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Choosing a Funeral Home

Funeral homes came through an interesting evolution from their humble beginnings in the mid-19th Century. Originally responsible for the preservation and shipment of Civil War dead, they grew along with the westward expansion of our nation. The 'undertaker' later became a fulltime job, rather than just something else a barber or merchant did in the community, and once this name became the butt of jokes, they started calling themselves 'morticians'. Half-way through the 20th Century this again changed to 'funeral director', which is where you find the profession today.

A parallel line of ownership has evolved as well. As little as a quarter century ago, when a full funeral with burial could still be had for a few hundred dollars, virtually all funeral homes were owned by individuals and families. Today, over fifteen percent of all funeral homes, and an even greater percentage of 'for profit' cemeteries and crematories, are owned by large corporations, but this percentage is deceiving. Fully one-in-four funerals is conducted by a corporate-owned funeral home, because most of the 'high-traffic' homes have been bought out. This bodes poorly for the consumer because corporations ... ALL corporations ... tend to be more concerned with stockholders and earnings than they are with the families they serve.

The 'Big Three' death care corporations, Service Corporation International (SCI), Carriage Services, and Stewarts, together own thousands of funeral homes and cemeteries. Typically they buy the more-prosperous homes in urban areas, or the 'only source available' in rural areas, keep the family name, and jack prices as much as 35%. Since there is no overt sign of changed ownership (often the original owners and/or operators are kept on for at least a transition period), the consumer is allowed to believe he/she is still dealing with the same family-owned business as before. Corporate mandates, service consolidation and sweetheart deals with casket and vault companies make the end result -- the COST and net profit -- much different. Recently New York and Maine passed state laws requiring funeral homes indicate their owners in all signage and paperwork. Hopefully other states will follow suit, but for now you are advised to stay away from these bottom-line oriented homes out of concern for your wallet.

All is not going smoothly for the big corporations, however. Over the past couple of years The Loewens Group saw its stock drop over 75% as it over-bought and incurred huge amounts of debt. This led to 'reorganization' and their return to the market as Carriage Services. All three have been sued, or are currently being sued, for such things as predatory practices, and breach of contract. At this writing, SCI alone has over 300 lawsuits pending. A good tact would be to ASK, and to look at their contract forms for mention of the corporation. Now for some general information on how to go about choosing a funeral home.

Funeral Home Shopping

In 1984, in a rare act of concern for the consumer, Congress passed what is now known as the Funeral Rule Legislation. This was revised in 1994, and is up for consideration again as this is written. The important aspects of it are as listed below:

• Funeral homes must make available, in person or by phone, a General Price List covering all fees for services offered. They are required to give you a copy of this GPL to keep, if you ask for it.
• Funeral homes must also make available a price list for caskets, outer containers and urns. Notice they are NOT required to give you a copy of this, merely to show you one. The more reputable funeral homes will have a copy you can take with you, so this could be your first sign a funeral home is less-than-honest in their dealings with families.
• Funeral homes are NOT to make claims for 'sealing', 'gasketed', or 'protective' caskets or outer containers that are not true. This includes implying that a rubber seal will help preserve remains, which is ludicrous once the biochemistry of the situation is considered, but perhaps the most common scam in the industry.
• Funeral homes are NOT to state that a casket is required for cremation. This includes only showing the family upscale 'cremation caskets' without advising them that an alternative container is available.
• The consumer can purchase a casket from any source he/she chooses -- even in states where casket sales are limited to licensed funeral directors -- and the funeral home cannot change their prices, nor charge a 'handling fee' for using a casket bought from a third-party.

Break out your Yellow Pages and call for prices, or better yet, visit in person to pick up the GPL and peruse the casket and outer container price list. Since caskets are covered in-depth in the next section and available in from a range of sources, we'll concentrate here on the General Price List of services. Take notes when you visit, and don't be surprised if you find a wide gap between the lowest and highest prices, even in a confined area. This comparative shopping is an important and illuminating step, and something you'll want to do with every facet of the arrangement process, from funeral home, to casket, to outer container, to cemetery plots. This industry thrives on the fact that most people do not question prices and refuse to even consider the inevitability of their needing to know this information. Do NOT make any decisions during this phase, take the information to a quiet place and study it.

