When someone has to make funeral arrangements, they often look to the funeral home for help. They select one of the three coffins suggested by the funeral home. Often it's part of a mid-priced package deal, one that includes pretty much everything you need, and then some. And in a lot of ways, it makes sense that we turn to the experts, especially if we've never had to make funeral arrangements before.
But there's a big problem with relying on a funeral home to help you make decisions: The people advising you have a vested interest in getting you to spend more.
A sales pitch at a funeral home
A funeral home is a business. And like any business, the pricier the arrangements, the more money they make. They're there to sell their products and services. Never was that made more clear to me than when my friend passed away quite suddenly last fall.
I remember sitting in the funeral home, listening to the director wrap up the viewing and direct us to the church.
And then he launched into an awkward sales pitch.
I wish I could remember it word for word, but it was a rough day so I can't. I do remember that he offered condolences, but he sounded scripted and monotone. I remember that he asked us to remember their funeral home in the future. I remember being creeped out by hearing a funeral home's sales pitch at my friend's funeral.
Now, that doesn't necessarily mean than the funeral home director was doing anything wrong, other than being weird and insensitive. But he did get one point across: This is a business.
And just like any type of business, there are some funeral homes that genuinely care about their customers, and there are some who choose to take advantage of people at a time when they're most vulnerable.
For instance, CNN Money reported that in 2011 the FTC did a spot-check of funeral homes and found that “nearly one in four had serious violations … involving their failure to properly disclose prices” and misleading customers about federal and state law. They also found “industry training tools … [that] reveal funeral pros sharing tips on how to hook grieving families into going over their budgets and to divert them from buying cheaper merchandise elsewhere.”
So if you select a funeral home just because someone recommended it or because it's close to home, you have a one-in-four chance of doing business with a shady funeral home.
And speaking of how people select a funeral home, often, they don't shop around, which could cost them thousands of dollars. CNN Money also reported that the cost of a traditional funeral varies widely. For instance, a funeral in Atlanta could cost $3,890 or $11,595, and those two quotes were from funeral homes within a five-mile radius of each other.
Why families end up overpaying for funeral services
We know we should shop around, just like any other purchase.
The problem is that shopping for funeral services isn't just like any other purchase. It's an emotional time. Often, family members are in shock. Grief, by itself, can be all-consuming. Add to that all of the arrangements, everything that has to be done in just a few days' time: decisions, flowers, gathering photos, dealing with certain family members (you probably know the ones), and a whole slew of unexpected expenses. Maybe they've never had to make funeral arrangements before. They're lost and overwhelmed.
They also might be pressured into paying more. “Funeral directors say you don't want to skimp because funerals aren't just about the deceased,” reports Terry Sheridan for FOX Business. “The ritual involved in burying a loved one provides support and healing to the family, they say. But consumer advocates caution that this is how funeral directors make a living.”
And in addition to the emotional aspects, most people simply don't know their rights. (I didn't before writing this article!) For instance, some funeral homes will tell you that you have to buy the coffin directly from the funeral home, which goes against the Funeral Rule. Or they'll say that a certain service is required by law, when in fact the FTC does not require the service at all.
How to get a fair price during a difficult time
No one wants to think about planning a funeral. And I suspect that any specific advice you've read today won't exactly be the first thing you think of when you're faced with the loss of a loved one and have to make plans.
So I think that the main things to remember are, one, to shop around — which you can do on the phone — and two, that you have a lot of rights under the FTC Funeral Rule, including:
Only buying the goods and services you want. You don't have to buy a package deal.
Getting price information on the phone, without providing your contact information.
Getting a written, itemized price list of all the items and services available.
Seeing a written price list for caskets before you actually see the caskets, so you can ask about any lower-priced products that may not be on display.
Getting a statement listing every good and service you've selected, the price of each, and the total cost immediately after you make the arrangements and before you pay.
Providing the funeral home with a casket or urn bought elsewhere, which they must handle without any additional fees.
You might not remember these bullet points, but maybe you'll remember that the Funeral Rule exists, and you can reference it if you ever have the need. Also, the FTC provides a funeral pricing checklist to help you shop around: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0301-funeral-costs-and-pricing-checklist#Funeral_Pricing.
Finally, when some funeral directors say that the “ritual involved in burying a loved one provides support and healing to the family,” I wholeheartedly agree.
Only it's not the ritual of buying the most expensive casket that heals, it is the ritual of support other people offer that gets you through. And I think part of that support can even include the logistics of making funeral arrangements, so consider ways that others can play a supportive role. It may be comforting to have a friend or family member whose opinion you trust help you shop around and make decisions. Someone who has your and your family's best interests at heart will be glad to take the burden for you.
Author: April Dykman
As a freelance writer, editor, and blogger, April Dykman specialized in personal finance, real estate, and entrepreneurship topics. Her work has been featured on MSNBC, Fox Business, Forbes, MoneyBuilder, Yahoo! Finance, Lifehacker, and The Consumerist. Now she does direct response copywriting but, in her free time, April is a wannabe chef, a diehard Italophile, and a recovering yogi.