In the hours and days after a death, surviving family members or friends are often forced to make a number of decisions about buying funeral goods and services -- often at great expense. But even in the best of times, many consumers are ill equipped to wade through the hype and misconceptions and to make wise choices.
Here's a look at the top five traps that commonly ensnare consumers -- and tips on how to avoid them.
Trap 1: Purchasing packages
Most funeral providers offer a bundle or package of goods and services, which typically includes charges for everything from securing paperwork (such as death certificates and permits) to use of vehicles for transporting the body and family members. Some consumers find this a help that allows them to avoid guesswork and difficult decision making during a time when they're feeling stressed and vulnerable.
But it can also be expensive. A package for a traditional service with burial rather than cremation -- often called a "full service" or "classic" funeral -- has a nice ring to it, but it typically costs in the range of $3,000 to $6,000, excluding the high-ticket items of a casket, cemetery plot or crypt, and graveside service. Even cremation packages can range in cost from about $500 to $3,000, depending on whether the provider owns a crematory or contracts with an outside service.
How to avoid the trap
The only way to know whether a package is a good buy or a bad gouge is to scrutinize the specific goods and services included and to remember that you have the legal right to exclude -- and not pay for -- goods and services that you don't want or need.
As an added consumer protection, the federal Funeral Rule, which controls industry practices, forbids an establishment from refusing to serve consumers who choose not to purchase a particular item or service, such as a casket or embalming.
Trap 2: Buying a costly casket or container
Caskets are generally the most expensive item associated with traditional funerals, priced from $500 for a simple pine casket to as high as $10,000 for one encased in bronze to $40,000 or more for a gold or jeweled model. And caskets have the highest markup of all funeral goods and services: typically 300 percent and sometimes as much as 650 percent.
The legislation controlling who can sell funeral merchandise is a bit confusing. But the laws in a number of states (including Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia) appear to require that funeral merchandise be sold by a licensed funeral provider. Still, the federal Funeral Rule forbids a funeral director from charging an extra fee or from refusing to handle a casket or container obtained from another or less expensive source. And some courts have held that the constraints about licensed providers don't apply to online sellers.
How to avoid the trap
A bit of inside knowledge from the funeral industry, which has studied consumers' habits, is that shoppers usually buy one of the first three caskets they see in a showroom -- generally, the mid-priced one. Commonly, showrooms are strategically arranged to display the most expensive models first. Wise shoppers will take the time to look at several models in various price ranges to and insist on seeing the lower-priced models if they aren't readily visible.
Caskets and containers are available from a growing number of sources, easily located and purchased online, that will ship them to a funeral home. Some people even choose to make their own, or to have one built by a handy friend. If this is your preference, be sure to make it clear before hiring an individual funeral director to handle the other final arrangements involved. You can find independent casket makers and artisans who specialize in making low-cost or unique caskets by searching online for casket purchase, or by going through a local branch of the Funeral Consumers Alliance.
Finally, most funeral establishments also offer rental caskets for circumstances in which a body will be cremated but there's a public viewing or a service at which the body will be present. Those who choose this option must purchase only a disposable liner. The cost of a rental casket and liner ranges from about $500 to $1,500. And if you opt for cremation and the funeral establishment offers a cremation service, it must offer containers for the cremains other than caskets, such as simple, unfinished boxes.
Trap 3: Preventing decomposition
Some consumers hold tightly to the notion that there are processes or products they can buy to prevent a body from decaying -- and some funeral providers do little to disabuse them of that thought. Embalming, caskets, and grave liners or burial vaults are sometimes assumed or pushed as ways to preserve a body. In reality, they don't work that way.
Embalming. When a body is embalmed, it's drained of blood and gases and pumped with replacement fluids to slow disintegration. Its effects are temporary, and the body will generally begin to decompose within a few weeks. To combat the common misperception that embalming has more permanent effects, the Funeral Rule expressly prohibits funeral directors from telling consumers that it will preserve a body.
Caskets. Some caskets are marketed with special extras such as seals, protective linings, and gaskets that imply they'll preserve the body inside. In reality, they usually just add to the expense. The Funeral Rule forbids providers from making any claims that a particular casket will help preserve a body.
Liners and vaults. No state or federal law requires a grave liner or burial vault, which differ slightly in form and function but generally keep the ground at a cemetery from caving in as it shifts over time. Grave liners, which cover the top and sides of a casket, are generally made of reinforced concrete. Burial vaults, also made of concrete or some other heavy material, surround the casket completely. Neither prevents a body from decaying.
How to avoid the trap
Consumers first must accept what some find to be a difficult truth: Dead bodies decompose. But there are inexpensive options that will preserve them for the temporary period that may be required for a public viewing or ceremony.
If presented with a casket that claims to have a specialized lining, seal, or gasket that delays or prevents decomposition, be skeptical. And if assured by the seller that it will do so, take your business elsewhere.
As a less costly alternative to embalming, refrigerating a body will also slow its decomposition until it is viewed or transported for burial or cremation. Most hospitals and funeral homes have facilities for holding or refrigerating bodies and will do so for free or for a minimal charge.
