No matter how inevitable death is, many of us are still caught off guard when it’s time to make funeral arrangements for a loved one.
“Death care” typically amounts to a major expenditure, but one that most of us consider infrequently and rarely discuss openly.
How we make decisions about funeral services and burials tends to differ from how we handle other major purchases: If you shop for an appliance or car, you can take some time to consider various models, retailers and experiences before making a purchase. If you buy a faulty appliance or a lemon of a car, you may have the luxury of returns and compensation.
When we plan funerals for loved ones we are often under time pressure, especially within certain faith traditions such as Judaism, which have strict burial rites and rituals. Also, as can happen with weddings, there may be social pressure to honor the deceased with an opulent funeral.
Even modest funerals tend to be expensive. The average cost of a funeral with viewing and burial was $7,181, in 2014, the last year for which statistics are available, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. That doesn’t include the $1,400-plus for a burial vault (which houses and protects the casket). And it’s important to remember those prices don’t include the burial site, grave marker and other expenses.
The median cost of cremations (with funeral and viewing) is just over $6,000, according to NFDA.
So what do you do to make sure you receive the death care you want at a reasonable price? Consider these ideas:
Federal law is on your side. Funeral homes must disclose prices of their services, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Many providers have menus that lay out costs for various services and options, and they should share these prices with you whether you’re meeting in person or inquiring by phone. Although such disclosure is a federal law, a recent survey found about 25 percent of funeral homes don’t comply.
One way to compare local services is through sites like Parting.com, which gives prices it gathers by phone, fax and in person from providers, searchable by ZIP code. The price listings may not be exact, the site notes, since they do change over time — but they can save on legwork and haggling during an already-difficult time.
What is the most important part of death care to you? Is it a coffin and vault? A large headstone? An elegant wake? Weigh your options and preferences, and then plan how to allocate your money.
You can purchase caskets at Costco or other retailers that are likely less expensive than buying from a funeral home. Urns for cremains are available from a wide array of retailers, including Walmart, Sears, vendors on Amazon and elsewhere online. And you may be able to bury a person on privately owned land, and avoid paying for a cemetery plot.
There’s nothing wrong with those options, but understand that there may be a trade-off. You may need to pay delivery fees for the casket you bought at a big box retailer. And you may be able to bury a body on your property, but it could impact your property value.
Mix and match services and goods
Just because you go to a funeral home doesn’t mean you need to buy a package of services. In fact, you might mix and match services and goods, such as purchasing a casket at Costco but the liner from the funeral home.
“It’s like going down a buffet line,” Bob Arrington, president of NFDA, told CNBC of funeral home services. “The family can decide how much they pay at the end of the line by what they pick up.”
He also cautioned against shopping on price alone, likening it to “Motel Six and Marriott.” The advantage of using a funeral home — whether for a traditional burial or cremation — is that funeral directors and their staff typically take care of many details that you might not have time or energy for. These include placing obituaries, accepting flowers and other gifts for the family, coordinating vigils and even coordinating with the church for meals after the service.
However, dealing with the funeral home can also be overwhelming — a little like haggling for a new car — so if in doubt, read the FTC Rule on funeral homes.
Consider a DIY funeral
A growing number of people are returning to at-home funerals, The New York Times recently reported. These intimate end-of-life rituals are usually conducted by family members (who may also have assistance from funeral directors, clergy or home funeral guides). They are usually much less expensive than mainstream funerals — typically costing under $200, according to the non-profit National Home Funeral Alliance.
The NHFA, which provides support and resources for families seeking this alternative, emphasizes the spiritual, environmental and therapeutic benefits of the home funeral.
Families who choose to care for their own report a sense of completion, a feeling of having done their best for those they love, and a stronger connection to their friends and family and community. Having something meaningful to do to help others through a crisis or sorrowful time is usually empowering for all involved.
The NHFA notes that laws governing home funerals vary, and provides a state-by-state breakdown of requirements.
Look into pre-need funeral options
As the winter holidays approach, you will likely see many advertisements for pre-need funeral services. As the name implies, the services usually allow you to design and pay for a funeral and burial before they are needed. If you choose this option for yourself, you could be doing your family a great favor by lifting the burden of planning from them, and making your wishes clear.
The pre-need approach allows you to discuss and choose services and goods, sometimes without paying for them in advance, according to AARP. There are also pre-need agreements that allow you to pay in advance for a funeral and burial services you request.
If you opt for a pre-need agreement, you should verify that the price paid locks in the cost of services and goods, Kiplinger advises. You can also buy pre-need insurance to cover predetermined costs of your funeral and burial. (Note: This is different from life insurance which allows beneficiaries discretion over how to use the funds.) Each of these plans can have limitations buried in the fine print. Be sure to research them carefully before you agree.
Alternatively, as The Motley Fool suggests, you might be better off starting a private savings account earmarked for covering your funeral and burial costs. As for your funeral and burial preferences, you could just write those on the back of an envelope and place it in your estate file for your survivors.
What’s your experience handling the memorial and burial costs for a loved one? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.