How to Save Money Even After You're Dead

Nobody wants to talk about death...

Most folks would rather just ignore it, and pretend that it's not going to happen to them.

In fact, when we mentioned the topic last in our "Six Questions You Must Discuss With Your Family" essay, our inbox lit up with disgruntled readers...

One blamed us for spoiling her Thanksgiving, and requested... "Why not wait until Christmas. Can ruin that holiday as well!"

She went on to add that it was irresponsible to "put a damper on the few and most precious times one has to be with your children and grandchildren."

We disagree – the questions in that essay, which you can find here, are important and worth talking about.

And this attitude of "ignore it, maybe it won't happen" is a dangerous one.

When you experience a death, you can bet that there are unscrupulous folks lurking around the corner to take advantage of you... or your family members... in your deepest hour of grief.

The funeral industry does its best to hide its prices to make them harder to compare... and it sometimes refuses to follow consumer-protection laws.

A recent analysis by two nonprofit advocacy groups – the Funeral Consumers Alliance and the Consumer Federation of America – looked at pricing information from 150 funeral homes in 10 areas...

Only about 25% of funeral homes in the study disclosed prices upfront on their websites.

And while 58% did disclose a price list after researchers sent e-mails or made phone calls, a full 16% failed to disclose the required information via a telephone call even after researchers followed up on their initial request. The Federal Trade Commission ("FTC") requires funeral homes to make pricing information available by telephone and during in-person visits.

This lack of disclosure means that you... or your loved ones... are at risk of paying far too much.

In addition, when researchers could find prices, they varied widely. A full-service funeral ranged from $2,580 to $13,800...

Direct Cremation Immediate Burial Full-Service Funeral
Location Low High Low High Low High
Atlanta $850 $3,640 $1,195 $5,200 $3,370 $11,050
D.C. $1,295 $7,595 $1,410 $6,800 $3,770 $13,800
Philadelphia $1,365 $3,345 $1,080 $3,600 $4,135 $7,990
Mercer Co. (NJ) $1,300 $4,315 $850 $4,040 $3,710 $6,605
Indianapolis $895 $3,295 $1,295 $4,365 $2,700 $6,415
Minneapolis $750 $3,000 $650 $3,395 $2,580 $7,855
Denver $1,055 $2,840 $1,260 $2,945 $2,600 $7,855
Tucson $649 $2,440 $640 $3,140 $2,630 $8,140
Orange Co. (CA) $795 $3,540 $985 $4,395 $3,854 $10,075
Seattle $495 $3,390 $690 $3,395 $2,805 $5,515
Source: Funeral Consumers Alliance

When my siblings and I buried our mother, we experienced the slime and sleaze of the funeral industry firsthand. The funeral cost about $14,500... including a $5,000 casket we could have purchased at Costco for $1,400.

So before you make your next decision with the funeral industry, make sure you know your rights...

Get prices before visiting. Funeral directors must give you price information on the telephone if you ask for it. You don't have to give them your name, address, or telephone number first. Mention the FTC's "Funeral Rule" if anyone balks at giving out this information.

When you do visit, get costs in writing. The funeral home must give a written, itemized price list when you visit. This list is yours to keep, and should list all the items and services that the home offers.

And make sure that you ask for a casket price list, too. That way, you can ask about lower-priced products that may not be on display.

Bring your own casket. A casket is often the most expensive item at a full-service funeral... so make sure you're not paying marked-up prices. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, many funeral homes mark up their caskets by 300%-500%, or even more.

The FTC requires funeral homes to accept any casket or urn purchased from an outside source... and it's illegal for them to charge a "handling fee" to do so. You can even buy a casket at Costco, some with expedited shipping. The funeral home also can't require you to be there when they accept delivery.

Don't fall for a package deal. You have the right to purchase the individual services you and your family want. So don't get talked into a pricey package that includes all the bells and whistles that the funeral home offers.

Come prepared with your rights. The Funeral Ethics Organization has a handy, printable PDF of your funeral rights by state, which you can find by clicking here.

And if a funeral director cites a law requiring a certain service, ask him to produce it. (Some state laws do vary, but the industry is notorious for using vague "it's required" rationales for selling overpriced and unnecessary procedures.)

Be careful with "prepaid" funeral arrangements. Prepaying can make it easier to comparison-shop, and helps take the emotion out of the funeral preparations. But it's important that you and your family fully understand the fine print in any contract that you sign.

If you prepay for your funeral, make sure you tell your family and leave instructions with itemized billing and receipts, as well as the funeral contract.

See if a military burial is an option. Veterans are entitled to a free burial in a national cemetery and a grave marker... and so are spouses, dependent children, and certain civilians who provided military-related service.

If you think you or a loved one might be eligible, find out... The costs, if any, will likely be a few hundred dollars instead of thousands. The National Cemetery Administration has a list of full eligibility requirements here.

Take a few hours to do research now, and keep unscrupulous morticians away from your pocketbook.

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