The phone rings at 1 a.m., rarely a time for good news. And this time is no exception: A close family member has just died — and it’s up to you to tell the hospital or nursing home or whoever’s calling what to do with the body, then plan the funeral service, burial or cremation.
Chances are you have no idea where to start.
“Probably two-thirds of Americans have never planned a funeral, so most don’t even know the basics,” says Mark Duffey, president of Everest Funeral Package, a Houston-based company that helps consumers plan funerals. And many people thrust into planning funerals haven’t received advance guidance from the deceased on what type of funeral they’d like.
Funeral Planning: Time Pressure and Duress
The result: “You’re thrown into a time-pressured and complicated process when you’re under emotional duress,” Duffey notes.
The decisions you make could be quite costly since, according to the Federal Trade Commission, funerals rank among the most expensive purchases many consumers will ever make. The average price of a funeral runs around $7,000, not including cemetery costs, which could add an additional $2,000 or more.
“Just because funerals are emotional transactions doesn’t mean consumers should forget they’re also business transactions, but they do,” says Joshua Slocum, executive director of Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit whose goal is to help consumers choose a meaningful, but affordable funeral. “All of a sudden, they lose all the consumer smarts they’ve learned over the years.”
6 Steps To Plan A Funeral
If you find yourself needing to plan a funeral, take these six simple, but important steps that will let you create the tribute you want while minimizing the stress and the price:
1. Slow down. Unless you must meet religious requirements for a quick burial, as in Judaism and Islam, you don’t have to make every decision immediately. If you are under strict religious time constraints, local synagogues or mosques usually have designated resources and people to help you begin the funeral-planning process.
What you will need to do immediately, however, is to get a legal pronouncement of death from a doctor or the deceased’s hospice nurse and to arrange to have the body picked up, typically by a funeral home you’ve selected.
After that, you can start arranging the funeral, burial or cremation including finding someone to officiate; send obituaries to the appropriate publications; procuring a burial plot and headstone, if necessary; and meet with an attorney about transferring the deceased’s assets.
A funeral home can help you prepare obituaries and get death certificates that you may need to send to your loved one’s financial institutions and life insurer.
2. Make a few key decisions before meeting with a funeral home. These should address the key elements you want in any memorial tribute: Cremation or burial? An elaborate funeral in a funeral home or house of worship followed by a procession, a brief graveside service shortly after death or a memorial service in the future? A viewing, and if so, public or private?
If you can rule out the types of costs you won’t want to incur, even better. That will help you avoid overpaying when you sit down with the funeral home staff member.
“If you just call a funeral home asking for the price of a funeral, you could be quoted a top-of-the-line service and get taken to the cleaners,” Slocum says. A funeral home might try to push a “traditional” funeral that includes such things as embalming, an expensive coffin, a funeral ceremony with hearse and procession and a graveside service. You might not want all those features.
To learn the basics of planning a funeral wisely, I urge you to check out:
- The website of the Funeral Consumers Alliance.
- The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) “Guide for Funeral Planning and Expenses,” on the Next Avenue site.
- The Consumer Reports checklist, “What To Do When A Loved One Dies.”
3. Know your rights. By law, the FTC’s “funeral rule” requires funeral homes to provide itemized price quotes and other information about their services in person and, if you ask, over the phone, before discussing a funeral you’re planning or letting you look at coffins. That way, you won’t be unduly tempted to buy a fancy model without knowing the price. (Funeral homes don’t have to display some of their less costly coffins in their showrooms, though.) You can’t be forced to buy an all-inclusive package, either.
In reality, however, many funeral homes don’t give out the price list. The agency conducted undercover investigations of 102 funeral homes this year and discovered that 16 failed to abide by the funeral rule. Just last week, Carter Funeral Chapels of Chicago agreed to settle FTC charges that it didn’t provide consumers with itemized price lists.
It’s also worth noting that if you buy a coffin online or at a retailer, like Costco, a funeral home can’t refuse to handle it or charge you a higher fee because you bought it elsewhere. The FTC recently announced a $32,000 settlement with a Brooklyn funeral home that refused to conduct funerals unless customers purchased one of its coffins.
(MORE: My Mom’s Lasting Legacy)
A few words about coffins: You can decide to rent one for an open display or service then switch to a less expensive container for burial or cremation. Also, coffins are not required for cremation; alternative containers are permitted.
4. Bring in help. If you’re feeling too overwhelmed to handle the funeral details, ask other family members or close friends for help. They can call or visit a handful of funeral homes to collect information about prices and services for you.
You could also get professional help. The Funeral Consumers Alliance has local nonprofit affiliates around the country that can provide personal advice. Some have even put together local funeral home price surveys that will let you compare costs.
For a $495 fee, Everest Funeral Package provides independent advisers who gather price comparisons and negotiate with funeral homes on your behalf. (Check first to see if the deceased’s employer offers group coverage, as more than 18,000 employers do.)
5. Resist high-pressure sales pitches. Remember, you can make a meaningful tribute without buying top-of-the-line services or products. Don’t automatically accept a funeral home’s recommendation to purchase a sealed coffin or vault in order to protect the deceased’s body. “That could add hundreds of dollars to the funeral’s price, but no casket can keep out air or water indefinitely,” Slocum says.
6. Don’t be afraid to, er, think outside the box. Many families these days are opting for more celebratory, upbeat services to honor a life with jokes or buoyant music, often in nontraditional places, like public parks, community centers or even a favorite restaurant of the deceased.
“What you have to remember is there are few rules,” Duffey says. “As long as the body is disposed of correctly, there are plenty of things you can do to honor a life and even have fun in the process.”
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