Most of us will never confront the kind of horrors recently uncovered in Georgia, where corpses were left piled at a crematorium, or in Florida, where a cemetery is accused of dumping remains in the woods. But even mundane difficulties can be hard to deal with in the hours after the death of a loved one. While you can never prevent the emotional pain, you can prepare yourself for dealing with the financial issues.
With the typical funeral now costing almost $9,000, a lot is at stake. That figure, from the National Funeral Directors Assn., doesn't include buying the tombstone and cemetery plot (a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars each), digging the grave, installing the tombstone, buying the death notice, and taking care of the minister, musicians, florist, and any caterer for the wake. It's easy to spend 10 grand, says Lisa Carlson, executive director of the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance.
CASKET SHOPPING. It's getting simpler to shop for these services, though. Federal regulations require funeral homes and crematoriums to give prices over the phone. If you show up in person, they must provide a written price list breaking out their basic fee, plus what they charge for caskets, vaults, and grave liners, as well as such extras as embalming and the use of a limousine.
Funeral homes must allow you to buy a casket elsewhere without charging extra. Sally Hurme, a consumer-protection advocate at the AARP, suggests going on the Internet to get an idea of what you like and how much you want to spend before visiting a funeral home. Manufacturers such as Batesville Casket and Aurora Casket display models on their sites, and WebCaskets.com and CasketXpress.com market over the Internet.
Because of shipping costs and worries that the casket may not arrive in time, you might instead want to buy locally. But you can use the prices to try to negotiate a break on the same or a similar model.
BACKGROUND CHECKS. There are other ways to cut costs, too. Some cemeteries don't require a vault or grave liner. Embalming may not be necessary if you don't plan a visitation. Instead, have a quick, private burial or cremation followed by a memorial service. Go with a less expensive casket -- pricey "sealer" caskets don't really prevent decay, says Robert Vandenbergh, president of the National Funeral Directors Assn.
Although it's unlikely that families had any way to foresee the problems in Georgia and Florida, you can check out funeral operators with your state's funeral regulatory board, the local Better Business Bureau, or a consumer organization that monitors the industry, like Carlson's group. Meet the funeral home director, crematory operator, or cemetery manager and ask for a tour. Get recommendations from friends and neighbors.
For cremations, Carlson suggests asking if family and friends can attend. Even if you have no intention of doing so, being told you can't is a bad sign. With more than 25% of Americans now being cremated -- up from less than 10% in 1980 -- crematories are becoming more consumer-oriented, with visitation areas so family and friends can be present during the cremation.
WRITTEN INSTRUCTIONS. A prepaid funeral might sound like a good solution: You choose the funeral you want and ease the burden for survivors. But too often, Carlson warns, people who do so later move outside the funeral home's area, or their survivors are disappointed with what's provided and wind up paying extra for something else. If you do pay up-front, make sure your money, plus interest, will be held in a trust, guaranteed by the state, and that it's mostly refundable if you move or change your mind.
A better idea is to do some shopping and then tell relatives in writing what you want. Make sure they know where to look for your instructions. You can set aside enough to pay, perhaps in an account held jointly with whomever will handle arrangements.
There is a bright side to this grimness. The trend toward cremations -- which on average run $1,200 -- and competition from low-cost providers is pushing down the cost of dying. That should at least make the shopping a bit less dreary. By Carol Marie Cropper