Undercutting the undertaker: Reducing the unavoidable expenses of dying
It is expensive. It is unavoidable. And nobody wants to talk about it. Except maybe Ron Henderson. Like other funeral directors, he likes to discuss death.
"Funeral directors love to go to funerals," he says in a quick, happy voice. "We have this transition from life to death, and we help people get started down that road to heal. We like people to have funerals. We like them to remember the deceased."
Henderson, who oversees Fred Young Funeral Home in Cloverdale, Calif., acknowledges that funerals are not inexpensive. But there are ways to reduce the cost and be better prepared for the inevitable.
And that inevitable price is continuing to rise.
In the last decade, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, the median cost of an adult funeral has increased 35.2 percent. Currently, the median is $7,045 in the United States — $8,343 if you include the cost of the vault.
And there are so many ways to spend money.
The median cost of transporting the body to the funeral home is $285. Embalming costs $695. The viewing, $400. The funeral, $495. A hearse, $295. Metal casket, $2,395.
These few costs are just the median, according to the NFDA — half the costs people experience will be more, half will be less. And different places in the country may have different costs. For example, in California, according to Henderson, bodies must be refrigerated if they are not embalmed. That is just one of the costs people can look at.
The problem is that, in most cases, people are making decisions about a funeral at a time of need. A loved one has just died without any stated plans, and the survivors have to make decisions at a vulnerable time when it is easy to equate love and care with the quality and expense of the funeral, casket and other services being sold.
Henderson, who has been in the business since he was 19, says the vulnerability of the grieving is something he takes very seriously and tries to not take advantage of.
"It is something a funeral director has to guard against," he says. "Everybody wants to make money."
And it is not just funeral homes and cemeteries that are hoping to make a legitimate profit. People can buy caskets and cremation urns online or even at discount retailers. Casket kits are also available for those who want do it themselves.
This world of competition affects the funeral home's profits — but Henderson says it doesn't help funeral homes to charge excessively.
"If it is too much and people can't pay you, it is the worst experience and you don't make any friends," Henderson says. "And building your reputation and building a business comes to customer satisfaction. It's not all about price."
Mike Boyd, a non-practicing funeral director who consults with people about funeral planning and runs the website Ask the Funeral Expert (askthefuneralexpert.com), says people can save a lot of money by shopping around — but warns against saving too much money.
"If you could get a cheap funeral," he says, "but you had to use a run-down funeral home that needed painting on the inside, the hearse had dents in it, the limousine ... wasn't clean but you could get a cheap funeral, the odds are you wouldn't use that facility."
Boyd, who was a funeral director in New York but now lives in Florida, says to save money, consumers need to become educated and knowledgeable.
"They need to knock on the doors of the funeral home in their community," he says. "They need to visit a cemetery or two in their community. Ask questions, don't buy, leave — and get price lists."
The Federal Trade Commission requires funeral homes to provide price lists for the package funerals they offer.
Henderson says package deals offered by funeral homes simplify and reduce costs — and compares buying individual items to buying food ala carte in a restaurant. They cost more individually.
"When you start itemizing things out for people, sometimes, when they are under a lot of stress because someone died, it can be a little bit mind-boggling," he says. "They eventually come to the point and say, 'Hey, Ron, what's the bottom line?' And I'll say the bottom line is that this package is cheaper than itemizing all these things out."
But people are making choices. Funeral homes have to accept caskets purchased from other sources — although Henderson says he remembers when one Internet casket purchase had huge holes in the sides from a forklift.
A growing decision is to have bodies cremated. The NFDA says in 2012, the cremation rate for deceased people was 43.2 percent. In Nevada, the rate was 74.2 percent. Without an expensive casket and vault, naturally cremation is less expensive.
Henderson says people need to know their options. People can decide to have a ceremony or no ceremony. They can embalm or not embalm the body. A whole variety of options is available — although it is complicated.
"I try to help people make choices without pressure," he says. "They don't have to decide the first day. I am an event planner. I plan the equivalent of a wedding in three or four days."
One client asked Boyd how to save money on cremation. He told her to simply call around and ask for prices. She ended up saving $700 over her first quote.
People can provide clothes for the deceased instead of the funeral home doing it. They can supply their own pallbearers. They can choose flowers that are less expensive than roses. They can use abbreviations in obituaries for newspapers, which can charge by the line.
Boyd also recommends bringing another family member or friend along when planning a funeral for a deceased loved one: "That way the pressure is spread among two people," he says, "rather than just the widow or widower."
The Funeral Consumers Alliance website, www.funerals.org, has lists of average funeral costs in many communities and links to regional affiliates.
One of the ways to avoid increased expense is to make decisions when there is less pressure. Boyd compares funeral arrangements to buying a car. If a person's car breaks down and she goes into a dealership that day, she is at a disadvantage.
"The dealer knows the consumer is cornered," he says. "It is the same thing in death. If you wait until death occurs, you are at a disadvantage. But if you begin looking beforehand you may end up saving a good amount of money."
Making pre-funeral plans is one way of doing this.
Another way is to pre-pay for funerals — meaning that the money is put into an account or trust from which the funds will pay for pre-agreed items or their equivalent.
Henderson says this happens often when people just want to have everything arranged and not think of it anymore. It also comes up when people are getting ready to go on public assistance — they will make an irrevocable trust to pay for their funeral.
Boyd is very cautious about pre-paying and says to pay close attention to what it will and will not pay for — and how much is charged to cancel.
Henderson is not too worried about his own eventual funeral and hasn't made a lot of plans for when he meets his demise.
"I believe in what I do," he says. "I believe there are a lot of good (funeral directors) out there like me that treat people really well, that take good care of them when they've had a death, so I believe in my profession. And there will be somebody really nice, and I know a lot of them, that will take good care of my wife and children if I die."