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How to Read a Funeral Bill: Breaking Down the Costs

Uncover why understanding funeral costs is complex and learn essential tips for managing expenses. This article provides tools for reading funeral bills and strategies for saving while planning a meaningful service.

Whether we are picking up groceries or splurging on a new outfit, most things we buy have a simple price tag that tells us how much they cost. But the cost of other things, like planning a wedding, buying a car, or making arrangements for a funeral, is more complicated. Why does it seem so challenging to get funeral costs explained? 

Because funeral services can include dozens of choices for handling the body and any kind of service that follows, it’s important to understand how to read the bill before paying. Because you may be making these choices while you are grieving, understanding them ahead of time can help you save on funeral expenses later.

Below we will share some basic tools for understanding the charges and how to save money and stay within your budget when making funeral arrangements.

Understanding Your Rights Under the Funeral Rule

The Federal Trade Commission regulates funeral providers under a law called the Funeral Rule, which arms consumers with several rights. Among them is the requirement that all funeral homes give families a General Price List (GPL), which is an itemized accounting of all the costs for the products and services available.

  • A GPL must be given to anyone who requests it by telephone. 
  • Though not required to be posted online (except in California), some funeral providers will also have an online copy. 
  • Families should not be required to give personal information to receive the GPL or be required to come into a location.

There are pros and cons to a bill that has a single package price. While easy to understand, make sure that you are only paying for items you want or need. If you would like everything that comes with a single price, great! If not, pay for items a la carte based on your values and preferences.

Deciphering Funeral Service Charges and What They Cover

According to the FTC, all families should expect to pay a “basic services fee.” The fee should cover items such as:

  • Funeral planning
  • Securing necessary permits
  • Preparing the notices
  • Sheltering the remains
  • Coordinating arrangements with a cemetery, crematory, or others. 

It does not include charges for optional services, copies of the death certificate, or merchandise.

Options and Extras: Tips for Reducing Funeral Service Costs 

In addition to the basic services fee, funeral providers can charge for other services that families often want:

  • Transporting the remains
  • Embalming or other preparation
  • Use of the funeral home for a viewing, ceremony, or memorial service
  • Use of equipment and staff for a graveside service
  • Use of a hearse or limousine
  • A casket, outer burial container, or an alternate container for cremation or internment
  • A cremation urn

These extras are not on the GPL but always ask for a written estimate. You can also ask the funeral director about cheaper options and alternatives that might not be on display. 

How to Save Money on Funeral Arrangements Without Compromising Quality

If your funeral provider arranges for other goods and services from vendors on your behalf, the FTC says they may charge you an additional service fee. The Funeral Rule states they must disclose the additional cost, not the markup amount.

While it might be more convenient (and expensive) for the funeral home to take care of everything, you will probably have to leave a cash advance. These items are paid in advance by the funeral home but are added to the total cost of the funeral services and must be reimbursed by the family. The funeral home does not control prices for these items, so they may vary and could include a markup or service fee for arranging them.

Cash Advance Items

Cash advance items are services or goods paid for by the funeral provider on behalf of the family but are provided by third parties. These might include:

  • Death certificates: Often required in multiple copies for settling estates, claiming life insurance, and other legal purposes
  • Obituary notices: Fees for publishing obituaries in newspapers or online
  • Flowers: Costs for floral arrangements for the service
  • Clergy or officiant fees: Honorariums for the person leading the service
  • Music: Hiring musicians or special music requests
  • Transportation: Costs related to transporting the deceased and the family, if applicable
  • Funeral programs: Costs for creating and printing funeral programs or prayer cards

The Truth About Embalming and Alternative Choices

Some funeral providers might suggest embalming as necessary for visitations or funerals, but it's important to know that this is more of a policy preference than a legal requirement. Opting out of embalming can lead to significant savings, often amounting to hundreds of dollars. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) clearly states that funeral providers cannot legally claim that embalming is mandatory or proceed with embalming services without your explicit consent.

Choosing the Right Casket and Understanding Costs

Caskets are often the single most expensive item for a traditional funeral and burial. But families are increasingly looking elsewhere to third-party retailers (brick-and-mortar and online) to purchase a casket. Caskets can even be rented for a service and then returned. 

Under the Funeral Rule: 

  • Your funeral provider must let you use a casket you bought from a third party without charging a service fee.
  • You may ship the casket directly to the funeral home; you do not have to be present when it arrives.

Don’t fall for caskets that are labeled “gasketed," "protective" or "sealer" and can preserve remains indefinitely because they won’t. They’ll just add to your cost.

Understanding Burial Vaults and Grave Liners

Contrary to what funeral providers may suggest, no state law mandates using burial vaults or liners, and funeral providers are not allowed to claim otherwise. While these items are frequently used in traditional funerals to prevent ground collapse as the casket deteriorates, it's important to understand their limitations and the rules around them:

  • No Legal Requirement: State laws do not require the use of burial vaults or liners.
  • Function: Their primary purpose is maintaining ground integrity over time, not preserving the casket or remains.
  • FTC Guidelines: The Federal Trade Commission clarifies that funeral providers cannot assert that vaults or liners stop the decomposition of remains or completely block water, dirt, or debris from reaching the casket.
  • Cost Information: Burial vaults are not included with caskets and are priced separately.

Common FTC Violations

According to the consumer advocates of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, some common violations of the FTC’s Funeral Rule include:

  • Prices that are handwritten or missing altogether.
  • Prices that are the same or higher if you provide the casket.
  • The option for an “alternative container” is missing for cremation services.
  • There is an additional mandatory fee in addition to the basic services fee.
  • A required item is listed as free (which means the price was rolled into your cost).

Sample GPL Examples

The FTC provides sample GPLs to help funeral providers stay within the legal requirements. You can see one example here. The Funeral Consumers Alliance also provides samples with both good, bad and model examples. Small things like having the date on the GPL are an important signal that the price list was made with care. 

Making Sense of Funeral Jargon: What You Need to Know

According to the planning site Cake, understanding the funeral business jargon is another important part of deciphering the price of a funeral.

You might see terms like “sheltering the remains” (storing the loved one), “sanitary care” (washing and preparing them), and “casketing” (placing them in a casket). We demystify seven common funeral words and phrases here.

Know Your Rights as a Consumer

By understanding your rights under the Funeral Rule and doing a little research, you can cut through your chosen funeral provider's sometimes confusing price list. Remember that most choices are yours to make and not required by state law. Think about the items or services that are most important to you. A good funeral director will work with you to demystify the charges and make arrangements that fit your budget and values to best honor your loved one. 

Want to create a meaningful memorial without breaking your budget? Check out these 10 suggestions.