As the director of Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit that helps people avoid funeral fraud, I know all about mortuary mythology. (That’s what I call the collective “wisdom” about death, dying, funerals, and dead people.) Most Americans get their information about how to bury the dead from the people we pay to do it for us—not exactly the most disinterested source.
Funeral directors aren’t all crooks and making your living burying the dead is a perfectly respectable career. But they are in business to pay their bills. Even super-savvy shoppers let their brains go on vacation when they buy one of the most emotionally fraught and potential costly services. You don’t walk into the car dealer with a blank check and you shouldn’t do it at the undertaker’s.
Here’s how to get the send-off that fits your tastes and your budget.
You’re Going to Die, So Start Talking About It
Consumers call FCA by the thousands and talk about death in the subjunctive mood: “Well, I don’t need your services now, but if anything should ever happen to me. . .” Death is not an optional lifestyle choice that may not be right for you. Having suffered a heart attack at age 36, I can tell you you’re not too young to die, either. That conversation with your kids about how to budget, compare credit card rates, protect your online life? You need to have it about death, too. Funeral planning is family planning, and leaving the ones you love without the tools they need is like sending your kids out of the nest believing the stork is going to deliver their first baby.
No gleaming casket will put dear mom on the fast track to sainthood, and no plain pine box will insult dad. Whether you choose something simple or something elaborate, the dead will stay dead and our love for them will live on. So, what’s a “dignified” funeral? Whatever you decide and whatever fits your family’s emotional needs and budget. I’ve been to two-day affairs with the dead on display and I’ve been to homespun potluck memorial services at Uncle Stu’s house. There was no difference in the amount of laughter, tears, and hugs.
No, a Funeral Doesn’t Have to Cost $ 10,000
This figure gets bandied about as if it were a law of nature. The truth is a “funeral” can mean anything from a bare-bones cremation to a three-day viewing and procession to the grave (and anything in between). Local FCA groups do price surveys of burial and cremation costs and they routinely find a difference of thousands of dollars, all for exactly the same service. But if you do like most people and use the same funeral home every time, you’ll never know if you’re paying more than you need to. Would you make any other major purchase without comparing options?
Know Your Rights
Funerals are a “distress purchase,” so the Federal Tracde Commission’s Funeral Rule gives you specific protections. The rule requires funeral homes to:
- Give price quotes by phone
- Give you a printed, itemized menu of prices right at the beginning of any talk about arrangements
- Let you choose item-by-item (vs. forcing you to buy a package)
- Accept a casket you bought elsewhere or made yourself without charging a fee
- Be truthful about any laws that do or don’t require you to buy specific things
The Law Says What?
If someone—especially someone in the death business—tells you that the law requires or prohibits something, treat it as “pics or it didn’t happen.” Insist that they show you the actual law. Nine times out of ten, it never existed in the first place. Sometimes people are just passing along “what everyone knows,” and sometimes you’re being scammed to pad the bill.
Here are some things you should know:
- No federal or state law requires embalming for all deaths.
- No federal or state law requires embalming as a condition of viewing the body.
- No federal or state law requires a casket or a grave vault as a condition of burial, and there are no government standards for casket construction.
- Dead people aren’t a public health problem. You’re infinitely more likely to catch the flu from other mourners who are breathing and coughing.
- Most states don’t even require you use a funeral home. Yes, I’m saying it’s legal to do it pioneer-style and have a simple funeral performed entirely by the family.
For information and references, check out Dead Bodies and Disease, and the book Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, a candid look at the funeral industry with a chapter on the laws in each of the 50 states. (Full disclosure: I co-wrote the book.)
Prepaying Isn’t Magic
Except for folks who have to “spend-down” to qualify for Medicaid, prepayment isn’t usually in your best interests. Yes, the funeral home probably told your parents they’d lock in today’s prices and that everything was “all taken care of.” But the fact is, prepaid funerals are regulated differently in every state, and in many cases you can lose a great deal of what you paid if you cancel or change your mind before death. What’s more, kids whose parents prepaid for their funerals are some of the hardest consumers to help if circumstances have changed.
Bottom line: You can’t “take care of everything” for your family any more than you can guarantee them career success or a comfortable environment. Your family doesn’t need nice-sounding but unrealistic promises—they need you to help educate them on how to plan and carry out your final arrangements without confusion or overspending.
Josh Slocum is the Executive Director of Funeral Consumers Alliance and co-author of Final Rights: Reclaiming American Death. Follow him on Twitter @FuneralConsumer.
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Image via Kzenon (Shutterstock).