Three Basic Questions
Whether for an elaborate state funeral or a simple memorial service (held without the body of the deceased present), almost all cultures share three basic questions that individuals planning a funeral should answer:
- What kind of ceremony will it be? Will it be a traditional funeral for my culture, for example, with an open casket or memorial service? Will there be a viewing, wake, or rosary? Will it be held in a house of worship or a funeral home? Will there be a graveside ceremony?
- After death, how will the body be paced in its final resting place? Will there be an in-ground burial? Entombment? A cremation? Ashes scattered? Will the body be donated to the local medical college?
Who will make the arrangements? Myself, my spouse, my children, my friends? Who will select the funeral home, the casket, the flowers, and music? Who will attend to the legal requirements? Who will lead the ritual?
Usually, state statutes designate the next of kin to make funeral arrangements. However, some states also have “freedom-of-choice laws” that allow people to state who will be authorized to make their final arrangements, whether or not they are legally considered next of kin. (This authorization is especially important for gay and lesbian couples).
Death and funerals are an inevitable part of life and an issue that particularly affects seniors. According to a survey conducted by AARP, one in five Americans ages 50 an older arranged or prearranged a funeral, or both, during an 18-month period between January 1998 and June 1999 (AARP, 1999b).
Demographic trends indicate the number of deaths and related funeral and cemetery arrangements will significantly increase over the next 50 years. From 2000 to 2010, approximately 2.5 million Americans will die each year (Census Bureau, 2004). The overwhelming majority, 80 percent, will be 65 years of age or older (Peres, 2003). The Census Bureau also projects the number of deaths per year will increase to almost 3.5 million by 2030, and 4 million in 2050, as the baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, continue through their cycle of life.
State funerals for famous people and leaders such as Princess Diana, President Kennedy, and former President Reagan exemplify on a grand scale l the elements of what is called a traditional funeral in the Western culture. It is this ritual that most Americans, particularly seniors, recognize. These elements are:
- Viewing of the body
- Transporting the body from the place of death to a funeral home and, late, in a hearse (sometimes called a funeral coach), from there to a house of worship, and then to a cemetery
- Preparing the body – usually including embalming and cosmetology – and placing it in a casket selected by the family
- Holding a wake or viewing of the deceased, with an open or closed casket, at the funeral home with family and friends
- Conducting a religious or spiritual service at a place of worship or at a funeral home with a religious or spiritual leader directing the ritual, again with an open of closed casket, and with music, flowers, or spoken words.
- Proceeding from the house or worship to the cemetery, where a committal service is held and the casket is interred in a grave or crypt (a burial space in a mausoleum).
Memorialization, or installing a marker or monument and possibly an urn for flowers
While a traditional service may be the most familiar practice to many, there are numerous practical and religious or spiritual alternatives. Even traditional services exhibit vast differences. Some prefer a closed casket for personal reasons (or the condition of the body may require a closed casket) while others welcome viewing by family and friends.
Many families honor the decease with appropriate music, while others sanctify the service with silence, in which mourners can explore their thoughts. Instead of an in-ground burial, the body can be cremated and the remains scattered, buried, stored in an urn, kept at the family’s discretion, or placed in a columbarium (a structure with niches for cremated remains). Families might also arrange a memorial service without the body present – a simple service held graveside or a ritual as the cremated remains are scattered. (You should be aware that while some religious object to cremation, others expect it.) Memorial services can also be held in other locations such as houses of worship, funeral homes, or the family’s home.
In the Jewish and Muslim faiths, embalming is not allowed. Usually the person’s body is ritually cleansed, dressed, and placed in a casket. There may also be visitation.
Too often, seniors and other adults do not have enough information about choices and price variations. The next section of this chapter familiarizes you with these alternatives and the typical range of products and services available in many communities, to better prepare you to offer this information to your clients.
Jessica Mitford, daughter of an English lord, was a muckraking author (The American Way of Death, The American way of Death Revisited) who satirized excesses in the funeral industry. When she died in 1996, her family could have paid thousands of dollars for a funeral, but instead, she had chosen to be cremated and for her ashes to be scattered at sea for a total costs of $490 (Horowitz, 1999).
