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Apples and Oranges: How to Compare Funeral Costs So You Don’t Overspend

Navigate funeral planning with confidence using our comprehensive guide. Learn about funeral costs, consumer rights under the Funeral Rule, and tips to avoid emotional overspending. Whether choosing between burial and cremation or understanding direct cremation costs, find everything you need to make informed decisions.

Ironically, getting a straight answer about funeral costs is a bit like planning a wedding. You have many decisions to make – flowers, venue, catering – and each of them affects the total price you pay. You can opt for the budget-friendly route, like using your friend’s backyard for the reception instead of the pricey banquet room, and pick up fake flowers from the dollar store rather than spend thousands of dollars on extravagant fresh flowers (that won’t last anyway). It's a delicate balance; just like weddings, funeral costs can quickly add up depending on your choices and preferences.

Of course, the main difference between planning a wedding and a funeral is apparent: it’s an ending, not a beginning. You have one chance to say goodbye to a loved one. You don’t want to look back and have regrets. As funeral professionals, we’ve heard too many stories of families who wished they focused more on the deep emotional comfort than price. 

Two Essential Questions to Answer Before You Buy

Before you make funeral arrangements – ideally, before you call or visit your local funeral provider – think about these questions. Talk them over with someone who can give you a clear-eyed, objective perspective. Again, would you plan a wedding without considering what you want and need beforehand? Even if your answers change a bit, at least you have a good starting place.

1.What Would Your Loved One Want?

Although most people think that planning ahead for their funeral is essential, not everyone does. Before you make funeral plans, check your loved one’s documents to see if they purchased a prepaid plan. 

If they don’t have prearrangements, think about any conversation or discussion in which they mentioned a preference for burial versus cremation, a traditional funeral or an informal life celebration, or if they wanted any kind of service. 

Deciding between burial and cremation for someone who hasn't expressed their preference beforehand is a delicate decision. Some families may find comfort in traditional burial practices. In contrast, others may opt for cremation because of space constraints, environmental concerns, or the desire for a more flexible memorial. The answer often comes down to various considerations, such as:

  • Cultural or religious beliefs toward cremation versus burial, post-death preparation, such as washing and dressing the decedent in special clothes
  • Family traditions
  • Practical considerations if family members cannot immediately travel
  • Proximity and options offered by funeral provider
  • Personal preferences of those closest to the deceased
  • Budget

2.What Do YOU Want?

Funerals are ultimately for the living. Naturally, you want to honor your loved one’s wishes to the best of your ability. You should also consider what type of disposition and memorial feels meaningful and authentic for everyone involved. Would you find it more comforting to have a traditional funeral with your loved one’s casket present? Or would you feel comforted with a simple memorial followed by drinks at your loved one’s favorite bar? There are no right or wrong answers. 

Think about:

  • Beliefs: A secular service is a wise choice if you and your family are not religious. Your spiritual leader can guide you if you are devout in your faith. 
  • Guest List: Did your loved one have many friends, family members, or work colleagues? Were they a high-profile figure in your community? Consider how many people might want to pay their respects because that affects venue size, catering, and parking issues. 
  • Timeframe: Burials usually take place within a few days after passing. Can family members travel to arrive in time? If not, cremation might be a better choice. On a related note, if your loved one died during the winter, the ground might be too frozen for burial until it thaws. Are you ready to pay for extended refrigeration and embalming? 
  • Location: Do you want a service close to your home (if you do most of the planning) or where your loved one lived? If your loved one was a snowbird (who lived in the South during the winter months and returned to the North for spring and summer), you might want a primary service and a second, less formal one.

Navigating Your Rights: The FTC Funeral Rule Explained

Funeral homes’ pricing policies changed dramatically in 1984. After years of fielding consumer complaints about conflicting and confusing charges, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) introduced The Funeral Rule. 

