the body will decompose, over time, even when embalmed and even when put in a sealed casket and vault. That's just nature.
What about cremation and interment (the ritual
of placing a person in a grave) at a cemetery?
A cemetery may tell you that a vault or grave liner is necessary for cremated remains. There is no health or reasonable maintenance claim for a requirement of this type. If a cemetery requires this, look elsewhere.
Do I have to purchase a vault or liner from
the funeral home?
In some locations, both funeral homes and cemeteries sell vaults and liners. However, for the savvy shopper, it may be possible in your area to purchase either of these from another source. Shop around and compare prices.
A monument (or memorial marker) is the current term for what used to be called a tombstone. Monuments also vary widely in cost. A savvy consumer will watch for clever ways sellers may try to get additional revenue from the sale.
If you have purchased funeral insurance, typically a specific amount will be identified to pay for the costs. If a consumer goes to a funeral home and identifies the amount of the insurance that will be available, the seller will be able to tally the cost of the funeral and whatever is left will, coincidentally, become the cost of the monument. This can be much more than the going rate.
If the consumer goes to a monument dealer, he or she may find that the monuments shown are marked only with a tag, not a price. This is done so that the salesperson can evaluate the financial capability of the purchaser and the price list used is in line with what the salesperson thinks the consumer can afford. Often, the salesperson will be working on commission - the more he or she sells the monument for, the more money he or she personally makes. For example, if the salesperson finds out through casual conversation that the consumer is retired and on a fixed income, the lower cost price list will be used. If the consumer is well dressed and younger, the higher cost price list will be used. Try to find a dealer who lists the prices in the showroom. Shop around and negotiate.
If a consumer is encouraged the purchase the marker from the funeral home, there are caveats as well. The consumer may be offered a discount to purchase the monument from the funeral home. However, one trick is to use a price list that is higher than the normal price list. The consumer could end up paying more than the price on the regular list, even with the "discount".
Some cemeteries will prohibit
anyone but themselves from installing the monument's required foundation.
This price may be set astronomically high and the family may be forced
to pay a "perpetual care" fee even before installation.
Another way cemeteries make money on monuments not purchased through them is to charge a fee to drive the delivery truck on their roads. Other monument dealers usually know of this type of charge but do not alert the consumer. At the time of the charge, the monument dealer calls the consumer to say he or she has just been informed of this additional fee by the cemetery and requests immediate payment by the consumer. The consumer loses.
Again, it pays to pre-plan, to shop around, and to be aware of sales tactics that may be used by the industry. Be informed and proactive.
Cash Advances are fees charged by the funeral home for goods and services it buys from outside vendors on your behalf, including:
Some funeral providers charge you their cost for the items they buy on your behalf. Others add a service fee to their cost. The Funeral Rule requires those who charge an extra fee to disclose that fact in writing, although it doesn't require them to specify the amount of their markup. The Rule also requires funeral providers to tell you if there are refunds, discounts or rebates from the supplier on any cash advance item.
If the funeral provider doesn't know the cost of the cash advance items at the time of your inquiry, he or she is required to give you a written "good faith estimate." But, be aware. An estimate does not mean that that is what you will pay. The funeral provider is allowed to charge a fee and they are not required to specify the amount, only that they are charging a fee for their service.
State specific requirements or requirements of the cemetery or crematory that require you to purchase any specific funeral goods or services must be identified in writing and given to you. Again, this is part of the Funeral Rule.
If you want to research your state's laws beforehand:
A consumer must pay this fee if they contract with the funeral home. This fee should include:
- funeral planning
- securing the necessary permits and copies of death certificates (ask how many they provide)
- preparing the notices
- sheltering the remains
- coordinating the arrangements with the cemetery, crematory or other third parties
Be sure to ask what this fee includes. Be specific and list them all. All other services are selected by the consumer. Get everything in writing.
The Funeral Consumer's Alliance states that, nationwide, this service averages $1200. However, since this fee may not be refused, the funeral home may vastly inflate the charge. Understand, specifically, what you are agreeing to pay for.
Be aware that this fee is not standardized. They can be highly inflated. Shop around.
Just as various associations offer their members benefits in return for a usually nominal membership fee, there are groups that a consumer can join that offer discounted rates for both funerals and cremations.
|For Funerals||Funeral Consumer's Alliance|
|For Cremations||Cremation Societies|
Some funeral homes add "Society" to their name. Do not be confused. Be sure to ask about non-profit status. The associations discussed here are non-profit groups.
Unfortunately for consumers, there is no nationwide standard for the protection of your money should you pre-pay for funeral or cremation expenses. The laws vary from state to state. Check the laws in your state before you decide to pre-pay.
If you decide to pre-pay, there are a number of things to consider to protect your money.
- Evaluate whether a savings account would be a better choice. That way, you earn interest, have control over the money, and you can still pre-plan for what you want.
- Is the agreement irrevocable i.e. can you change your mind?
- What happens if you move?
- What happens if ownership changes?
- What happens if the company goes out of business?
- What happens if the company wants to change their policies at a later date? Will those changes impact your agreement?
- Where is the money to be held? Make sure it is held in a trust.
- Will it accrue interest? If so, how will the interest be distributed, and when?