Many families cannot afford to spend (as much as $10,000) for a traditional Western funeral, and some prefer not to. Instead, they select form a range of alternative arrangements that include:
- Immediate burial
- Personally burying the remains
Donating the body for medical science
Also, the form of the funeral ritual can be affected by the cause of death and what is available locally. For instance, crematories in rural areas are often hard to come by.
Immediate or Direct Burial
With this alternative, the body is buried directly, without embalming or any funeral service. A funeral home or, in some metropolitan areas, a direct disposal organization (a funeral firm specializing in immediate burials) makes the arrangements. You can find a direct disposal firm or a funeral home listed in the yellow pages under the heading Funeral Directors.
The family usually chooses to bury the body in what is called an alternative container of concrete or concrete lined with metal to prevent subsidence (sinking of the ground) over time. Although immediate burial in a minimum casket is available in Kansas City of $900, immediate burial usually ranges from $1,500 to $4,0000 and is often sold as a bundle of services by the funeral home, excluding the price of the casket or the alternative container. Cemetery costs include a burial plot, opening and closing of the grave, and any marker.
Cremation is becoming an increasingly common means of disposing of the body after death, particularly in some parts of the country. It accounted for 27 percent of all final dispositions in 2001 (Cremation Association of North America, 2003). In eight states (Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington), cremations accounted for 50 percent or more of al final dispositions, and the percentage of cremations is expected to continue rising, to 36 percent of the market by 2010. According to an industry survey (Wirthlin Worldwide, 2000), people select cremations because they are less expensive (24 percent); use less land, together with other environmental conditions (17 percent); and are simpler, less emotional, and more convenient (13 percent).
There are various options for funeral services when choosing cremation. It can be accompanied by a traditional Western funeral. The body can be cremated first, and a service be held with the cremains (cremated remains, commonly referred to as ashes) present. The ashes are returned to the survivors in a cardboard box or other container. Final arrangements may include spreading the ashes, saving them in an urn, placing them in a columbarium, or burying them in a cemetery or other less formal setting.
With a direct cremation, there is no funeral. The body is taken directly to the crematory where it is cremated, and the cremains are returned to the survivors. While some cremation facilities work directly with clients and the survivors, some state laws require that a funeral director be involved.
For a direct cremation, the crematory or the funeral director requires some form of alternative container, a rigid container, or a casket to be used to transport and handle the body. It is important for seniors to know that the law does not require a wooden or metal casket for cremation. A funeral director or crematory official who misrepresents this information is in violation of the Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule. Direct cremations are usually offered as a package that could cost from $400 to $3,000. Cremations combined with other services, such as a traditional funeral, cost more.
Burial by Family Members
Some consumers choose to bypass the funeral director and cemeterian (the cemetery owner or staff) and make their own arrangements for burying the deceased. This may or may not be legal, depending on state laws. Even if it is legal in a particular state, the arranger must make careful plans to comply with all legal requirements. This might include a death certificate, transportation and disposition permits, and other papers. Transporting the deceased to a crematory or burying the body in a private cemetery on family land is legal in most states, but may not always be possible. A helpful book on this subject is Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love by Lisa Carlson (1998). It provides useful consumer information and lists the difference states’ requirements.
Body and Organ Donation
Donating a body or parts of the body to a medical or dental school is a valuable contribution to medical research and education and is the least expensive means of arranging the final disposition of the body. Medical schools rely on these donations for teaching future physicians and dentists and will usually arrange transportation of the body from the place of death to the school. However, some state laws require the services of a funeral director, which will incur a charge.
The school may also return the cremated remains to the family, or it may cremate and bury the remains. Some institutions conduct memorial services to honor the lives of those who donated their bodies. Seniors (and their families or advisors) who choose to donate their bodies for science, should contact the nearest medical or dental school for information and recommendations. The National Anatomical Service operates 24-hour phone service with information about body donations. It is possible that a medical institution will reject a body donation at the time of death because it has no current need, the cause of death precludes study, or the body was autopsied.
Medical technology has made organ and tissue transplants less expensive and safer than ever before. Nonetheless, 80,000 names appear on waiting lists for different organs, and in the year 2000, 5,600 people died while waiting for organ transplants (Rehnquist, 2002). Transplants can include any of the following: eye corneas, hearts, livers, kidneys, bone marrow, connective tissues, skin, pancreas, and lungs. Physicians can transplant tissues and corneas acquired from almost anyone, including those over 65. However, there are age limitations with other body parts. Organs and tissues are in high demand.
