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David Pitt

A funeral stirs emotions, but it’s still wise to treat it as a consumer transaction

By David Pitt
Associated Press / July 28, 2010

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A funeral is one of the steepest expenses we’ll face, but many important decisions are made emotionally, rather than with a close eye on costs.

“It doesn’t matter how much you spend, it doesn’t make a person any less dead. It doesn’t mean you love them any more or less,’’ said Josh Slocum of Funeral Consumers Alliance.

Treat funerals like any other consumer transaction, he said, by comparing costs. Charges in the same area can vary by thousands of dollars.

A federal law makes shopping easier than it was a generation ago. The law requires funeral directors to itemize services and prices. It was designed to ease the pressure on consumers to buy bundled services, some of which they may not need.

The law also stopped funeral directors from forcing consumers to buy a casket from them, often at inflated prices. Funeral homes must accept a casket or urn purchased elsewhere.

A cautionary note about buying online: Make sure the casket can be delivered on time. Although funeral homes must comply with Federal Trade Commission rules, online vendors and cemeteries do not. That could soon change, however. A bill in the US House would require the FTC to regulate other funeral service vendors, including cemeteries.

Here are some tips on shopping:

■ Know your rights. Anyone who inquires must be given a general price list. Customers must be allowed to take this list home.

Funeral directors must provide price information to telephone callers, too.

Funeral homes often offer packages, but consumers have the right to choose only the goods and services they want. Sometimes packages cost less than their individual components.

■ Avoid emotional overspending.

It’s important to keep in mind the family budget, wishes of the deceased, and religious and cultural traditions.

The average cost of a full-service funeral can approach $10,000 but that includes a lot of services many families may not feel they need.

Less costly options include direct burial and direct cremation. Direct burial includes a simple container and burial shortly after death. Similarly, direct cremation occurs shortly after death, with the remains placed in an urn. These services don’t include viewing or visitation, which reduces the single biggest expense: the casket. It’s a common misperception that embalming is required by law. It isn’t in most cases.

■ Understand basics about the casket and burial containers. Costs can range from a few hundred dollars to $5,000 or more. State laws do not require a vault or liner.

■ Seek help if a funeral or costs were not right.

All states but Colorado and Hawaii have a funeral board or agency that regulates funeral directors. And a complaint can be filed with the FTC. Visit ftc.gov.

David Pitt writes for the Associated Press.