NOTE: In 2003 we started the Consumer Certification Program. Funeral-related establishments can request a certification visit and, should they meet our standards, receive our endorsement as 'Consumer Certified'. The logo and plaques are conspicuous, so be on the lookout for them when you visit any funeral home, crematory, casket store or cemetery. For a listing of our criteria, click on the Consumer Certified link.

Typical Fees And What They Mean

Basic Fee For Professional Services of Director and Staff

Once known as the 'non-declineable fee' because no matter what goods and services you choose, you still have to pay it, this fee is unique to the funeral industry. Paid-for legislation at all levels of government have decided to grant the death-care industry the right to charge a fee, which includes all overhead plus a 'reasonable' profit, without the funeral home having to provide ANYTHING in return! All you are paying for in this fee is the funeral home being in business, and every good or service connected with the funeral will be billed in addition to it. If this strikes you as unfair -- after all, if your car dealership tried this you'd scream bloody murder, wouldn't you? -- get in touch with your legislators, from town to the Senate, and tell them you'll be watching how they vote on funeral issues in coming sessions. Since funeral homes were allowed to lump all their expenses into this 'freebie fee' in 1984, the non-declineable fee has increased on average 40% across the nation. This is your first 'chop' to see just how reasonable a funeral home's prices are. Typically these fees range from a low of $695 to highs approaching $3,000. Be aware, however, this fee does NOT tell ALL the story.

Embalming

With a few exceptions, embalming is NOT required by law. Exceptions would include death by certain communicable diseases or shipment of the body via common carrier across state lines. It is important to note that a hearse is NOT a common carrier since it doesn't carry paying customers along with the body as do airlines, buses, or trains. Should the family desire a viewing, the funeral director may insist on embalming both as a profit center and to facilitate cosmetics and avoid any unsightly leakage, etc. This is a reasonable stipulation.

Embalming a 200 pound man will require about two pints of embalming fluid in standard dillution. This fluid costs $3 to $8 a pint, on average, with the range of embalming fees running from $175 to $695. Many of the steps involved in this may be billed seperately as below or lumped together as 'embalming and other preparation'.

Embalming and Other Preparation

Washing and Disinfecting of Unembalmed Remains -- About what it sounds like, the body is washed in a mild solution to rid the body of bacteria, fly eggs, etc. This is included as part of the embalming process as a rule, but is a standard charge if embalming is not selected. Expect a fee of $50 to $100

Dressing, Casketing, and Consmetology -- Literally, putting on clothes and make-up, then putting the body into the casket. Fees range from $35 to $200.

Hair Care -- Bet you thought this would be included in the heading above, didn't you? Sometimes it is and sometimes it's a seperate charge and can vary widely from a low of $25 to a high of $200.

Restoration Charge -- In many cases of traumatic death, or in the case of a wasting illness, the body needs to be restored if an 'open casket' funeral is planned. This charge I have no complaint about since it takes considerable skill and experience in many cases, and is worth it. Usually charged by the hour, fees range from $35 to $100 per hour plus any charges for 'appliances' or special items.

Post Autopsy Care & Post Organ Donation Care -- These fees are also charged by the hour as a rule, or may be included in a package. Organ donation and autopsy both leave incisions in the body that will compromise the usual embalming procedures if not sutured and sealed. Expect a charge of $25 to $60 per hour for this.

Refrigeration Charge for Unembalmed Remains -- What it sounds like, keeping the body cool to inhibit degradation. Expect this to be a 'per day' charge starting beyond the first 24 hours, from $50 to $85 per day.

Care and Custody While Sheltering Remains -- If the remains were taken directly to the funeral home that is to conduct the services, this charge typically doesn't kick in until after a fixed time, the average being three days. For interim stops, say at an out-of-town funeral home before transfer to the funeral home doing the funeral, it can start with the first day. Expect charges of $50 to $100 per day.

Other Fees

Receiving Remains From Another Funeral Home -- Think they're going to miss out on those embalming and preparation fees? Think again. This fee will run about the same as or even more than those for embalming and preparation in-house, plus additional fees. it does NOT include use of facilities for viewing, casket, or a range of other goods and services. Expect $795 to $1595 for this.

