Skip to content

A parting gift: Navigating the difficult world of funeral costs

Aug. 05, 2020
10 min read
A parting gift: Navigating the difficult world of funeral costs

Just a few weeks ago, we lost my wife's 31-year-old brother in a car accident.

The hours and days following were exceptionally difficult, as you'd expect. But, to be frank, I wasn't prepared for the amount of frustration we'd face dealing with every logistical aspect of his death — starting with his funeral arrangements.

At the request of my brother-in-law's wife, and in the hopes of creating a resource to help others when tragedy happens, I'm sharing everything I learned from the funeral arrangement process. We hope this can help others save thousands of dollars, and avoid the unnecessary emotional rollercoasters you might face during the difficult but necessary task of working with a funeral home.

Funeral homes are a business

A funeral home is a traditional part of death in the U.S. It's a much-needed service that takes care of necessary logistics such as handling the body of your loved one, while also giving friends and family an opportunity to grieve and say goodbye.

And these services come with a big price tag because, at the end of the day, a funeral home is a business. So, how much do you really know about how a funeral home operates?

The day before we went to the funeral home to make arrangements, I called my father. For the last two years, he has (of all things) been working at a funeral home after three decades in the textile industry. As a family, we always wondered what drew him to this industry. But he's truly enjoyed the experience — and become a great resource.

Before the appointment, he walked me through how the arrangements conference should proceed and told me a few things to be wary of in terms of the price and services.

Check the prices

The Federal Trade Commission (which regulates funeral homes) mandates a general price list must be given to any customer in the funeral home to discuss funeral arrangements. He gave me his funeral home's general price list, so I would know ballpark price ranges for different services (understanding, of course, that his funeral home is in a different state and market).

Discuss your arrangements in advance

Don't do any paperwork until you've had a conversation with the funeral home. My father gave me a fair warning that not all funeral homes are created equally, and as a business, they may try to suggest unwanted or unnecessary products and services.

Be prepared to negotiate

All prices and services are negotiable in the funeral industry. Just because the funeral director suggests certain items doesn't mean they're necessary or required.

Related: What happens to your points and miles after you die?

Our funeral home experience

My brother-in-law's wife and I entered the local funeral home — a place my wife's extended family has had great experiences with over the years — faced with the unimaginable and surreal task of planning his final goodbye.

The funeral home liaison entered, introduced herself and expressed her sorrow for our loss. She started by having us fill out forms with basic information for the death certificate as well as the obituary (more on this later). She then asked what kind of arrangements we'd like to make, which I'd discussed at length with my brother-in-law's wife before we arrived with the assumption she may be too upset to lead the discussion.

A few minutes into the conversation, she nodded at me to speak her wishes.

We asked for a direct cremation and a two-hour visitation. The employee nodded and asked my brother-in-law's wife to begin filling out forms for the cremation and funeral home contract. This was odd, as we hadn't discussed the price and no price list had been presented. I politely asked if we could determine the cost before completing any paperwork, and explicitly requested the general price list.

The employee seemed caught off guard, and I could tell my request was not common.

After reviewing the price list, we told the employee our budget was $4,000 and that we would pay directly. She seemed a bit uneasy with that number but said she would do her best to match that price. Her "ballpark" number would be closer to $5,000. She then left to speak with the manager.

This was a moment of levity for my brother-in-law's wife and I. We looked at each other and said we felt like we'd entered a car dealership.

But it got worse.

When the employee returned, she said the best they could do was $8,000 — twice what we were willing to pay. My brother-in-law's wife, who had been relatively silent up to this point, instantly uttered, "no".

This provoked a truly awful comment from the funeral home employee, who said there was a life insurance policy from the company that employed my brother-in-law. My jaw hit the table.

In my opinion, she was implying we should have a larger budget because there was life insurance money to dip into. This was none of their business, of course, but they'd clearly researched my brother-in-law's employer. Visibly upset, my brother-in-law's wife said never mind to the visitation — just a private viewing and direct cremation.

The employee could tell she'd overstepped, and again left to go speak to her manager. Again, it felt like we were buying a car.

She returned with the final price of $3,400 all-in. And with that, my brother-in-law's wife agreed.

