How to plan an Inexpensive Funeral: Part 1

Today’s blog entry about finding cost savings on funerals is a follow up to my previous entry, “How Funeral Directors Profit.” In that post, I examined how the funeral business has fostered conflict between their ability to both create profit while providing meaningful services. I don’t begrudge any business from making a profit. However, a century of profiteering business practices within the funeral industry has misguided otherwise well intentioned funeral directors. Many have compromised their ability to produce meaningful services that truly help people without hurting them financially.

The primary steps for creating an inexpensive funeral are no different than those you would take when trying to get a good deal in any shopping experience. The first step is knowing what you want in advance. If you don’t know what you want before you walk in the store, you are more open to being sold things you don’t really need. If you buy more TV than you really need, you can decide a week later to return it. But there is no returning the funeral on which you overspent.

The second step is to not feel married to the first funeral home or director you speak with. He or she may be the one of the best, most open minded and fair funeral director around, but you can’t know that until you speak with more than that one.

The third step is maintaining your ability to walk away. There is no better sale or deal available than the one made with the consumer who is willing to walk out the door.

As far as funeral specific advice, there is a plethora of ways to create meaningful funerals without high expenses. I will cover a few of the more general ways in today’s post. Hopefully, this advice will help you to save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. I will follow up with future posts that are more specific to individual funeral and memorial options.

Before you even consult a funeral director, it is valuable to know what is required by law. While not easy to read, the actual laws can usually be found online with whatever state agency that regulates funerals where you live. In New Jersey, this is the State Board of Mortuary Science, and they have a link to all the laws here.

There are a few common misperceptions involving laws about embalming, burial vaults, and caskets, which need to be cleared up. Many people are genuinely surprised when I inform them that embalming is not required by law, except under special circumstances. This is true in every state in the U.S. In New Jersey, the law states that embalming is required only in cases where the deceased is to be kept unrefrigerated for a period greater than forty-eight hours. I’ve been in the situation where a person died in a hospital with refrigeration facilities. The death occurred on a Wednesday, but the family didn’t want to have the service until Saturday. Had I picked up the deceased immediately, I would have been required to embalm her. However, having informed the family of their options, they chose to have me wait a day, avoiding the cost of this unwanted and unnecessary procedure. Most funeral directors will never make this offer under the guise that it is disrespectful and distasteful. The reality is they fear losing the business to another funeral home if they don’t have physical possession of the deceased. I prefer to consider it disrespectful to not inform the family of all their options, thus stripping them of their ability to make their own decisions.

Another common misperception is that outer burial containers or “burial vaults” are legally required. In NJ and most other parts of the country, burial vaults are not required by law, but are required by many cemeteries. Cemetery costs and requirements are extremely varied. In my time as a funeral director, I have dealt with cemeteries that don’t require vaults and charge $600 each for purchasing a grave and for opening it, resulting in a total cemetery cost of $1200. On the far extreme I’ve also dealt with cemeteries that require vaults that start at $800, sell graves at a minimum of $1000, and charge in the $1200 range to open it, for a minimum cemetery cost of $3000. By researching this in advance you can save thousands of dollars.

If you are buying a casket, you probably don’t need to pay the retail cost. Prior to the FTC forcing funeral homes to itemize their individual charges, the entire cost of the funeral was associated with the casket you bought. Since then, most funeral homes have kept casket prices very high. To get a better feel for the real cost of the casket, look to the many online casket sellers and big box stores. Look at what is available and see what you would like. Remember when making this decision that all caskets serve the same purpose, and the only real difference is how aesthetically pleasing it is to you. I’m not necessarily suggesting you purchase from an online casket store, after all, it’s still important to support your local businesses. However, knowing a truer cost of a casket can help you negotiate for a more reasonable price.

As you can see, being fully informed on your options and related laws can save you a great deal of money. Next week I will expand on this topic with details specifically tailored to cremation and associated services.

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9 Responses to How to plan an Inexpensive Funeral: Part 1

  1. Michael says:

    I just got off the phone with a funeral director friend of mine. She woke up, read my post, and got very upset with me, so she called me. This call was in direct response to the paragraph about caskets. “How can you direct people to casket stores for price comparison? They don’t have the same overhead as I do. I have to mark up my caskets or I won’t make any profit.”

    I inquired how often she had to discount her caskets in arrangements, and by what percent. The reluctant admission then came, most of the time and about one third off. I had to laugh at this (which did not get a very happy reaction). So I said what I’ve been saying for over a decade. “Why are you depending on the casket to make your profit? Why even mark up the casket at all? On your general price list you have a non-declinable item called Basic Services of Funeral Director and Staff. It states right on that item that it includes your overhead costs and costs of all the paperwork you do for people. Are you scared to tell people what it really costs you to run this funeral home by charging thousands of dollars for your services? If you make your money on the things that you offer of real value, then you don’t need to offer discounts because your prices will be fair to all parties.”

    There was no argument to that. I could hear over the phone the sound of unhappy resignation. I will admit, I’m not making any friends in my industry by talking about this stuff. And will my friend change her pricing structure? Probably not. The reality is nothing will really change until that change is forced. And that change won’t happen until more funeral providers and consumers start to realize they don’t have to be prisoner to an old fashioned way of doing things. When new trends start to affect the profits of the old funeral home, then they will have two choices, change or die. Either way, changes are happening, I think they are for the better, and I prefer to help promote the new ways then desperately grasp the outdated sinking ship.

  2. Glen F. Marshall says:

    The least expensive option that I’ve found was for my mother. It was a direct cremation and internment in an existing family plot, with a shared a marker with my father. Total cost was about $1200: cremation, shipment, opening, and stonework. We had a small family memorial gathering at no cost.

    • Michael says:

      Well done. From my experience and knowledge, it sounds like you got a pretty good deal. Unbelievably, there are huge discrepancies between what differing funeral homes will charge for a direct cremation. But based on the numbers you quoted, you found one of the less expensive places. Do you recall if they offered you either the option to come say a final farewell at the funeral home, or to go to the crematory for the same? If they did not, is this something you think might have been useful to you?

  3. Peggy says:

    Looking forward to hearing more about cremation in your next post. Ed and I both say, “Strip me for parts and burn the leftovers.”

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