There are a number of organ and tissue registries, centralized data banks of information on organ donation, where individuals can indicate their willingness to donate. Some are run by state governments while others, such as the National Kidney Foundation, are national in scope. Seniors who are interested should contact either agency for information and placement on their databanks. Usually, there is no charge for donating an organ or tissue, but it is important to ask.
You should be aware that some faiths oppose donations, considering it to be a desecration of the body. Most religions, on the other hand, do not disagree with the practice of donating organs and tissues.
To become a donor, a senior can sign a Uniform Donor Card with either a national or state registry. They may also declare a willingness to donate with the state department of motor vehicles when renewing a driver’s license or securing an identification card. Even if the deceased did not sign a donor card, the next of kin may authorize a donation at the time of death. Conversely, the next of kin can also veto an organ transplant, even if the deceased signed an organ donor card. The best advice is for donors to discuss their wishes with relatives before death.
Unlike whole-body donations, the family of the deceased may still elect to hold a traditional open-casket funeral after the body parts are donated. Normally, such procedures do not disfigure the body.
This section respectfully considers the purchase of products and services associated with funerals in more detail. Funerals are one of the most expensive purchases in a lifetime and could costs as much as $10,000 (FuneralWire.com, 2004).
According to an industry accounting firm (Federated Funeral Directors of America, 2004), the average price of an adult funeral in 2003 was $7,115 (based on 225,000 funerals performed by 1,500 different funeral homes). Including burial costs of $2,000 to $3,000, plus $1,000 or more for flowers, family transportation, obituaries, acknowledgment cards, and other costs, the total easily reaches $10,000. However, even though a funeral can be one of the biggest expenses of a lifetime, few arrangers ever obtain comparative prices from two or more funeral homes. An AARP survey found that 7 out of 10 funeral arrangers contacted only one funeral home (AARP, 1999b).
The Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) is a national network of mostly volunteer-led, local memership groups, which are independent sources of consumer information about funerals. FCA is organized around the proposition of meaningful, dignified, affordable funerals. The associated groups trace their root to the Populist Grange Movement that began in the 19th century. Its goal was to lower funeral costs for rural families through group purchasing power.
Many (but not all) funeral information societies continue to offer group purchasing power for a small lifetime membership fee of $25 to $30. For example, in Seattle the Peoples Memorial Association, with 159,000 members, negotiated member prices with a local mortuary and discounts with eight area cemeteries (Peoples Memorial Association, 2003). Some of the funeral plans offered to members include:
- Direct cremation for $595, including a cremation container
- Immediate burial with a basic casket for $950
Traditional Western funeral with a basic metal casket for $1,525
People’s Memorial is also a source of information on funeral homes and cemeteries in the Seattle area. The surveys prices at all funeral homes and cemeteries in the metropolitan area and provides information to the media and its members. Seniors can contact them or affiliates of the Funeral Consumers Alliance in other cities for consumer price information about local funeral homes and cemeteries. All the local groups serve as consumer advocates.
The umbrella organization for these affiliates, FCA, is the leading national source of consumer information on funerals, burials, and alternatives. It also advocates for consumer protections at the national and state levels. To find information on funerals or to locate the address of local FCA affiliate, check FCA’s Web site.
You should be aware that there may be funeral homes in your area that offer similar funeral services and lower prices for anyone (meaning that people do not have to be a member of FCA to receive them). For example, Kansas City has funeral homes that offer direct cremation for under $500 and immediate burial service with a minimum casket for $900.
Advanced Planning for Funerals
Mary Johnson lives alone in Minneapolis and has prepared for everything, including what will happen at her death. She has a will on file with her attorney, along with the deed to her house and title to a cemetery lot. All the details have been arranged.
Having lived for almost 80 years, she knows the emotional pressures a sudden death can bring. Just two years ago, her next-door neighbor and friend died of a heart attack. No advance arrangements had been made, and the son, who flew in from California, had only hours to struggle with funeral arrangements.