Comparison shop for grave liners and burial vaults. Most cemeteries require some type of outer surround to help prevent the ground from sinking. Those that sell burial containers must give you a list of prices and descriptions of them -- and again, they cannot prevent you from purchasing one from another supplier.
Trap 4: Prepaying without precaution
Shopping around for the most suitable and affordable funeral goods and services is a good consumer practice. However, be extremely cautious about paying for them in advance by entering a preneed contract.
Funeral home personnel often urge that prepaying is the wisest, kindest route, allowing individuals to choose their final arrangements while sparing survivors the pain of having to do so. For some people, that's true.
But there are potential drawbacks. For example, when a funeral home goes out of business, the consumer who has prepaid for goods and services there may be left without recourse. Also, many individuals who relocate are dismayed to find that their prepayment funds aren't refundable, or that there's a hefty fee for withdrawing or transferring them. In addition, money paid now may not keep up with the inflated costs of the future, leaving survivors to foot the bill for the extra amount. Many consumer protection groups flatly oppose the practice, instead recommending the mantra, preplan, don't prepay.
Consumer complaints about mismanaged funds have led to a number of state and federal legal controls on how the money can be handled and invested. The National Funeral Directors Association has also recently advanced guidelines aimed to ensure ethical dealings. Laws controlling prepayment funds currently differ from state to state. For specifics in your area, contact a local funeral or memorial society.
How to avoid the trap
Prudent possibilities exist for those who wish to set aside money to pay for final arrangements -- or to make sure they get what was paid for with prepayment funds.
Alternatives to prepaying. There are a number of ways to designate a particular account or fund of money to cover the cost of your final arrangements and arrange to make it available to individuals you trust to carry out your specific end-of-life wishes after your death.
Totten Trust. This is a trust or savings plan, set up through a bank or savings institution, earmarked to pay for final arrangements. You control the account during your lifetime and are free to withdraw from it at any time. Interest accumulated in the account will often cover the costs of inflation for funeral goods and services. And the funds will be available immediately at death, without being delayed by probate as they would if designated in a will.
Joint account. You can open a separate account, such as a certificate of deposit or shared bank account, with someone close to you who will agree to use the money for your funeral as you direct. Or you could name your estate as the beneficiary with directions to the executor of your will to use the funds for funeral costs. However, in this instance there may be some delay in releasing the funds while the will is processed.
Insurance. Life insurance or an annuity contract may provide for a death benefit that will at least partially pay the costs of final arrangements. You may choose the beneficiary you want to control the funds, and you can name a reliable friend or relative who agrees to carry out your wishes.
Prepayment safeguards. If you enter into a prepaid agreement, get a copy of the contract clearly explaining its terms. Review the document, including all fine print, before signing it. Tell friends and members of your family about it so that they won't unknowingly make other arrangements at the time of need.
Also be sure to get the answers to a number of basic questions about the arrangement, including:
Which items have guaranteed prices that will not increase at the time of death, and which are nonguaranteed (meaning the price may increase)?
Is there any control if the costs increase in the future?
Where will the preneed payments be invested? If they're to be used to buy an insurance policy, what's that company's rating? If payments go to a trust account, what bank or institution will be holding them?
What happens to interest that accumulates on the money paid?
What if the funeral home goes out of business before I die?
What if I move or die away from home and don't use the prepaid services?
If the funds are transferred to another funeral establishment, is there an added charge?
Can I cancel if I change my mind? Are there cancellation fees?
Trap 5: Embalming at all costs
Some people choose embalming -- the process of preparing a body to slow its disintegration -- because of custom, religion, or personal preference. As stated above, many others opt for the process because of a mistaken belief that it will preserve a body. And still others agree to embalming -- at an added cost of $100 to $700, depending on locale and facility -- because of real or perceived pressure from the provider.
Some funeral establishments will suggest or insist that embalming is necessary if there will be a public viewing of the deceased's body. In reality, however, it's rarely required by law.
While state laws differ, embalming is generally required in only a few circumstances, such as when:
A body will be transported by plane or train from one state or country to another.
There's a long gap in time -- a week or more -- between the death and a burial or cremation.
The rare situation in which the death occurred because of a communicable disease and embalming may protect the public from it.
As with other funeral practices that are frequently misunderstood by consumers, there are strong and specific legal controls that protect consumers. The federal Funeral Rule specifically requires that a funeral provider:
Must give a written, itemized breakdown of all embalming costs to those asking about funeral arrangements in person, or fully explain them if asked over the telephone.
May not embalm a body without permission.
Must disclose in writing that there is a right to choose a method of disposing of a body, such as direct cremation or burial, that doesn't require embalming.
How to avoid the trap
The first and best defense against being coerced into purchasing embalming that's unwanted or unneeded is to know the particulars of the law in your state. To find out about them, do an Internet search for law on embalming plus the name of your state. An added caveat is to then choose a site sponsored by an agency such as the state's department of consumer affairs or board of funeral directors or embalmers, rather than a site operated by a particular funeral provider or embalmer.
If a funeral provider fails to provide a price for embalming as required or violates other legal requirements, consider filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, the government agency that enforces the rules about fair practices in the funeral industry.