Many questionable spending decisions stem from emotional distress and lack of knowledge. That's why many people overspend on funerals and burial services.
Few events are as stressful as the death of a loved one, and there are few purchases consumers are so clueless about.
"Most adult Americans - I don't care if they have a Ph.D. in economics - know nothing truthful about death, dying and funerals," said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the non-profit Funeral Consumers Alliance in South Burlington, Vt. "It's one of the most misunderstood transactions we ever encounter. People believe all kinds of things about funerals, about required purchases, that are simply not true.
"We know more about buying a DVD player, a plasma TV or a home stereo system than we do about burying our dead."
The key as a consumer is to try to separate your grief from the business transaction of buying funeral and burial products and services. It's not about cheaping out on a funeral. It's about providing a dignified farewell without wasting money - money that instead could be used by people still living or by charities, depending on where the estate passes.
Americans spend billions of dollars annually arranging more than 2 million funerals for family members and friends, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Funerals are among the most expensive purchases consumers will make in their lifetimes, with a traditional full-service funeral costing about $6,500; extras can easily push that price past $10,000. Cemetery costs are separate and can add thousands more.
Perhaps the most helpful advice comes from this rather morbid fact: No casket with gaskets, grave liner, burial vault, or any type of embalming - however expensive - will preserve a body indefinitely. It's against federal regulations for a funeral director to say they will. Spending extra money to try to do so is a waste. Acknowledging that fact can save you hundreds of dollars.
Of course, funeral spending decisions are foremost based on family preferences and religious issues, but here are a few consumer considerations:
Compare funeral homes.
In most states you don't need to use a funeral home, but assuming that most families probably will use one, know what you're getting into. Compare prices of products and services. Federal regulations require that funeral homes give you price quotes over the phone, so comparing is easy.
Explore your options.
Getting the right funeral for the right price is all about examining your choices and not blindly picking a package deal for a "typical" funeral. Funeral homes are required to give you a printed menu of options.
Embalming is optional.
Many funeral homes require embalming if you're planning a viewing or visitation. But embalming generally is unnecessary if the body is buried or cremated shortly after death. It is not a public health issue; embalming is purely for cosmetic purposes. In fact, the United States and Canada are the only countries in the world that routinely embalm the dead, Slocum said. Eliminating it can save hundreds of dollars.
Some funeral homes may hard-sell embalming because you're more likely to pay for a viewing and a costly casket to display the body, Slocum said.
You don't need a fancy casket.
The casket, typically with a 300 percent to 500 percent markup, is often the most expensive item you'll buy in making arrangements, ranging from about $2,000 to $10,000. The main purpose is to have a decent-looking box to hold the body if there will be a viewing.
Ask to see all the models because some funeral directors will at first show you only expensive ones. Or purchase a casket somewhere else, even online, and have it shipped to the funeral home. The funeral director must use it and not charge a fee for using a third-party casket.
Rent a casket for cremation.
Ask about paying a rental fee for a casket if there's a viewing, or eliminate the casket cost altogether if there's not. No state or local laws require a casket for direct cremations.
Beware at the cemetery.
Federal regulations that protect consumers for funeral purchases do not apply at the cemetery. For example, state laws do not require a vault or liner in the ground to protect the casket. Cemeteries might require them but only because it keeps the ground from settling and makes lawn mowing easier. It has nothing to do with the body.
You can shop elsewhere to buy an outer burial container if the cemetery insists on one. The same goes for headstones.
Finally, don't be surprised to be hit with additional charges totaling hundreds of dollars for digging and filling in the grave.
Plan your own funeral.
Much of the headache of funeral arrangements can be avoided by making your wishes known to loved ones. Put your funeral preferences in writing. This does not mean prepaying for a funeral, an idea many experts advise against.
Consumers are protected by federal regulations called "The Funeral Rule." For more information, see a consumer guide by the FTC online at www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/services/funeral.htm or call 877-FTC- HELP. Also see www.funerals. org.
Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for The Morning Call, a Tribune Publishing newspaper in Allentown, Pa. E-mail him at yourmoney@ tribune.com.