- Do they have written policies and directives for safeguarding your money?
- Will there be any banking or attorney or other fees? Will there be taxes? If so, how will they be paid, by whom, and when?
- What happens if inflation causes the price for the service at the time needed to be more than the price agreed upon?
- What happens if competition causes the price for the service at the time needed to be less than what was agreed upon?
- Ask about expenses from third parties related to the funeral or cremation. These are typically the "cash advance" services. Ask about charges such as clergy honoraria, obituary notices, flowers, crematory fee, pallbearers, organist, etc. If an amount cannot be agreed upon to include in the contract, the charges for these services will still have to be paid for by the family or the estate. These charges can add up.
- Will your family be allowed to make changes to the agreement at the time of your death?
- Check the fine print in the contract. Make sure all the items discussed and agreed to are in writing and are part of the contract.
- Consider having your attorney review the agreement before signing.
- Consider how you will keep family and/or friends notified, over time, that you have prepaid. You don't want them to choose another funeral home after your death and have to pay for it themselves or through the estate when you have already prepaid.
According to the Funeral Consumer's Alliance, the most common complaint related to pre-paid funerals is that the customer picked out and paid for a specific casket, while the family is told (at the time of death) that "this casket is no longer available... you'll have to pick out another one." The "new" casket is almost always more money. This is the type of issue that may arise with a pre-paid funeral or cremation. You may ask that the specific casket and burial vault purchased be stored for you. Again, get that agreement in writing along with a clause that specifies what will happen if they, for some reason, are not available at the time of need or if they become damaged during storage.
For those individuals that need to "spend down assets for Medicaid", pre-payment of a funeral or cremation is a legal shelter of funds.
In North Carolina, laws are in place to help protect the consumer:
|Pre-Need Cremation (§90-210.46) (scroll) (S550-2003-2004)|
|Pre-Need Funeral Funds (§90-210.60) (scroll- Article 13)|
Whether you choose to pre-pay or not, pre-planning is critical to avoid just the type of situation that people purchasing pre-paid services are trying to avoid.
Life insurance policies may be structured to offer "insurance assignment" for funeral costs. The assignment transaction is processed by the funeral home. Funeral expenses are paid directly to the funeral provider with any remaining balance of the pre-determined amount going directly to the beneficiary.
There are several things to keep in mind. Though this is an efficient and often painless way to pre-pay for funeral costs, pre-planning is also necessary. Most quality funeral homes accept funeral insurance assignment because it is guaranteed payment to them. Make sure, however, that the home is able and willing to provide the type funeral you want before signing over assignment. Important decisions must still be made - the same ones that would need to be made if you had no insurance.
Additionally, some funeral homes will "ensure" that
the entire amount of the insurance assignment is needed for the type
funeral you choose. Plan for what you want and get prices before you
let the funeral home know the amount of insurance available.
(see section on Monuments)
In considering the future, please note that life insurance policies may be considered an asset should you need to apply for Medicaid. In order to qualify for Medicaid you will need to "spend down" your assets". That means you will have to cash in the policy. Doing this will cause you to pay a substantial penalty and may, in effect, yield you only pennies on the dollar. A similar situation would occur if you got in financial trouble and stopped making payments. In that case, you may lose all the money that you had paid in. Consider all the implications carefully before committing to life insurance for burial costs.
Also note that the policy should be a permanent cash value policy, rather than a term policy. Term insurance typically has an age limit beyond which the company will no longer insure you. Make sure the face amount is adjusted for inflation so the value keeps pace with funeral costs.
Funeral Insurance is a special type of insurance. You purchase insurance for a specified amount that you choose. The funeral home is typically the beneficiary. Be aware that, just like home loans, insurance policies may be sold to third parties, sometimes multiple times. You will need to keep up with who owns the policy in order to get the payout.
Some banks offer Pay on Death accounts that are very similar. Note that the funeral home, the business that will receive the funds, is not required to pay any leftover funds to your beneficiaries.
Inflation of funeral costs over time may outpace the interest accrued by the funeral insurance policy. Since the funeral home is the beneficiary, they will either need to absorb the cost or figure out a way to make the family or estate pay more to make up the difference. One way that has been used is to tell the family that the casket chosen is no longer available. The new caskets, of course, cost more.
Have an attorney review the contract. If cost is a concern, remember that there are legal clinics and that some attorneys do a limited amount of pro bono or free work for eligible clients. Check out the funeral home with the Better Business Bureau and find out what associations they belong to that may have an ethics code that they have agreed to follow.
It is also good to be aware that state and federal legislation related to funeral insurance and funeral procedures and requirements may change over time. Such legislation will supercede your policy agreement unless the legislation specifically states that existing policies will hold or may continue as agreed.
Consider setting up a trust account or a savings account to pay for funeral expenses as an alternative to insurance. It is your choice. Be informed and make the best choice for your family.
As part of that decision, examine the likelihood of placement in a long-term care facility to be paid for with Medicaid. Consider that it may be possible to purchase funeral insurance at a later time if needed to qualify for Medicaid. Pre-paid funeral insurance, versus life insurance, would not be considered an asset for Medicaid eligibility. Be sure to check with your state Medicaid office before making any purchasing decisions since regulations/rules/legislation may change over time.