For her peace of mind to know that her children won’t face the same emotional crunch or argue about spending too much or too little to honor her memory, Mary has arranged everything. She phoned and visited several funeral homes, scheduled appointments, and selected her funeral. She also opened a special bank account called payable-on-death (POD) to pay for her funeral. Everything is in place for what will come.
Too frequently, a funeral is arranged at the time of death – a time when survivors are least emotionally prepared to comparison shop. Advance planning, however, has many advantages. Decisions are made at a less stressful and emotional time, and the individual whose service is planned can select his or her own preferences for a casket, burial, music, and other arrangements. You should note, however, that state laws might grant the next of kin the final say with any arrangement.
Seniors can formalize their preplanning arrangements by prepaying and signing a contract for future delivery. Or they can make informal arrangements by simply listing selected goods and services for their funeral and burial and giving the information to a funeral home, cemetery, and their family. Prearrangements can include some or all of the following:
- Traditional funeral, memorial service, or no service
- Final disposition
- In-ground burial
- Outer burial container
- Transportation of the body
- Care of the body (embalming)
- Use of the funeral home’s facilities
- Optional items
- Cash advances
- Burial plot
- Opening and closing of the grave
Preserving Advance Funeral Plans
Seniors should not itemize the selections in their funeral plans in a will, and they should not place them in a safe-deposit box. (The reading of a will normally takes place well after a funeral, and safe-deposit boxes are frequently sealed, to be opened only as the will is probated). The best way to preserve advance funeral plans is to file a copy of the plan with the selected funeral home, give a copy to the next o kin, and retain a copy in one’s own files with instructions for survivors. Both the funeral home and survivors need immediate access to this information at the time of death. Seniors may want to consider this option: The nation FCA sells a plastic kit for $10 that goes in the refrigerator and holds a senior’s advance planning documents. The state-specific kit is called, “Before I Go, You Should Know,” and can be ordered from FCA’s Web site.
Selecting a Funeral Home or Cemetery
There are 22,000 funeral homes (National Funeral Directors Association, 2004) and an estimated 200,000 cemeteries (including small family plots) in the United States (Grassley, 2000). Most people select a funeral home or cemetery based on location, family practice, religion or reputation. Many funeral homes and burial facilities cater to specific ethnic groups or to specific religions.
A funeral and burial can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. If seniors limit their choices to only one facility, they may end up paying more than they need to by not comparing prices. In a survey conducted by the Austin Memorial & Burial Information Society, the local FCA affiliate, it was found that the same “full funeral” with a metal casket ranged from $2,545 to $5,520 at different funeral homes in that metropolitan area (Slocum 2004). The bottom line varies according to the goods and services, the geographic area, and the facilities selected. In addition, seniors can purchase caskets on the Internet or from stores listed in the yellow pages of the phone book, and have them shipped to funeral homes.
The FTC’s Funeral Rue obliges all funeral homes to disclose their prices in combined or separate price lists for caskets, outer burial containers, and general price listings. Such information is available over the phone, and many funeral homes, even though not required to, will mail a copy of their price list to seniors
It’s probably best to being searching for a funeral home by asking for recommendations from relative, friends, religious leaders, and the local FCA affiliate. Ask about prices and reputation and be sure to visit the facility. In addition, contact the local Better Business Bureau (BBB) and the state licensing board for any consumer complaints fid against the facility. Become familiar with the different facilities in your community, the prices for goods and services, and business reputations.
Selecting a cemetery is similar to selecting a funeral home. Ask religious leaders, friends, relatives, and the local FCA affiliate about a cemetery’s reputation and pricing, and visit the facility. Burial plots vary considerably depending upon the location. For example, a grave plot overlooking the Pacific Ocean in California will costs hundred, if not thousands, more dollars than a plot in the valley. Look also at the maintenance of the property. Is the lawn mowed? Are weeds removed? Are the headstones standing upright? Is there a fee charged for maintenance? There’s no guarantee that it will be well maintained forever, but if a cemetery is already in disrepair, that’s a strong indicator of the future. Seniors should also check with their state’s cemetery board (most states regulate cemeteries) and their local BBB.
As previously mentioned, funeral price lists are mandated by the FTC’s Funeral Rule, but they are not standardized as to terms or the format of the document. This can make comparison shopping difficult. In each instance, the bottom line – the total sum of the difference elements selected – is the most important for comparison.
