Back in the day, final farewells were pretty simple affairs. When someone passed, the family had a go-to funeral home that they trusted could – and would – take care of everything. Now? Not so easy.
Compassion has moved down on a funeral provider’s list of checkboxes while marketing and capturing a larger piece of the customer’s dollar has moved up. There are personal advisors, online planning, payment plans, obituary writers, “partnered” homes that are part of a loose-knit chain, etc. – anything a company can come up with.
Consumers, by and large, haven’t had much say in this. Many figured there were fewer gotchas and gimmes going the cremation route, pushing that alternative towards 65% of all end-of-life procedures.
Then, late last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) decided it had seen enough. It began its crusade by going after a funeral provider for allegedly failing to provide accurate price and service information, then deciding to overhaul the Funeral Rule to include requirements like an online pricing requirement.
That’s a start, but it’s not a finish. Ed Michael Reggie, founder of Funeralocity.com – a free directory of funeral home listing prices – and a self-proclaimed consumer advocate, warns consumers that they still need to be careful.
The questions to ask
The first thing Reggie reminds grieving families is that there are laws in place to protect them. According to Federal Law, a funeral home must give you a General Price List (GPL) that is yours to keep. It lists all the items and services the home offers, and the cost of each one.
Reggie emphasizes that these lists must be “itemized” – that nothing can be left off that might surprise the family when all is said and done and the final bill arrives in their mailbox.
COVID restrictions and COVID charges. Here’s one that could slide by consumers if they’re not careful. While COVID-related restrictions are no longer in effect in some areas, there could be the occasional outlier who builds in COVID “surcharges” – ones not allowed by any law.
“However, it's important to note that the situation may vary, and it's advisable to inquire directly with the funeral provider to confirm their pricing policies,” Reggie told ConsumerAffairs.
Is a casket required for the service? Guess again – a casket is not always required for a funeral service. “Some individuals opt for green burials, which promote environmentally friendly practices, and may involve the use of biodegradable containers or shrouds instead of traditional caskets,” Reggie said, noting that families should consult with the specific cemetery or funeral home, as they may have their own rules or requirements regarding burial options.
Is there a fee for the obituary? There’s good money in obits. Putting one up on the local newspaper’s website could cost you as much as $200 to start. And if you want to flesh it out with a long narrative about the deceased’s life, you could be looking at $500-$1,000.
The funeral providers want a piece of this action, too, and many will offer obituary services – you guessed it – for a fee. “However, it's worth mentioning that there are also free websites, like obituare.com, where families can create and publish obituaries at no cost. Using such platforms can potentially save hundreds of dollars,” Reggie said.
Death certificate dilemmas. Another fee-grabbing device some funeral providers use is obtaining the death certificate for the family. However, city and county governments also provide death certificates. Yes, there’s a fee involved there, too, but it might not be as much as the funeral home would charge.
“In general, most states charge between $5 to $20 for each certified copy,” Joincake’s Sam Tetrault writes. “If they’re unable to find the death certificate, in the case that the individual passed a long time ago, they often charge a second ‘search’ fee. Most states have a maximum amount that can be charged for a search, usually $50.”
Want to finance the funeral? Another pain point is, of course, the final price. And who better to swoop in and help ease that financial burden but a finance company? Reggie says that not all funeral homes and cremation providers offer financing or payment plans, but about 50% of them do provide such options. But, these companies might not be as compassionate about what the family is going through as the family would like and could charge upwards of 35% interest on financing.
Reggie suggests that families not take the first financing deal they’re offered.
Rather, inquire directly with the funeral home or provider to understand the specific financing or payment plan options they have available. It may take a little longer to get processed, but some banks might be willing to help out with a more equitable loan.
He offered one more insight that consumers might not be aware of – that a loved one's estate can pay for the service. “Yes, it is possible for the expenses of a funeral service to be paid using funds from the deceased individual's estate. In fact, tax laws often favor such payments,” he said.
Don’t rush things. How soon, from the time of death, do you need to bury/cremate your loved one? “There are no applicable legal requirements regarding the timing of burial or cremation,” Reggie confirmed.
“The decision on when to hold the funeral or cremation service is often influenced by religious and cultural traditions, as well as the preferences of the family. It's important to consult with the funeral home or provider to coordinate a suitable timeline that aligns with your needs and any applicable regulations.”