In brief, the Funeral Rule is a federal law that ensures funeral homes provide consumers with accurate, transparent pricing information and disclose their rights when making funeral arrangements. Funeral providers must:

  • Provide a copy of their General Price List (GPL) that is yours to keep Offer goods and services a la carte
  • Explain what is included in packaged plans

Funeral homes also must provide prices for:

  • Direct cremation
  • Immediate burial
  • Basic services of funeral director and staff, and overhead
  • Embalming
  • Other preparation of the body
  • Use of facilities and staff for
  • Viewing
  • Funeral ceremony
  • Memorial service
  • Use of equipment and staff for a graveside service
  • Hearse
  • Limousine
  • Receiving and Forwarding remains to another funeral home
  • Caskets
  • Outer burial containers (vaults)

The Funeral Rule protects consumers by ensuring that funeral providers are transparent about what they charge for products and services. If a funeral home fails to comply with the Funeral Rule, it may face penalties such as fines or legal action from regulatory authorities. Additionally, they must rectify the violation and compensate affected consumers. 

According to the Funeral Rule, prices for the goods and services offered by the funeral home must be shown on the General Price List. These regulations are designed to ensure transparency and accuracy. 

Your rights under the Funeral Rule:

  • Buy only the funeral arrangements you want.
  • Get price information over the telephone.
  • Get a written, itemized price list when you visit a funeral home (or via email or download that you can print from their website). 
  • See a written casket price list before the actual caskets because lower-priced options typically aren’t in the display area.
  • See a written outer burial container price list (this container encloses the casket placed in an opened grave before a graveside service).
  • Receive a written statement after you decide what you want and before you pay.
  • Get an explanation in the written statement that describes any legal cemetery or crematory rules that require you to buy specific funeral goods or services.
  • Use an alternative container instead of a casket for cremation.
  • Provide the funeral home with a casket or urn you buy elsewhere (and they cannot charge a handling fee if you provide these items).
  • Make funeral arrangements without embalming (no state requires embalming for routine burial or cremations). 

In addition to clearly listed and current prices, a funeral home’s GPL must display specially worded consumer-protection disclosures. Although sometimes the wording in these disclosures is often obtuse, they must state the following:

  • You can choose only the things you want.
  • The price you pay will cover basic services and operating costs.
  • Embalming isn't usually necessary by law.
  • You can pick a simpler container for cremation.
  • We have lists showing prices for coffins and burial containers.

What the Funeral Rule Does Not Cover

It is important to note that the Funeral Rule for funeral homes does not apply to third-party sellers, including:

  • Casket and urn companies
  • Burial vault providers
  • Monument, headstone, and marker companies
  • Memorial items (such as cremation jewelry)
  • Cemeteries that do not have an on-site funeral home

The General Price List applies to services provided by the funeral home but does not include all the items and services you might want or need. The funeral director or planner has supplemental price lists for caskets, urns, burial vaults, and memorial items. Unlike the GPL, which is a list for you to keep, funeral homes aren’t required to give you a copy of these price lists to keep, although many will. 

Understanding Basic Funeral Services: Essentials vs. Optional Upgrades

When exploring funeral services and products, conducting a funeral cost comparison between providers can empower you to make informed financial decisions. On a typical GPL, you'll notice items described as “non-declinable.” Whether you have an extravagant or no-frills funeral, you must purchase these mandatory services. 

Here’s a breakdown of mandatory costs.

Basic Services of Funeral Director and Staff

This fee is already included in the prices for direct cremation, immediate burial, forwarding, and receiving remains and cannot be added to any of those prices. Basic services include: 

  • Holding the remains 
  • Funeral planning 
  • Obtaining necessary permits for burial or cremation
  • Getting the death certificate
  • Preparing the death notice
  • Coordinating with the cemetery, crematory, or others

The basic services fee also covers a portion of the funeral provider’s overhead expenses. 