Transferring Remains to Another Funeral Home -- This fee can be a bit disingenuous. Should death occur far from home (or from where the funeral is to be conducted), DON'T do business directly with a funeral home there. You could be liable for paying several fees twice, perhaps including the non-declineable fee. Instead you should deal only with the funeral home that will ulitmately be handling the funeral and/or burial, and request that they use either Inman's or National Mortuary Services to handle the transfer and all services required. For about $600 NMS or Inman's will have the body collected, taken to one of their contract funeral homes, all paperwork completed, embalming performed, the body placed in a shipping container (called a shipping tray) and transported to the airport for transfer. You are responsible for airfare under any circumstances (eg the Delta Cares program, or USAir's TLC program), but bypassing the usual duplicate funeral home charges can save you hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars. Expect this charge to be at least the same, if not greater, than the Receiving charge, and the range is wide: from a low of $750 to highs over $2,500. This does not include a casket or use of facilities for viewing.

Collection of Remains -- Sometimes included under the heading of Vehicles or Automotive Equipment and Other Charges, this is the transfer of the body from the place of death to the funeral home, and yes ... one might consider the industry could at least include this under their non-declineable fees, but they don't. Further, many charge extra for an additional attendant to remove the body from home. Fees range widely with location, but average from $100 to $350.
NOTE: Don't be surprised if you are also charged for the 'use of coach for local transport' under the Automotive Equipment section, and this can range from $100 to $200, plus a mileage fee if beyond 25 miles or so.

Directing Services and Use of Facilities

I know, by now you're wondering --- didn't I already pay for this? No, you didn't. Much of what makes the funeral business so lucrative is that you have to pay the 'Basic Fee For Services', which covers all overhead and guarantees the funeral home a profit, then must pay for anything and everything they actually do in conducting the funeral in addition to this fee. Below are the usual fees you might encounter under this heading:

• Use of Facilities for Viewing, and the Services of the Funeral Director and Staff in Supervising Visitation (per visitation period) ... this is, as you may have surmised, the use of a viewing area, plus one or more somber-looking fellows standing around, assisting in seating visitors, etc ... Prices range from $150 to $600 per visitation period.
• Use of Facilities and Staff for Funeral Service Conducted in the Funeral Home Chapel ... $150 to $750
• Use of Facilities and Staff for Funeral Service Conducted in Facility OTHER Than Funeral Home Chapel .... (thought you might save some here by having it in a church? Guess again.) $150 to $750 Plus, if held elsewhere you would be responsible for several transportation and staff charges such as the director's car, the hearse, a flower van and perhaps a utility van. Cost can be $150-$400
• Use of Facilities and Staff for Conducting Memorial Service in the Funeral Home Chapel ... $150 - $750 (note: There was a time when, since there is generally no body present at these services, staff was reduced and the prices for a memorial service reflected this. In the name of profits, that time has passed.)
• Equipment and Services of Funeral Director and Staff in Supervising Graveside Services ... again, no price break here, $150 - $750
• Services of Funeral Director and Staff in Supervising and Directing Graveside Service for Cremated Remains .... $150 - $750

If you compare the ranges of charges for each good and service, you'll see there is plenty of room for savings if you just choose wisely. You will also likely encounter 'Package Deals' at each funeral home, which are bundles of services at a stated price. It is rare that you save anything on these, since each likely contains goods/services you don't want or need, or doesn't include goods/services you do want or need. This is particularly true with the so-called Dignity packages, which are essentially SCI-dictated goods and services at exhorbitant prices. Pricing the funeral a la carte, or on a per-item basis is the best way to insure you get what you want at a price you're willing to pay. The Affordable Funeral: Going in Style, Not in Debt covers ways to greatly reduce these fees, and is presently reported to be saving the average family $2,000 to $3,750 per funeral. Doing business with a family-owned funeral establishment should save you at least some over the conglomerate-owned businesses.

OTHER Goods & Services

This is where the casket comes in, which can account for as much as HALF the total funeral cost. Don't be surprised if you mention this, and have the funeral director or one of his minions break out a nice, laminated copy of a front-page article run in USA Today newspaper, which shows one of their famous pie charts indicating the casket only accounts for 14% of funeral costs. During the research phase, we must have seen this same article dozens of times, before we got in touch with the newspaper for details. The article was published in 1972! Obviously things have changed radically since then, including the average mark-up on caskets ballooning up to 300-1400% in funeral homes. Buy your casket from an independent dealer and save half or more on this item. See the next section on CASKETS to learn all you'll need to know to make an informed choice on this.

