At around $7,100, a traditional funeral with burial and a viewing is a large expense for most families. The costs, which are often compounded with grief over a loved one’s passing, can make planning as emotionally draining as it is financially exhausting.
The key to a successful funeral experience is doing as much of the work and research as you can before you need it.
“Look at this as a business transaction the same way that you would look at buying a car or selecting a contractor,” says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA), a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization for the funeral industry.
Preparing yourself with these next few bits of information can ease some of the stress involved.
Here are 5 things you should know before you plan a funeral:
1. Your Loved One’s (or Your Own) Wishes
Much of the conflict that can arise when planning a family funeral can be avoided if the family knows exactly what their loved one wants before they pass away.
“The best time to have a funeral planning conversation is while the person is still alive,” Slocum says. He suggests pre-planning by having an open conversation with the family members who will survive you so you will make the process easier and calmer, and “it will cause you less anxiety to start [planning] before [a family member] dies.”
The conversation should be detailed and helpful. Slocum suggests focusing on what would be meaningful for the deceased and how the deceased wants to be celebrated, but also what would be meaningful and manageable for those left behind. He or she should put their desires in writing as well, letting a designated family member know where to find the document when it is needed.
Having the deceased’s wishes in hand can also help curb any impulsive or unnecessary expenses during the planning process.
“You don’t want to be cheap or feel like you’re not giving that person what they deserve, but how much you spend does not equate your love for that person,” says Rachel Zeldin, founder and CEO of I’m Sorry to Hear, an online service that helps consumers search and compare prices for funeral services in their area.
The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) encourages having “the talk of a lifetime” through their program with the same title. They provide tips and information about speaking with your loved ones about death at talkofalifetime.org.
2. How to Shop for a Funeral Home
Pricing for the same services can range widely for different funeral homes in the same metro area. According to a recent survey by the FCA and Consumer Federation of America, the price of a direct cremation ranges from as low as $495 to as high as $7,595 nationwide, among the 142 funeral homes they surveyed. With that in mind, you should shop around.
“The most important thing is to be a smart shopper. Don’t just purchase from the funeral director your family has always gone to,” said Slocum. Even if you do use the same director, he says if you shop around, “at least you can use them with peace of mind that you didn’t overpay.”
You should begin your search online, and call or visit the funeral homes to get price lists to compare. I’m Sorry to Hear has a comparison tool you can use to search through funeral homes in your area. You should also check to see if there is a local FCA in your area, as they will likely have compiled and sorted a list of providers and pricing in your area.
3. The Funeral Home’s Licensing Status
Double-check to ensure that the funeral home you’re considering is licensed. The requirements vary from state to state, but most require some length of formal education and regular continuing education for funeral directors to remain licensed. For example, Alabama requires funeral directors to complete high school, two years of apprenticeship, and get eight hours of training every two years. The NFDA has a full list of each state’s requirements online. In most states, the license is also required to be displayed in a public area.
Stephen Kemp, a board member of the NFDA and the director of Haley Funeral Directors in Southfield, Mich., advises checking before you speak with the director, as “there have been cases of unlicensed people doing licensed work in areas that don’t have checks and balances.”
Checking first could save you time and money, since using an uncertified funeral home could cause delays in filing paperwork and services, or possibly lead to legal trouble.
“The whole purpose of licensing and being professional is so that the family has some recourse,” said Kemp. “This is not just somebody taking care of car parts. This is your mother, father, child, infant, who you cared about, and you are entrusting us with that responsibility.”
In addition to access to a wealth of knowledge and expertise, when you work with a licensed director you have an extra layer of legal protection with the licensing organization. If the director doesn’t follow through on promises or acts unprofessionally, you could report them to the state’s licensing board, and they can be penalized accordingly. Unlicensed work is also illegal by nature and could mean delayed or incomplete work for you.
4. The Budget
According to Kemp, much of the misunderstanding between consumers and funeral directors comes from two issues that the consumer can solve before they arrive:
1. The family doesn’t know what kind of service they want to have, and
2. The family does not come in with a budget.
We just addressed planning the funeral before you show up. In addition to that (and just as you would with any other large purchase), you should know how much you plan to spend on the entire funeral from the service, to the casket, to the disposition.
Come in with a firm budget and be prepared to stick with it. “Don’t get upsold or cross-sold on the viewing before the cremation,” advises Zeldin.
5. Your Rights and Protections
The most important thing you should know when you are speaking to a funeral director is that you have federal consumer protections under the Funeral Rule, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission.
The rule grants you the right to:
- Buy only the arrangements that you want, so don’t feel obligated or forced to buy a package that includes services that you don’t want or that aren’t required, such as embalming.
- Get price information over the telephone without providing personal information such as your name, address, or telephone number.
- A written price list or general price list that should include all of the funeral home’s services, which you can see when you go there in person. You’re allowed to take that list home with you, too. Every funeral home should have similar lists since standard items are required to be on it.
- See a written price list for caskets and outer burial containers before you see them. Sometimes the casket list is on the general price list, but usually it’s on a separate price list, so you might have to ask for it. Remember: caskets are not legally required for cremation in any state, and outer burial containers are not required by state law anywhere in the U.S. either.
- Provide the funeral home with a casket or an urn that you didn’t buy from them. The rule says the funeral provider can’t refuse to handle or charge you a fee to handle a casket or urn that you bought elsewhere.
- Get a written explanation for any legal cemetery or crematory requirement that requires you buy any funeral goods or services.
- A written statement of everything you are buying before you pay for it. The funeral home has to give it to you right after you make the arrangements. That way, you can look over it and see each component that you are buying and the cost associated with it.
With these 5 things in mind, you should be all set for your conversation with the funeral director. Read this article before you head over to the funeral home to find more information about how that process should go.