The High Cost of Dying

09/08/2010 01:17 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

In the past few recessionary years, most of us have gotten used to closely watching our expenses for everything from child rearing to college to retirement funding. Another important area where comparison shopping makes sense is funerals. Yes, funerals.

While it may not make for typical water cooler chatter, dying in America is expensive and the costs are often borne by grieving family members who are in no mood to haggle. Just as life insurance is meant to benefit family members of the deceased, planning funeral arrangements in advance can save survivors time and a significant amount of money.

Expenses vary widely, but a traditional funeral and burial can easily cost $10,000 or more, once you factor in a burial plot, funeral services, casket, viewings, flowers, obituary notices, limousines, etc. But for those whose religious or personal beliefs don't require that specific funeral protocols or traditions be followed, there are many ways to reduce costs while still honoring your deceased loved ones and their survivors.

Here are a few ideas you may not have considered:

Veterans, their immediate family members, public health workers and certain civilians who've provided military-related service are entitled to burial at a national cemetery with a grave marker. Burial for veterans is free, but families are responsible for funeral home expenses and transportation to the cemetery. Click HERE for details.

A $255 lump-sum death benefit that can be used for funeral expenses is available to surviving spouses or minor children of eligible workers who paid into Social Security.

For many, cremation is a viable option to burial. Even with the same funeral services, cremation is typically far less expensive since caskets often cost thousands of dollars. If you still plan to hold a viewing first before the cremation, ask the funeral home if you can rent an attractive casket for the ceremony.

Some families prefer not to hold a public viewing of the deceased. For them, "direct cremation" or "direct burial" may make sense. Because the body is promptly cremated or interred, embalming and cosmetology services are not necessary, which saves hundreds of dollars. Also, with direct cremation you can opt for an unfinished wood coffin or heavy cardboard enclosure for the journey to the crematorium.

You can purchase a casket and cremation urn from a source other than your funeral home, such as another funeral home, a local casket store or an online retailer (even Costco and Walmart now sell caskets online) -- often for far less money. Under federal law, the funeral home cannot assess handling fees or require you to be there to take delivery.

Many people choose to donate their body to science as a way to advance medical science. Organizations are forbidden by law from paying for donated bodies; however, many programs will pay for transporting the body and final cremation. For a list of body donation programs in the U.S., click HERE. Also, check out the Anatomy Gifts Registry for additional information on whole-body or organ donation.

Some people opt to prepay their arrangements, but the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) advises caution and recommends you ask potential funeral home candidates:

  • What happens to money and interest earned that you've prepaid?
  • Are prices locked in, or can they charge due to inflation?
  • Are you protected if the firm goes out of business?
  • Can you cancel the contract and be reimbursed if you change your mind?
  • Can the prepaid plan be transferred if you move elsewhere?
As always, it's a good idea to check with a financial advisor before committing to any contract.

And finally, it pays to know your rights when it comes to funeral expenses. The FTC enforces a federal law commonly known as the "Funeral Rule," which regulates how funeral providers must deal with consumers. Among its provisions:

  • Upon request, funeral homes must provide an itemized price list of all its goods and services, whether you call -- even anonymously -- or visit in person.
  • You have the right to choose among their offerings (with certain state-mandated exceptions) and are not required to purchase package deals containing unwanted items.
  • Before you purchase a casket or outer burial container from a funeral home, they must share descriptions and prices before showing you stock on hand -- so you'll know whether less expensive alternatives are available.
  • Providers that offer cremations must make alternative containers (besides caskets) available.
  • You can't be charged for embalming procedures you didn't authorize, unless they're required by state law.
The FTC's website includes much helpful information including tips for planning a funeral, a comprehensive publication called "Funerals: A Consumer Guide," and links to other organizations that can help with funeral arrangements.

Death is the ultimate fact of life; it pays to be prepared for what expenses will be so you -- or your loved ones -- won't be forced to make difficult decisions during your time of grieving.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.

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