Updated and adapted from the book “1,001 Things They Won’t Tell You: An Insider’s Guide to Spending, Saving, and Living Wisely,” by Jonathan Dahl and the editors of SmartMoney.
Additionally edited by Andrea Barnes, San Diego Memorial Society, Sept. 19, 2021
There’s no need to shop around. All mortuaries charge about the same thing.
Uh, not so fast…
First some history. According to the most recent data from the National Funeral Directors’ Association, the average cost of a funeral was roughly $6,200 in 2006. And that’s without a lot of fancy extras such as cemetery charges, flowers and video tributes. As of today, September 20th, 2021, The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) conducted a survey to calculate the median cost of a funeral. In 2019, the median cost was $7,640 without a vault; including the vault increased the cost to $9,135.
Back in 1984 the Federal Trad commission, looking to protect consumers who can be vulnerable when dealing with the death of a loved one, put in place the Funeral Rule of 1984,. This rule requires all funeral homes to provide a written price list with itemized fees. Nonetheless, some businesses still don’t offer it — or else they exclude simple options such as direct cremation or burial, as well as bundle things consumers aren’t required to buy, such as vaults or transportation services.
The best defense? Shop around, or have someone who is up to it do it for you. Or, better yet, let the San Diego Memorial Society pre-negotiate the pricing for you! We’ve been protecting consumers since 1958. Every year in December we go out and negotiate the pricing with our mortuaries for the upcoming year. Those prices are locked in for that year so you know you’re getting the best possible pricing that mortuary would offer anyone. Plus they won’t do any upselling of any kind.
Cremation prices vary dramatically. Look at the infographic below to see how varied they are. Even still, as we mentioned above. Shop around or call us for the best pricing.
“Cremation is hurting my profits.”
A USA Today article states, “A new report by insurance firm Choice Mutual found 44% of Americans plan on being cremated, a 40% increase from the 1960s. Traditional burials were the second most popular choice, with 35% of Americans preferring the method.”
When people call the San Diego Memorial Society to become a member I normally ask them if they are looking for cremation or burial. In my estimation, 90-95% of people are looking for cremation. Cremation is becoming a steadily more popular practice in the U.S. According to the Cremation Association of North America, the number of cremations constituted 36% of all deaths in 2008; by 2025 that figure is projected to reach almost 60%. Since cremation can cost up to a third less than the average funeral, this trend is bad news for funeral directors.
To pick up the slack in lost revenue, some funeral homes are promoting extra products and services. While grieving families are often relieved to hear that cremation can include such traditional funeral elements as a viewing and a memorial service, there are some things that are unnecessary. For example, cremation does not automatically involve purchasing a casket even if you plan to hold a viewing beforehand. (In that case, inquire about renting a casket from the funeral home.) Also, funeral directors who offer the most basic type of cremation are required to disclose their right to buy an unfinished wood box or an alternative container and are obligated to make such a container available.
As a member of the San Diego Memorial Society, you will not receive any high-pressure sales tactics or up-selling from our mortuaries. That is part of the agreement we have with our mortuaries.
“You don’t actually have to buy your casket here.”
One of the biggest funeral expenses is the casket. The price can range from under $1,000 to over $10,000. Funeral directors are required by law to provide a list of prices for every casket they sell before showing them, but they don’t always have every model they offer on hand. If you don’t see some of the less expensive models, ask about them. Most funeral homes have access to other caskets and can usually get them within 24 hours, says David Walkinshaw, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association.
What many people don’t know is that you needn’t purchase the casket from the funeral home at all. Third-party dealers selling reduced-cost caskets have sprung up in the past decade; caskets are now available for purchase over the Internet, at funeral-supply stores, and even at some Costco locations. Funeral directors are required by law to accept caskets purchased from these outlets, and they cannot legally charge you a fee for doing so.
“We’ll play your heartstrings like a harp.”
There are many ways to honor loved ones after they pass away. And funeral homes will pitch grieving relatives all kinds of services and features to memorialize the deceased – including a white-dove release and corrosion-resistant and non-rusting bronze caskets. One funeral home company even offers a 24-Hour Compassion Helpline (trademarked) and a grief management library.
Critics say that funeral homes sometimes rely on certain words to subtly influence customers. For example, funeral homes sometimes stamp “temporary container” on the cardboard box cremated remains are returned in—implying that the family will need to buy another urn. The word “temporary” is manipulative – the customer should decide what’s temporary and what’s permanent, says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Funeral directors “want you to buy a $200 or $400 urn.” Traditional is another word that can crop up in marketing materials, suggesting that transportation or steel caskets are part of a “traditional” funeral service, for instance. When a relative dies and you have to make the decision about which casket to buy, of course, you, of course, don’t want to seem cheap. “Don’t be intimated by emotional connotations of ‘traditional,’” says Slocum.
Pat Lynch, the president-elect of the National Funeral Directors Association, objects to the characterization of these services as any kind of disreputable tactic. “The vast majority of funeral directors are compassionate and sympathetic individuals,” says Lynch, who is also the president of Lynch & Sons Funeral Directors in Clawson, Mich. We here at the Memorial Society agree with his/her sentiments.
“Embalming is optional.”
Most people think embalming, the process of chemically preserving a body, is a necessary or even legally required part of the undertaking process. Not true: Embalming is almost never necessary in the first 24 hours and is not required at all in many cases—when you choose cremation or immediate burial, for example, or when plain old refrigeration is available.
If you opt to hold a public viewing, the funeral home may have an embalming policy in such cases. And it’ll likely encourage both. “The funeral industry stresses the notion that in order for anybody to come to terms with death, they must see embalmed bodies,” Slocum says. “That’s malarkey.” Funeral directors promote it, he says, not only for the embalming fee but also because if you’re paying for the embalming and beautifying of the body—which can average $500 and reach as high as $1,400 — it’s easier to sell you a fancier casket.
The NFDA’s Lynch says if families prefer not to have embalming, most funeral directors will attempt to accommodate their wishes, adding that there are sometimes practical reasons why embalming is advisable, particularly when there is an extended period of time between death and burial.
If your funeral home has an embalming policy and you’re opposed to it, ask if it will hold a private viewing for family members, without embalming. The bottom line? “Don’t feel obligated just because it’s [considered] normal,” Slocum says.
“You might not need me at all.”
Despite the common conception, only some states—including Louisiana, Nebraska, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Indiana, Michigan, and Connecticut—require you to hire a funeral director at all. In most places, it’s perfectly legal to plan and conduct a funeral in your own home. While there are no hard statistics on home funerals, “public interest is definitely growing,” says Lisa Carlson, author of “Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love.”
Experts say the option can make the grieving process more natural. “The privacy of a home funeral allows more time for intimacy and emotional expression rather than the one or two hours a person may have at a rented building,” says Jerrigrace Lyons, founder of Final Passages, a group that educates consumers about alternative funerals. For example, she says, family and friends can choose to build or decorate the casket as a form of grief therapy.
What’s more, people can save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in funeral costs. “They remain in charge and don’t end up spending for unwanted services and goods chosen at a very vulnerable time,” says Lyons.
Just a few months ago I spoke to one of our mortuaries here in San Diego and they said they can bring the body in the casket into the home as long as it’s on the first floor.
Note from Andrea Barnes: I had some reluctance in posting this article and edited the parts that I thought were too extreme and cynical.