Funeral Price List
|Outer Burial Container|
|Transporation of Body|
|Care of the Body|
|Use of Facilities|
|Services of the Funeral Director|
|Urn for Cremated Remains|
|Optional Items (music, flowers, etc.)|
|Cash Advances (death certificates, permits, etc.)|
Often the most expensive item for a funeral is the casket. They vary widely in both price and style and constitute 15 to 30 percent (even higher with the most expensive caskets) of the cost of the funeral. Manufacturers produce literally hundreds of different models made from steel of different gauges, bronze, cooper, hardwoods, softwoods, cloth-covered wood products, plastic, and fiberglass. Sixty percent of all caskets sold are made of steel (Casket & Funeral Supply Association of America, 2004). Thicker metal (lower gauge – 20, 18, 16, etc.) caskets cost more than thinner ones. For most people, however, the difference between a 20gauge casket and an 18-gauge casket is unnoticeable. Most metal caskets are gasketed, or feature a rubber gasket or other features that retard the entrance of water and protect against rust. Such features increase customer costs, but seniors should be aware that sealed caskets and other features will not delay the natural decomposition of human remains and they don’t always work (FTC, 2000). The Senate Aging Committee found that a gasketed casket leaked the remains of a woman’s deceased grandmother onto her above-ground mausoleum (Grassley, 2000). Wooden caskets are not gasketed and therefore offer no such protective features.
Typical Variations in Casket Choice
|Casket Type||Price Range|
|Minimum Casket - cloth-covered wood product with twill or flat crepe interior||$600-$800|
Minimum Steel - 20-gauge steel with twill of flat crepe interior
|$805 - $1,200|
Basic Steel - gasketed, 20-gauge steel with adjustable mattress for viewing and twill or flat crepe interior
|$1,200 - $1,500|
|Premium Steel - gasketed, 18-gauge steel with quality interior and adjustable mattress||$2,000 - $2,500|
|Stainless Steel - gasketed stainless stell with quality interior and adjustable mattress||$2,450 - $2,900|
|Premium Metal - gasketed bronze or copper with velvet interior and adjustable mattress||$3,200 - $10,000|
|Polished Hardwood - pine or poplar with polished finish, crepe interior, and adjustable mattress||$1,700 - $2,300|
|Oak, Walnut, Cherry, or Mahongany - solid hardwood with polished or semi-dull finish, crepe interior, and adjustable mattress||
$2,400 - $12,000
There are several hundred casket manufactures, most of which are regional or local. Three major national companies – Aurora Casket, Batesville Casket, and the York Group – constitute 70 percent of the market (Schmidt, 2000). In addition, Internet sites allow seniors to order caskets from the United States and abroad. For example, at www.irishfuneral.com, a consumer can order an Irish-made Killarney oak casket with Irish harp end features for $1,965, including shipping costs, and a guaranteed three-day delivery to the funeral home.
Funeral homes traditionally marketed caskets in special rooms, although they may now employ color catalogs. Consumer advocates have long charged that funeral homes exhibit the most expensive caskets in more favorable settings than less expensive caskets, whether on display or in print. Renting a casket may be considerably less expensive than purchasing one, and the insert can be used as an alternative container – but not always. For example, in Kansas City, caskets are rented for $1,000, while a person can buy an alternative container for $195 or a real casket as low as $375.
Historically, casket retail prices were marked up 200 to 300 percent over wholesale. Most of a funeral home’s profits would come from casket sales while they held the line on other items. That may not be as common today, but the practice still exists. For example, Consumer’s Digest’s March/April 2004 issue reported hat caskets sold by an East Coast corporate funeral home were marked up 200 to 300 percent. (The Embassy Cherry casket manufactured by Batesville Casket wholesales of $1,805, while the funeral home sells it for $5295 [Slocom 2004].) What has sparked competition among casket prices is that FTC amended its Funeral Rule to prohibit funeral homes from restricting casket sales to that facility or imposing casket-handling fees.
