After learning his father had a terminal illness and only a few months to live, Ed Howard tried to plan ahead for a funeral service, spending hours calling around to compare costs. But even though he's a consumer lawyer, he still got tripped up. He didn't realize until much later that Costco sells moderately priced caskets . He was also surprised by the pricing of headstone engraving, especially that it would cost by the letter. "I didn't even know to ask about that," says Howard, senior counsel for the Center for Public Interest Law, in San Diego.
Funerals can be one of life's largest expenses, costing an average of $7,000. But people often avoid thinking ahead about expenses, and they usually aren't in the mood to comparison shop just after a death. Instead, they face funeral spending decisions while consumed by grief and short on time, says Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA), a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes transparency in funeral pricing.
People typically choose a funeral home because it's close to where they live, their relatives used it the last time a family member died, or there's a possible religious or ethnic tie, FCA's surveys show. It's not the way people buy cars or appliances. "There's a complete lack of shopping behavior when it comes to funerals," Slocum says. Yet calling around can reveal huge price differences: In Burlington, Vt., for example, a cremation can cost anywhere from $900 to $3,500, depending on the funeral home, Slocum says.
And while the Internet has altered many consumer shopping habits, evaluating funeral home pricing still requires old-fashioned legwork. Since 1984, the Federal Trade Commission has required funeral homes to provide consumers with an itemized price list of services. A funeral home director must give you the list in person at the funeral home or quote it over the phone.
But the rule doesn't require that funeral homes post the price lists on their websites, except in California. That can make comparison shopping difficult. Only 16% of funeral homes posted their full price lists online, the FCA and the Consumer Federation of America found in a recent survey of 193 funeral homes in 25 cities.
Avoid Overpaying for Funerals
The Funeral and Memorial Information Council, an association that represents the funeral industry, has tips and a checklist of questions at talkofalifetime.org . For instance, use a photo album to prompt a discussion with a parent or spouse about what is important in life and how he or she might want to be remembered. Knowing your loved one's wishes in advance may help when you are pressed for time following a death. "The most important thing is to talk to your loved ones," says Pasquale Folino, an owner of Thomas L. Neilan & Sons Funeral Home, in New London, Conn.
Understand the options. You or a loved one can choose anything from a basic cremation to a long wake before a funeral. You can keep the body at home for visitation or hold a funeral home viewing. The FCA lists a four-step funeral planning process at funerals.org .