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A Caregiver's Guide to Planning a Funeral

What one husband learned preparing for his wife's impending death

By Dan Browning

“What mortuary are you planning to use?”

Those are the last words a caregiver wants to hear when checking a loved one into hospice care, whether at home or in a specialized facility. The decision to enter hospice care already carries a sense of defeat. It means you generally aren’t going to try to save your loved one, but rather, seek to spare the person as much pain as possible on the impending road toward death.

The mortuary question evokes a hole in the cold, hard ground.

The hospice social worker who asked me that question when my wife recently entered hospice care understood that it blindsided me. I felt dazed and told her that I hadn’t thought that far ahead. She graciously moved down the intake form. But before leaving, she did me a favor by suggesting that I take care of the burial arrangements for Liz — who has frontotemporal dementia — as soon as possible.

Decisions Upon Decisions

Here’s what I’ve learned in shopping for my wife’s funeral services: Start early, but don’t rush it. Each decision triggers more decisions. And the costs climb quickly.

The National Funeral Directors Association says the average cost of a funeral in 2012 was $8,343, including the “grave liner” required by most cemeteries. It can easily cost much more. And that doesn’t include cemetery costs, markers, flowers, food or gratuities for clergy and musicians.

Knowing all this, I appreciate the social worker’s advice. You don’t want to weigh decisions about money when you’re grieving.

Advance Planning Counts

There’s a lot to learn about burying someone. One funeral director told me there were more than 150 decisions to be made in the first few days after a loved one dies. There are few rules, as customs have changed significantly in the past generation.

Generally speaking, though, you will need a mortuary, the same thing as a funeral home. You may or may not need a cemetery, depending on whether you cremate the body. You may need a place of worship, though memorial services can also be provided at the mortuary, at the graveside or even in your backyard or at a local bar.

I sought out a locally-owned mortuary.

Federal law requires mortuaries to provide a “general price list” for each service they offer. They also may have package deals, but these often include services you don’t want. So scrutinize the details. Arranging a funeral is like a buying a car; it requires comparison shopping.

I live in Minnesota, where just over half of all people choose cremation, according to the Cremation Society of Minnesota. In some counties, as many as seven in 10 people do. The membership-based society keeps costs low: $1,595 to cremate the body and return the ashes in a simple cardboard box. It sells urns for as little as $12.

I’m joining the group to spare my loved ones these decisions when my time comes. Alas, my wife wants a traditional burial. Legally, I could ignore her preference, but I feel I must honor her wishes.

(MORE: Make Your Wishes Known Through End-of-Life Planning)

I visited two funeral homes and found the sales staff (also known as funeral directors) helpful and friendly. Each interview took an hour. One salesman nudged me toward more expensive services that I did not want, such as embalming. Open caskets require embalming, but my wife’s will remain closed.

Even so, Minnesota law requires embalming for anyone who won’t be buried within 72 hours of death. My wife has nine siblings, eight of whom would have to travel from other states, so I was unhappy to learn that. The salesman said Liz wouldn’t need embalming if I could find a cooler at a hospital or morgue, but that would cost me, too.

The other salesman told me not to worry; his funeral home has a cooler and doesn’t charge extra to keep the body for a few days.


Comparing Prices Isn't Easy

I urge you to comparison shop, but it’s not easy to compare prices. I created a spreadsheet to track just what I wanted. Ultimately, the second home, with the cooler, was 17 percent less expensive than the first.

I plan to save about $400 by buying a casket from Costco. Federal law requires funeral homes to accept a casket purchased elsewhere without charge.
Total cost for my wife’s funeral services, about $6,900.

The Search for a Cemetery

At first, I selected a Catholic cemetery to honor my wife’s family’s longstanding dedication to the Church. Things I needed to consider: the burial plot, which ranged from $1,610 to $3,750, depending on whether I wanted to erect a “monument,” which means a headstone (its cost: about $2,000). But to do so would mean buying two plots, which we won’t need because I will be cremated. Choosing a single grave meant being limited to a flat nameplate ($600-$1,000).

I drove through the cemetery and was saddened at the realization that snow hides the graves of those with flush markers. Then I learned that a spot could be had in a tasteful, above-ground mausoleum for $4,256 — just $400 more than the cheapest ground burial. That’s because it’s cheaper to open and close the mausoleum container ($800) than it is to open and close a grave ($1,230). The inscription on the wall would be included, and no grave liner was required.

I was all set to pay for the mausoleum when a friend at work asked me why I didn’t buy a grave from our union, the Minnesota Newspaper & Communications Guild. The union had acquired a number of plots in a merger and wanted to sell them cheaply to get them off the books.

I paid just $300 for a plot in one of the nicest cemeteries in the Twin Cities. Some of the services there will cost a little more, but the net savings is well over $1,000.

Brace yourself for remorse when you tour a cemetery or visit with a funeral director and then run home to get lunch for your dying loved one.
But spending money unnecessarily is no way to honor your loved one. In my wife’s case, it would only make her mad.


Here are links to three helpful resources to assist your funeral planning:

Dan Browning is an investigative reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. He previously wrote a series of articles about his wife, Elizabeth Cummings Browning, a bright, loving, mother and talented singer-songwriter who was diagnosed in August 2012 with probable frontotemporal dementia (FTD), the most common form of brain wasting that strikes people under 60. Read More
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