Not missing a final chance to give us a pitch, the employee tried to interest us in the assortment of urns and other artifacts around the room. You can guess our answer.

We completed the paperwork, and the employee made a point to say she was skipping over the life insurance assignment form, which allows customers to sign over life insurance policies to the funeral home, allowing them to take payment directly from the policy before sending the beneficiary the remainder ... minus an additional 3 to 5% handling fee.

As we left, our heads were spinning and our emotions were running high for all the wrong reasons.

Related: What happens to credit cards after a cardholder dies?

Tips for when you're faced with this difficult task

In retrospect, we learned a lot from this experience.

After selecting the funeral home, we discovered it had been bought by one of the large conglomerates and was now under their management. The feeling of cold, corporate bureaucracy from a distant office was tangible in all our dealings.

Most people, I gather, are making funeral arrangements in an incredibly vulnerable condition. They tell the funeral home what they want, turn over the life insurance policy and price is either discussed only vaguely or never mentioned at all. People assume a funeral simply costs what it costs.

I hope this isn't the case, and I know there are great funeral homes that are transparent with their customers. But I'm saddened to know that many people likely turn over thousands of dollars they don't necessarily have — or need to spend — at a time when they are more susceptible to influence.

In addition to what I listed above, here are some things you need to know if you're ever in this situation:

Understand funeral financing

There are basically four ways people pay for funerals: Turning over the life insurance policy, funeral financing, prepaying by making arrangements before death and direct pay.

Be cognizant of what a funeral costs and know you're entitled to a general price list and can negotiate from there. After sharing my story, I've learned that, once a funeral home is aware life insurance is involved, the price of services can increase.

Know what's required

I don't want to get graphic, but this is the nature of the conversation.

For our 30-minute private viewing, a rental casket was offered, as well as embalming. This would have been an additional expense of nearly $2,000. My father told me a casket isn't necessary, as they do viewings with people dressed in clothes brought from the family and nice blankets all the time. We chose this option.

Embalming will depend on many factors, such as the condition of the body and time since death. I asked the mortician if my brother-in-law was viewable and asked to see him myself before anyone else in the family, so I could ensure he still looked like, well, himself. He did indeed, so embalming was not required.

Shop around

If you aren't in a place, emotionally, to compare funeral home services and prices when a tragedy happens, have a family member or friend you trust call and ask specific questions about the services you want. That way, you won't end up dealing with a car dealership masquerading as a funeral home, as we did.

Saving yourself or a loved one thousands of dollars and ensuring the funeral home provides the care and attention you deserve is no small deal. Better yet, do your research now and select who you want to use for yourself and make certain everyone in your family knows your wishes.

Avoid unnecessary costs

We filled out a generic form for an obituary, and the funeral home said they would send it to the local papers. The price? $250.

I thought this was odd and called our local paper the next morning. To file an obituary directly with them costs $135. You can imagine my feelings when I heard this. Trust your gut, and be wary of ancillary services or inflated prices. Again, it's a business.

Related: A comprehensive guide to airline bereavement fares

A parting gift

In the end, I used my Chase Freedom Unlimited to pay for the funeral.

This was a fitting parting gift from my brother-in-law, as we often discussed points and miles. Last year, I took him on a trip out west to a Mecum car auction using points and miles. I know he'd be happy to think of his last gift to me as one of my favorite things in the world: the ability to go out and create more memories. His daughter and wife will receive many trips courtesy of points and miles for years to come.

I spoke with my dad after making the funeral arrangements, and he was pretty upset to hear about what we'd endured. If you're not prepared, you could spend thousands of unnecessary dollars during this process. Our experience with this particular home was incredibly disturbing, and I've written a letter to the director outlining my concerns.

Many funeral homes, I know, do great work and help families in their time of greatest need. And if your wishes are for a huge funeral with all the extras, that's great. Just know it's going to be expensive and there isn't much you can do except prepare now.

Our family is grateful for the prep work we did that saved us $4,000. That's very real money his family will have to use for other things. That's why we're determined to tell our story. If nothing else, I know my brother-in-law is happy he earned me a few extra points, and that his story can help someone else.