Planning a Funeral With a Budget

Carrying the casket
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The loss of a loved one takes a heavy emotional toll––and if you’re not careful, it can take a financial one as well.

A recent study conducted by the Funeral Consumers Alliance and the Consumer Federation of America examined the pricing practices of 200 funeral homes, and found that only 53 of them posted any product prices online; an even smaller fraction provided the full pricing information. This is a problem because today’s consumers use the same process of online browsing to organize funerals as they do to shop for other consumer goods. Add to the equation the fact that the purchasing decision is likely made when you’re at an emotional low, and it’s not surprising that some buyers are feeling remorse.

So, what can you do to protect yourself and your loved ones?

Plan Ahead

First and foremost, set a budget. “When people plan funerals, they forget the most basic things that they know to do when they make other big-ticket purchases,” says Joshua Slocum, executive director of Funeral Consumers Alliance. Slocum suggests asking yourself: “How much does my family have that we can comfortably put towards the funeral, without destroying our finances?” According to a National Funeral Directors Association study, funerals cost an average of $7,640 in 2019. These median costs include funeral with viewing and burial. But this amount doesn’t include a cemetery plot, the digging of a grave, or the concrete vault that many cemeteries require.

You’ll be in a better position if you discuss in advance funeral arrangements with any family members or friends whose funerals you are likely to be involved in planning or paying for. (For most people, the list is relatively short.) Ask specifically: What kind of burial would you like? What kind of service? What kind of memorial? Revising a will is a good, relevant time to tee up these sorts of conversations. That way you can avoid being “caught in a situation where you need to make immediate decisions when you would prefer to focus on the loss of a loved one,” says Stephen Brobeck, former executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.

Shop Around

Yes, the idea might sound morbid. However, “surveys show that nearly all consumers go to a funeral home because they remember using that funeral home last time someone died, or it’s the ‘family funeral home,’” says Slocum. This is a pricey mistake: A cremation that costs $2,000 at your “family funeral home” could cost $800 at another one in the area. 

Because of the lack of price-related information on funeral home websites, the best thing to do is to pick up the phone––or visit funeral homes in your area before there’s a need. (Brobeck recommends visiting at least five.) If this number seems too ambitious, two or three is probably plenty, as long as you meet the director and pick up what’s called the General Price List.

Know Your Rights

In 1984, the Federal Trade Commission issued something called the Funeral Rule, specifically so that grief-stricken consumers would be able to make better-educated decisions. It found––through the experiences of hundreds of secret shoppers who were posing as grieving family members to purchase funeral services––that consumers know very little about the process. “Consumers are usually in mourning when they shop for funeral services, so they may not be in the best frame of mind to seek out the best prices, which often puts them at a disadvantage,” says Brobeck.

The rule requires giving consumers a printed, itemized price list at the very beginning of any funeral arrangement meeting, even if they don’t specifically ask about prices. Consumers also have the right to “go à la carte, so to speak,” says Slocum. “Don’t think you have to get the whole package they may be pushing you to get.” This means you don’t have to buy a full package that might include services or items you don’t want. You can buy separate goods (like a casket or an urn) and services (like embalming).

Try to Remove Your Emotions From the Process

Finally, try to put some distance between your grief and your wallet. “The minute your emotions start telling you that money is no object in this situation, you are already dragging yourself down a bad path,” Brobeck says. “You can’t show love for the dead by spending money.” However, you can show some respect for yourself and any others footing the bill by not spending more than you can reasonably afford.