Monday Author: Susanne Skinner
“In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
Ben’s words ring true. Nobody gets out alive; death comes with a process and a price. I never gave it much thought until I began to prepare for my Dad’s funeral. I wanted to pre-pay it which led to research and my return to a local funeral home. It’s not that I didn’t know about funerals, it’s just that I’ve never purchased one.
When it comes to deciding what you want and what that will cost, buying a funeral is exactly what it sounds like. Death care, as it’s often called, is a business and within that business you will find marketing, upselling, federal and state laws and an education.
Not All Funerals Are Equal
The funeral home I selected is privately owned; a family-run business in the town my Dad lives in. It’s the same one that handled my Mom’s funeral and, although I accompanied Dad, I did not sign papers or look at costs.
Dad and I talked about what he wanted, but I had no idea what it would entail. I made an appointment and within a few hours I knew everything about the business of buying and planning a funeral. At no time did I feel taken advantage of or pushed into something I did not want and I left knowing exactly what it would cost.
That is not always the case. Some funeral homes are part of a mass marketing price controlled network like SCI or Dignity. They can buy up every funeral home, crematorium and cemetery in a town and erase competitive pricing. You may think you are shopping around, but if their logo appears on the business, the prices are controlled by the corporation. When competition is lowered, prices go up.
Most people begin the process of planning a funeral when they have a funeral to plan. That sounds silly but it’s most often done in the midst of grieving and with little to no knowledge of process or costs. Families are coerced into paying for things that are unnecessary or have steep markup costs.
The gentlemen I met with began by explaining Maine state law. Each state has its own rules, and Maine’s are written for the protection of the business and the consumer. In Maine the funeral home is not permitted to hold a pre-payment. I was required to write the check to an interest-bearing trust account, where the full amount remains until I use it. Some states only require fifty percent be placed in trust.
If the money is not used immediately, the trust sends an annual 1099 statement. There is a small processing fee if I decide to cancel the contract and Maine requires a signed statement acknowledging that once the body is reduced to ash it cannot be restored. I know what you’re thinking…and you’d be surprised.
The Funeral Rule
The Funeral Rule, enacted in 1984, requires that funeral businesses give consumers an itemized price list when they talk to them in person, and provide clear price information when they ask for it over the phone. Known as the general price list, it is meant to help consumers know what they want and filter out what they don’t.
Keep in mind that not all of the charges are those of the funeral home. They include charges from outside vendors so you don’t receive multiple bills. This includes the crematory’s fee, the obituary notice (charges range from hundreds to thousands), transportation fees, funeral staff at a service, certified copies of the death certificate, and fees for musicians, ministers, and the use of a church.
Funerals are #3 on the FBI’s list of scams targeting seniors. It’s a business with a dark side, and grieving families are an easy mark. Knowledge is power and in the funeral business an informed consumer is a protected consumer.
Funeral costs vary widely and have significant mark-ups. For example, a cremation typically ranges from $2,000 to $4,000 if arranged through a funeral home and from $1,500 to $3,000 if arranged directly through a crematory. Although the cost of cremation depends on locale, it’s substantially less than the cost of a full-body burial, one of the reasons for cremation’s acceptance and popularity.
Since my Dad is being cremated, a number of other charges were included for related paperwork, goods, and services:
- An original death certificate and additional costs per copy
- A certificate releasing the body for cremation, issued by a medical examiner
- Transporting the body from the place of death to the place of cremation
- Prayer cards
- A container for cremation and an urn for the cremains
- Local newspaper obituary
Dad is a veteran; the paperwork for burial at Arlington National Cemetery was included at no additional cost
Incidental charges add a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to the cost of cremation; the priciest being a casket. Costs range from $275.00 for a simple cardboard or wooden version to $35,000 and over. Not everyone will purchase a casket, but some families want one for a service prior to cremation. You do not have to purchase a casket from a funeral home—Costco and Walmart sell them.
There is also a full line of memorial jewelry and many of the pieces contain small compartments for ashes. Tubes and pots in wood, marble, glass and metal are also available as personal keepsake urns.
Every one of us will eventually do business with the death care industry. Be an informed consumer. Know who you are dealing with and what you are purchasing.