Someone wrote to us this week that a person in his family is terminally ill, and that he was told “that the cost of the casket, funeral, viewing, and burial would possibly exceed 12,000 dollars.” He thinks that’s an “exorbitant amount of money,” and so do we. There is no reason to pay that much money for a kick-ass funeral that people will be talking about for years to come. You don’t need to be a cheapskate to manage this, either—you just need to be aware of your rights and know what traps to watch out for. Here’s our list of what to do the next time you have to plan a funeral.
Oh, and the kitten picture is just to cheer you up if you need it.
1. Learn about the Funeral Rule.
The Funeral Rule is an FTC regulation that requires several things of funeral professionals. Familiarize yourself with these points, and if a funeral home conveniently “overlooks” them, or outright refuses to follow them, run away. (But also report them to the FTC once you’ve got the presence of mind to deal with that stuff again.)
- Funeral directors must give you itemized prices in person as well as over the phone. You have to ask for the over-the-phone quotes; in person it’s a given, and anyone who skips this is worthy of suspicion.
- They must give you itemized prices for any other services they offer, if you ask. This goes for caskets, burial containers, whatever.
- You have the right to buy individual goods and services; no funeral director or home can force you to buy a package.
- If a state or local law requires that you buy a particular item, the funeral director must state that next to the item on the price list, and reference the specific law.
- You can bring your own casket; a funeral home cannot refuse you or charge you a “handling fee.”
- If you choose cremation, the funeral provider must offer an alternative container to a casket; you don’t have to buy a nice coffin just to burn it up.
- Speaking of which, the funeral director must show you a list of caskets for sale, including descriptions and prices, before showing you the actual caskets. There’s a reason for this—see #4 below.
- There is no technology, embalming chemical, coffin, liner, or vault that will preserve a body indefinitely. Funeral directors can’t promise or insinuate otherwise.
2. Consider a direct burial with a memorial service.
A “traditional” burial is really marketing speak for a “full-service” burial—funeral providers have a vested interest in suggesting that full-service equals “more appropriate,” because then they can jam a trocar right into your bank account and suck out your savings.
A direct burial, on the other hand, can still include a graveside service, a memorial, or any other rituals you feel are important to the survivors. Remember, you decide what’s considered traditional for your family, not a stranger.
3. You may not have to worry about embalming.
If you’re burying or cremating the body shortly after death, you can probably skip embalming. Here’s a chart showing the law on embalming for each state, or just do a Google search for “embalming law [your state]“. The funeral provider cannot perform an embalming without your permission, and as with other services, must full disclose whether or not it’s required and how much it will cost.
4. Learn how to shop for a casket. (And a vault.)
A. You will be subconsciously led to purchase a specific one. The FTC says, “Industry studies show that the average casket shopper buys one of the first three models shown, generally the middle-priced of the three.” Remember this before making a decision, and assume that you’re being directed to the middle-priced casket intentionally.
If you aren’t shown the cheaper caskets on the list the funeral director was supposed to have already provided, then ask to see them. If the cheaper casket that you want is in an ugly color, ask if you can order a more pleasing color—the color choice is on purpose to deter you.
B. You will be upsold on gaskets, seals, thickness, and various other protective measures that do nothing. The FTC says, “The Funeral Rule forbids claims that these features help preserve the remains indefinitely because they don’t. They just add to the cost of the casket.”
C. Buy your casket separately. The Funeral Consumers Alliance says “few consumers realize that caskets may be marked up 300-500% or more.” They say caskets can retail for $600 or so, but a more realistic baseline these days is about $1000. If you can locate a local builder or know some basic carpentry, you can build your own and probably bring the price down some more.
Here are some places to begin your search, although we personally vouch for none of ‘em:
D. You may be able to rent a casket for viewing if you plan on cremating the body. Be sure to ask. Also, if you’re cremating without a viewing, you can bypass the casket option entirely and save a huge amount of money.
E. Don’t waste money on an expensive vault. A vault or grave liner is basically a concrete shell placed into the grave to keep the dirt from caving in around the casket. Some cemeteries may require it to keep graves from sinking, but no state or federal laws do. In other words, unless the cemetery requires it, you don’t have to buy one. Our reader Erik notes, “Buy a cheap vault, if you need one at all. I’ve seen people spend $4,000 on something that will never be seen by anyone.”
5. Find out if a military burial is an option.
Check out this comment from textilesdiva on a previous post:
If you even THINK the deceased might be entitled to burial in a military cemetery, look into it. For my grandmother’s burial, the plot, facilties for the graveside ceremony, stone, “perpetual care” and all that jazz was $300 at a local military cemetery. As I understand it, my grandfather’s second wife is also eligible for burial with him and his first wife. He was in service during a war, but never deployed to a combat zone.
I doubt the coffin or funeral home services were included in this, but my parent’s surprise at the cemetery costs leads me to think $300 is extraordinarily cheap. This was in 2004, btw.
Here’s more information on eligibility—or just call the Veteran’s Benefits Counselor at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: 1-800-827-1000.
6. Turn to religion.
Our reader Eyebrows McGee, who is an estate lawyer or something like that, points out that churches and synagogues frequently can provide help on figuring out more affordable solutions:
If there is an Orthodox Jewish community in your area, find out who they use. Generally Orthodox Jews use very, very plain coffins which cost very little, for religious reasons.
Your local church/synagogue/mosque/temple/whatever can probably also help you with low-cost planning. They usually have relationships with funeral parlors who want to keep their business more than they want to rip you off. And having a religious funeral service frequently cuts out a big chunk of the cost, since (some) funeral homes make a lot off of families with no religious “home” who have the service at the funeral parlor.
Eyebrows McGee actually has a lot of good advice on funerals and planning for them. Read these two comments for more useful tips:
We want you to save money and stick it to the man, “the man” in this case being a funeral director, so we’ve taken the checklist the FTC provides in html table format and turned it into a handy PDF suitable for printing. Download it here.
After we posted this, our reader Erik sent us a “funeral plan” form (PDF). He’s a pastor with lots of experience officiating funerals, and he says this is one of the easiest ways to collect all the important data you need for this sort of thing. But remember to distribute it:
Put it somewhere it can be found! Don’t put in a safe deposit box or with a will. Those won’t be looked at until after a burial. Instead, give it to your children, spouse, clergy or a funeral director you trust. Even better, give it to all of them, so that someone can find it when it’s needed.
Update: by reader demand, we have increased the kittenosity of this post: