When planning a funeral,> few families are prepared or informed enough to make smart financial decisions, and even fewer are in the mood to bargain. As a result, many spend more than they have to.
Death takes you by surprise, says Joshua Slocum, the executive director for the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a consumer advocate. Most of us, to our own detriment, don t plan for it.
That often leaves the family and friends of the deceased facing an untimely wave of big decisions and purchases and largely unaware of the federal rights and protections that can keep them from overpaying.
The average funeral (not including cemetery expenses) cost $6,195 in 2006, the latest data available from the National Funeral Directors Association. That s up from $5,180 in 2000.
Although the recession has made frugality more of a social norm, shopping around for funeral expenses has retained its stigma.
No one would think of buying a car by looking at only one place, says Lois Greisman, the associate director of marketing practices at the Federal Trade Commission. [But] they tend not to call up five different funeral homes.
These six tactics can help consumers keep costs reasonable when arranging a funeral service or preplanning for their own:
Learn your rights
Few funeral expenses are required by law, Greisman says. Review the FTC s Funeral Rule, which among other protections, compels funeral homes to provide a written price list upon request and prohibits them from refusing or charging a fee to handle a casket purchased elsewhere. They must also disclose any state or local laws that require you to purchase a particular good or service.
Have a conversation with your family about what you want and what s going to be meaningful to them, says Steve Hartnett, the associate director of education for the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys. That helps determine how much to set aside, and keeps family and friends from picking everything on the funeral home s menu because they didn t get clear instructions.
...But don t pre-pay
Many funeral homes pitch the opportunity to lock in funeral costs by pre-paying, but it is almost never a smart idea, Hartnett says. State regulations control how much (if any) of a pre-need plan can be refunded, should you move or change service plans, or if the funeral home changes hands or goes out of business. Few states offer much recourse. If you want to save for funeral expenses, it s better to create a payable-on-death account or a funeral trust through a life insurance company, Hartnett says.
Consider pre-owned plots
During the 20th century, it was standard practice to purchase a plot at the local cemetery years in advance and pay it off over time. Now, people are more likely to move or change plans, which has created a thriving secondary market, Slocum says. One Craigslist post offered a $4,000 single plot in New York s Mt. Ararat Cemetery for a negotiable $1,100 -- a discount of at least 72%. When purchasing a secondhand plot, involve the cemetery in the move to ensure the title is transferred properly and get estimates on other fees that might crop up later (such as interment and setting the vault), he says.
Compare funeral home prices
People tend to pick the same funeral home their family last used, but it s worthwhile to shop around. Prices for the same service vary from one home to another, Greisman says. For example, in Burlington, Vt., a direct cremation can cost as little as $1,200 or as much as $3,000, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance.
Shop around for funeral goods
An order of casket-making Benedictine monks in Louisiana recently filed a lawsuit in federal court to overturn a state law restricting the ability to sell funeral merchandise to licensed funeral parlors. (The monks and other violators face up to 180 days in jail.) But even in the three states that have and actively enforce such laws -- Louisiana, Virginia and Oklahoma -- consumers retain the right under the FTC s Funeral Rule to purchase a casket or urn anywhere they choose, Slocum says. Manufacturer Universal Casket sells its Kentucky Rose casket for $1,726 with standard shipping, but also directs buyers to Costco.com, where the same model sells for $1,500, also including standard shipping.
Consumers may also see savings from purchasing flowers, reception books and other goods from sources other than the funeral home, he says.