Currently, Internet sites and independent casket stores advertise and sell these products. They claim to ship their product overnight or within days to the consumer’s choice of funeral homes. Prices on the internet may or may not be lower than at a funeral home; so consumers must price shop – and be aware that quality and shipping have been problems with some casket sales. In Okalahoma, for example, a decorated veteran died in late 2003. He had purchased a $4,000 casket advertised in a veteran’s magazine that was to be delivered within 24 to 48 hours of his death, but the casket never arrived. The family purchased another casket from the funeral home and then had difficulty securing a refund for the first one. Their money was returned only after a local consumer reporter contacted the vendor (Edwards, 2004).
Outer Burial Containers
An outer burial container (grave liner or vault) is not required with a crypt in a mausoleum or lawn crypt, but is necessary for most in-ground burials. Two different outer burial containers are available:
- A grave liner, made of a rigid material like concrete, which may be porous t water
A vault, steel-reinforced and concrete-lined with metal or asphalt, some with a bronze, copper, or stainless steel lining with protective features such as a gasket to retard the entrance of water
Grave liners cost between $550 and $650, while a standard vault ranges from $800 to $2,400. Both cemeteries and funeral homes compete in the sale of these products.
In almost every funeral or alternative arrangement, the body is removed from its place of death and transferred to a funeral home. From there, depending upon the services selected, a funeral director conveys the deceased to a crematory or a cemetery with a possible stop at a house of worship. Transpiration charges usually total around $500. If survivors select a family limousine or flower car, the funeral home imposes additional charges.
When death occurs far away from home, survivors may choose to employ a funeral home in the city where the death took place to care for the body, before shipping it to the location for funeral or burial. After embalming the body, the funeral home arranges air transport to another funeral home or burial site. Survivors pay for a casket, air shipment, local transportation costs in both cities, and service feeds to both funeral homes. However, you should note that a funeral home can arrange for transportation of the body to another city by using a shipping service. As casket it not required to ship a body.
Care of the Body
Care of the body usually means embalming, but it may also include cosmetology, restoration, or special care with autopsied bodies. State laws do not require embalming, although it may be required with interstate shipping and certain special circumstances (e.g., for a body not buried or cremated within a certain amount of time, for the body of a person who died of infectious disease and for whom an open casket is requested, or for bodies that are not to be refrigerated). Because the body starts to decompose immediately, most funeral homes require embalming to preserve the body in a traditional open- or closed-casket funeral. Sometimes funeral directions levy an additional charge for casketing (placing the body in the casket) or dressing (clothing it body). The cost for embalming ranges from $30 to $600.
Use of Facilities
Visitations, viewings, and wakes are frequently, but not necessarily, conducted at funeral homes. Sometimes families choose to conduct the funeral itself in a chapel at the mortuary instead of a house of worship. Funeral homes charge consumer fees ranging from $100 to $300 for a visitation and $200 to $600 for renting the facility for a funeral. Many funeral homes will discount the cost of the visitation or viewing if it immediately precedes the funeral ceremony.
Services of Funeral Director
With a traditional Western funeral, seniors can pick and choose among all the goods and services listed on funeral price lists, except for the line item concerning the services of a funeral director. This fee pays for a funeral home’s overhead, office staff, and salaries.
The consumer receives the following services for this fee: completion of the paperwork for death certificates, obituaries, and permits; arrangement of the interment or cremation; and organization of logistics for transportation, the funeral itself, and graveside ceremonies. Some funeral homes charge an extra fee for arranging the funeral and graveside ceremonies. For the services of a funeral director, mortuary charges range from $500 to $1,000 or more.
Optional and Cash Advance Items
Music and flowers form an integral part of a funeral ceremony. They incur an extra charge, however. The family can arrange these items independently, or the funeral home can make the arrangements.
A cash advance item is one for which the funeral homes pays a third party, such the cost of printing an obituary in the local paper or the fee to file the death certificate with the health department. In turn, the funeral home bills the family for these costs. Prices for both optional and cash advance items vary widely from place to place.
The Bottom Line
To compare prices among different funeral homes, total the charges for the same goods and services on a table. Be sure to compare only the bottom lines, because different facilities charge more or less of the same casket, and more or less for the services of a funeral director. The higher price of one item may be offset by a much lower price of another. In some cases, final arrangement costs can decrease over time because of competition and new laws.
The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved. www.csa.us