Direct Cremation and Immediate Burial Packages

Under the Funeral Rule, the GPL must include prices for direct cremation and immediate burial, the two most affordable options. Ask for a written estimate to ensure no surprises or hidden extras in these charges. 

Direct Cremation

Providers must offer a price for performing a simple cremation without embalming, viewing, or service. Direct cremation plans include:

  • Prices for a cremation casket from the funeral home
  • Prices for an alternative, cheaper container made from less expensive materials

You may also purchase a casket or container from a third party and deliver it to the funeral home. Direct cremation plans include the basic services fee and transportation of your loved one. You might receive a separate charge for the cremation fee. 

Immediate Burial

This is a basic burial plan without embalming, viewing, or service. Immediate burial plans give you the option of:

  • Purchasing the funeral home’s minimal casket or alternative container
  • Supplying your casket 
  • Upgrading to a more expensive casket for extra

Immediate burial plans include transportation and the basic services fee. They do NOT include cemetery expenses, such as a burial plot, opening and preparing the grave, burial vault, or marker (headstone). 

Extras, Options, and Upgrades: Your Choice

You cannot decline required services, but you have the power to add or refuse additional services or items:

  • Upgraded caskets, cremation urns, and burial vaults
  • Embalming for viewing or visitation, per local ordinances or requirements
  • Memorial products and keepsakes, including printed programs, memorial folders, prayer cards, and personalized tributes or videos
  • Memorial service options, including catering, audiovisual equipment, certified celebrants, flowers, and other costs 
  • Additional transportation for guests between funeral home and graveside ceremonies

If the funeral home owns and operates the crematory and cemetery, they should provide an estimate for additional related services:

  • Witnessing the cremation 
  • Cemetery fees for burial or interment
  • Graveside services

Preventing Emotional Overspending: 5 Practical Tips

Emotional overspending is purchasing decisions based primarily on emotions rather than rational considerations through impulse buying, adding unnecessary extras, or choosing higher-cost options.  

There is also the issue of “grief brain.” It’s a proven medical fact that the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of losing a loved one makes decision-making more difficult. Trauma affects our brain functions so that our body is focusing on surviving. The result is a brain fog, and it’s a natural result of our intense feelings when someone we love passes away.

Here are five things to bring with you when it’s time for the funeral arrangement meeting:

  1. Providers’ General Price List – Funeral providers must provide you with a list over the phone, and many also email or direct you to a downloadable version on their website. Review the list before you visit to familiarize yourself with prices. Funeral homes cannot display every product they sell, so they often feature higher-priced options only. They also aren’t obligated to list every item on their GPL, so if you don’t see less expensive alternatives on their price list, ask. 
  2. A Family Member or Friend – A buddy can provide emotional support and help you focus on your budget and priorities during the arrangement process. They offer an objective perspective that can prevent you from succumbing to emotional pressure. 
  3. Your Budget and List of Priorities – Take a few moments to write down your preferred price range and absolute maximum. List your priorities in order of importance, whether a specific type of casket or having an honor guard present for a veteran. 
  4. Relevant Documentation – This might include insurance policies, prearranged funeral plans, military separation papers, or any instructions from your loved one regarding their preferences for the funeral. Also, bring receipts or delivery information if you purchased a casket or urn from an outside vendor. 
  5. Willingness to Walk Away – Except in remote or rural areas, there is probably at least another local funeral provider to serve you. Take your business elsewhere if you feel pressured, uncomfortable, or dissatisfied with a provider’s prices, services, and memorial products. 

You Can Do This: We Can Help

It’s safe to say that no one looks forward to making funeral arrangements for a loved one. It is a challenging and exhausting time. A reliable and compassionate end-of-life partner can make your life easier by offering honest, complete information. 

Afterall is a collective of funeral homes, cemeteries, and cremation providers dedicated to helping you through the end-of-life journey. We understand that you might feel out of your comfort zone. We invite you to look through our expert advice guides to help make this time less stressful.