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Planning Ahead for Final Arrangements

By , Caring.com Senior Editor
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Planning for a funeral or memorial

Ironically, final arrangements commonly associated with death -- including obituary notices, services, burial or interment, and more -- are among life's most expensive purchases, running an average of $6,000 for basics and well over $10,000 when flowers and limos are added to the total. Surviving family members' guilt and grief, combined with greed on the part of some unscrupulous industry providers, often complicate the picture. There are, however, ways to plan in advance for final arrangements.

Get wishes in writing

Ideally, you and the person you're caring for should discuss and plan for these needs during his lifetime -- ensuring that any final ceremonies and goods such as caskets or urns are in keeping with his tastes and wishes. To remove doubt, it's best to get his specific directions in writing. You might be surprised to find out that most people, particularly older adults, have quite specific ideas about what they envision happening after their deaths -- and most of them are relieved to express them.

Such written directives won't be legally binding on anyone, but they usually speak loudly and clearly to family members who might want to second-guess or contradict those wishes. And a record of desires for final arrangements made with a funeral or memorial society can act as a legal contract.

Many people in our death-averse society simply avoid having this conversation for as long as they can. But without advance written instructions, it can be difficult to decide on the best fit in terms of preferences, beliefs, and budget when it comes to matters as deeply personal as funeral or memorial arrangements. And during the vulnerable time after a death, surviving family members are often ill-equipped to ask the right questions and do the comparison shopping that's required to make wise choices.

The role of funeral homes and mortuaries

Fortunately, most funeral homes and mortuaries are equipped to handle many of the details related to disposing of a person's remains. These include:

  • Collecting the body from the place of death
  • Storing the body until it's buried or cremated
  • Making burial arrangements with a cemetery
  • Preparing the body for burial
  • Arranging to have the body transported for burial

By looking into arrangements ahead of time, you can -- and should -- compare the services and costs that local establishments offer.

Consumer Rights in the Funeral Industry, and Nonprofits That Help Consumers Get a Fair Deal

There has been a degree of public outcry over questionable practices by some members of the funeral industry. But laws now prevent some of the worst of these, and memorial or funeral societies help consumers find reputable mortuaries.

Legal controls in the funeral industry

The Federal Trade Commission passed its FTC Funeral Rule (amended in 1994) to stem what it perceived as a tide of consumer abuses by the funeral industry. The regulation requires that those who provide death goods and services must give written price lists to those who visit a funeral home, and they must also disclose prices and other information to those who ask for it over the telephone.

In addition, the law enables consumers to select and purchase only the goods and services they want, rather than having to accept an entire package, and it clamps down on untoward practices such as false or unclear advertising.

However, as is true of many laws, this one contains a rather large loophole. Under the FTC Funeral Rule, mortuaries are free to tack on a nebulously labeled "basic services fee" for conferring about the arrangements, filing death certificates and obtaining copies, coordinating plans with a cemetery and crematory, securing permits, preparing notices, and providing other similar services. Consumers are not legally allowed to decline to pay this fee, but if the cost seems out of line with what's being promised, they should negotiate to lower it. Charges for other amenities that mortuaries commonly provide, such as limousine and chapel services, may also be negotiable.

Help from memorial or funeral societies

Whether or not money is the overriding issue in deciding on final arrangements, there is a growing consumer preference to keep them simple. For this reason, many people join funeral or memorial societies -- nonprofit consumer groups that help them find local mortuaries committed to dealing honestly with survivors and to charging prices that accurately reflect the value of their services.

The cost to join these organizations is low -- usually $20 to $40 for a lifetime membership, although some societies charge a small periodic renewal fee. (Many societies also offer "at-need" memberships, allowing survivors to purchase a membership after a death.) Generally, members receive a form upon joining that allows them to specify the goods and services they want and assures that they'll get them for a specified price. While the cost is set when the agreement is entered, usually no payment is made until after the services are provided.

Societies differ in the specific services they offer, but most of them can provide information on options and any legal controls that apply to final arrangements.

Finally, many societies also serve as watchdogs, making sure that individuals get and pay for only the services that were specified.

To find a funeral or memorial society near you, look in the Yellow Pages online or in the telephone book under Funeral Information and Advisory Services.

And for more information on organizations that provide for final arrangements, see our list of resources.