What do funerals and weddings have in common? They’re both expensive and emotional. I planned both six months apart. Here’s what I learned.
The day after my grandmother died, I sat with my family around a conference table at a South Florida funeral home. We flipped through a 16-page “general price list” that ranged from affordable ($200 butterfly release) to extravagant ($2,200 horse-drawn carriage).
As a finance reporter, I thought it was all ridiculous. But my mom, dad, and uncle listened intently to how they could add on a buffet and invite 50 people to the funeral home for a service my grandmother never wanted. That’s why the average cost of a funeral is between $7,000 and $10,000, according to funeral service information site Parting.
Family members are willing to pay – and even go into debt – for funerals because they’re grieving the loss of a loved one and not thinking rationally.
“This is an event that has emotional significance to a family like a wedding, except it’s not a happy occasion,” says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. “We forget that a funeral director’s interest is not our emotional well-being – it’s their livelihood.”
As someone who planned both a funeral and a wedding in the same year, here’s what I learned about the “till death” part…
Contemplate your own mortality
How do you want to leave this world? My grandmother died in my parents’ home. Only two weeks before her death she was hospitalized and diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.
She loathed the idea of dying in the hospital. My parents brought her home knowing they didn’t own a hospital bed or have any experience in the medical field. She wasn’t wealthy and couldn’t afford long-term care.
Problems started the day she came home: She’d fall out of bed, vomit every meal on herself, and didn’t have the strength to make it to the restroom.
After four days my mom brought her a cup of morning tea and found her unresponsive, nude, face down on the floor. To make matters worse, she laid there for hours while we waited for a doctor to sign her death certificate so a nearby funeral home could pick up her body.
What happened to me: We visited the funeral home the next day to discuss how to handle her remains. It was the same place that took care of my grandfather when he died two years before. Grandma wanted the same cremation. She opened a life insurance policy following his death in the same amount, thinking it would cover the costs. That’s when my family and I learned a disturbing lesson.
The funeral director quoted us $700 more than my grandfather’s service. She explained prices are subject to change frequently. Funeral homes aren’t required by law to list prices online, in a day and age when that’s how most people comparison shop.
Meeting in person or speaking over the phone makes it difficult for people to haggle. My family called the first place we knew of while dealing with the time pressure of my grandmother’s dead body in their home.
What you should do: Plan ahead. As morbid as it is, contemplate your own mortality. Death and taxes are the only certainties in life. Consider everything from how you’ll have the body removed to whether you’d like a burial or cremation.
Compare prices. Shopping for a funeral should be the same as shopping for any other big purchase like a car, furniture, or home appliances. Funeral homes have competitors, and there may be a better deal down the road.
“We compare prices for iPhones, credit card interest rates, and home contractors, but we tend not to do it with funerals,” Slocum, the funeral industry watchdog, said. “And funeral homes know that you are not going to shop around.”
Funeral homes aren’t legally required to list their prices online, Slocum says, making it harder for customers to shop around.
He recommends you call or email multiple nearby funeral homes requesting a price listing to compare.
Avoid sales tactics
I remember the funeral home feeling like a bizarre retail store. There’s a showroom, similar to an appliance store or car dealership. There was a row of coffins all priced differently: The moderately affordable sedan (Plywood covered in cloth) to the Cadillac of coffins (Solid bronze) with all the bells and whistles.
The funeral director was using phrases like “sending my grandmother off with dignity.” As innocent and endearing that may sound, it was intentional for a sale, Slocum says.
There was no dignity in the way my mom found my grandmother. It only made her feel guilt and shame. Slocum told me, “it’s easy to persuade people in grief to do things that they normally wouldn’t.”
What happened to me: The funeral director my family dealt with was pushy and barely took the time to explain anything to us. Multiple times she left the room saying, “I have another family to take care of.” She did offer us coffee in styrofoam cups. We’d spend thousands of dollars at her business. Maybe we couldn’t buy her time but at least we got stale coffee.
But as Slocum told me, “It’s a sales job, right?”
What you should do: Stick to the plan. If your loved one wanted something extravagant – do it. But understand the funeral home director runs a business, and any add-on to the bill will only benefit them.
“A funeral director pays their mortgage based on how much you spend on the coffin,” Slocum said. “You can’t show your dead how much you love them by how much you spend on them. It’s materialistic nonsense. But we’re vulnerable to it because we live in a materialistic society.”
Avoid loans and credit cards to pay for it
My grandmother had a life insurance policy. We’d already learned it wasn’t enough to cover all the costs of her cremation. We also learned it wasn’t assigned to a specific funeral home.
I always had a feeling my grandmother knew she was dying six months before her diagnosis. It was right around when I got married. Looking back at my wedding photos and video, it was obvious she was weak.
I firmly believe she started planning for the end and opened a life insurance policy. She was a stubborn old Italian woman. I know she didn’t want chemotherapy treatment again and likely hid her illness so the insurance company wouldn’t deny her.
With all the steps she took, I guess she overlooked the fact you need to assign a funeral home to your policy. It’s something I didn’t even know of until I spoke with Slocum later on. Here’s a form outlining the details from New York Life, the same insurance company she used.
What happened to me: The funeral home wanted payment before performing any services. I remember my dad and uncle arguing with the funeral director. She was adamant that we had to pay upfront before they’d cremate her body. New York Life would later reimburse my dad once the policy cleared.
We didn’t have the cash. That’s when the undertaker offered a weird solution I’d never heard of: a funeral loan. Funeral loans typically have high-interest rates, says information site Funeralwise.com.
“Funeral loans are absolutely predatory,” Slocum said. “Typically people with good credit aren’t the types to need to take out a loan at a funeral home, are they?”
He was right. My dad didn’t have good credit, but he had a credit card. He charged it and we left – me personally feeling like I needed a shower.
What you should do: If you want your family to have a funeral, get a life insurance policy and update it over time as prices increase. Many life insurance companies offer preneed funeral insurance or burial insurance to protect your family from shouldering the bill. Funeral costs rise every year as people continue to live longer. Burial insurance will pay out to a designated friend or family member for your funeral expenses.
Preneed funeral insurance is typically assigned to a funeral home of your choice for pre-selected services.
Don’t fear death – talk about it
You don’t need to have a funeral. Tell your family to have your body cremated and throw a party at a relative’s home.
My family held an “end-of-life” party for my grandma in my neighborhood. It saved us $2,850 and everyone else from having to stare at an empty urn while eating bad food in an old, mildew-smelling funeral home.
And there are other options if you can’t afford a cremation.
Although the U.S. government doesn’t track the exact number, researchers estimate about 20,000 Americans donate their bodies to science every year. This option is clearly not for everyone, but medical facilities take care of cremation services.
At the end of the day, Slocum told me we need to embrace death. Talk about it and plan so our loved ones experience grief a little less when the time comes.
“American families are so far removed from reality in the death process – we are utterly terrified. We’ve got a complete pathology in our heads about dealing with death,” Slocum said. “Because of that, we have completely given our dead over to a commercial industry. They are selling grief back to us in the form of a product.”
Published by Debt.com, LLC