Also included under this heading are:

• Outer Burial Containers --- $250 - $15,000
• Cremation Urns --- $100 - $3,500
• Cremation Containers --- $65 - $650
• Clothing --- $75 - $250 (note: each year it is reported that funeral homes sell over $1 million in SHOES! Just because an item can't be seen doesn't mean money can't be made from its sale.)
• Grave Marker (permanent) --- $750 - UP (average is $1,300)
• Grave Marker (temporary) --- $15 - $125
• Acknowledgement Cards (packs of 25) --- $10 - $50
• Memorial Folders (100 or portion thereof) --- $25 - up
• Visitors Register --- $35 - up
• Combination Tray (for shipping remains that are not casketed) --- $75 - $250
• Air Tray (for shipping remains via airlines) --- $65 - $300
• Assignment of Life Insurance Benefits--- If the funeral home accepts assignments of all or a portion of the deceased's life insurance benefits, they often charge a percentage in return for waiting for their money. The national average is 3% of value of policy or an ongoing fee of 1.5% per month, which would mean $150-$250 on a $5,000 policy, in addition to standard interest on any unpaid balance which has an industry standard of 12% annually, compounded monthly.

Cash Advance Items

Some items will be estimated in writing at the time of your arrangement visit. These include, but are not limited to the following, some of which you might want to provide on your own at a much more favorable price.

• Death Certificates --- $8 - $10 each, typically higher for the first copy and reduced on additional copies. Do not attempt to save money by skimping on these, though you can order them yourself from your vital statistics office, because you'll need numerous copies in the future and all must have the raised seal to be accepted.
• Obituary Notices --- With picture, $75-$350, Without picture $75 - $250, many papers charge by the line, and you can likely save by filing these yourself.
• Death Notices --- Different from an Obituary in that only the basic information is included and often these are free from the newspaper.
• Police Escorts --- Free to $100 each for coordination fees.
• Flowers --- The funeral home likely gets a discount from florists, yet still charges more than they would if sold directly to the family. A nice casket spray or bier, plus two arrangements for either end or behind casket can easily run $450 - $750 and up
• Minister's Gratuity --- You can speak with the minister involved and handle this yourself, usually at both a savings and with the assurance that the minister receives ALL the gratuity.
• Organist and/or Choir or Solo Artist for Funeral Ceremony --- Varies widely, ask your minister for availability of individuals for this.

Automotive, Equipment and Other Charges

There's a wide range of things that fall under the 'other' categories in each section of charges. The most common of these are as listed below, along with average fees for each.

• Removal and Transfer of Remains to Funeral Home .... $100-$250
• Use of Funeral Coach and Driver for Local Transport ... $100-$200 plus mileage
• Limousine/Family Car ....... $100-$250
• Flower Van and Driver ..... $75 - $200 (often per trip, as in from funeral home to church, then from church to cemetery would be two charges)
• Utility Vehicle and Driver .... $75 - $200 (this can also include transportation of the funeral home staff and/or funeral director and can be charged per trip as well)
• Use of Funeral Coach for local transportation in conjunction with funeral .... $100-$250
• Cemetery Tent (during normal business hours) .... Free-$200
• Cemetery Tent (outside normal business hours) .... Free - $300
• Cemetery Grave Equipment (normal business hours) .... Free - $500
• Cemetery Grave Equipment (outside normal business hours) ... Free - $750
• Transport of body for autopsy purposes (each way) .... $100 - $250
• Transportation of remains to Crematory .... $100 - $250
• Pick up of Cremated Remains .... $Free - $150
• Transportation of Cremated Remains to Cemetery .... $35 - $175
• Transport of Remains from Airport (within 25 miles) ... $100-$250

SUMMARY

By now I'm sure your head is reeling from information overload. This is another good reason to hire a professional, if you're not a member of a memorial society, to both research these items for you and explain your options. The vast array of potential fees and charges is by design, to muddle the decision-making process in much the same way the lawyers we so foolishly elected to pass our laws have muddled the tax code so that only another lawyer can understand it. The Affordable Funeral has tear-out and take-with checklists for all these items and would likely be worth having if for no other reason. Read the next section on caskets closely, as having a rudimentary knowledge of materials and terminology can help save you hundreds, perhaps thousands on this typically-overpriced item.

Next: Tricks of the Trade: Common Ploys and Scams

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