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Funeral Homes (From CHECKBOOK, Spring/Summer 2014)
 
Go to Ratings of 51 Boston Area Funeral Homes

Checklist of Tasks

Funerals

In addition to the funeral itself—whatever form it takes—a number of associated details require attention. Friends, coworkers, and fellow congregants can play a major role in relieving the bereaved family of many of these tasks. 

What Must Be Done Immediately 

  • If the deceased chose to be an organ donor, time is of the essence. Notify the attending physician and medical staff immediately, and they will notify the closest transplant center. 
  • A death certificate must be filed before cremation or burial takes place. The certificate is issued either by a physician who has been treating the deceased or, if no such physician is available, by the medical examiner or coroner. If the circumstances of death are at all questionable, the medical examiner is summoned. 
  • Remember also that survivors must choose the funeral home. If you haven’t chosen a funeral home and the death occurred in a hospital, it may be possible to keep the body in the morgue until you make a decision. 

Other Tasks 

  • Notify the deceased’s lawyer and will executor. 
  • Make a list of everyone else to notify right away, and then make the calls. 
  • If memorial donations are to be substituted for flowers, decide on the organization and announce it in the obituary. 
  • Write an obituary. Include the deceased’s age, place of birth, cause of death, occupation, college degrees, memberships held, military service, outstanding work, and survivors in immediate family. Provide time and location of funeral services. 
  • Make a list of additional people to be notified by letter, card, or printed notice. 
  • Notify insurance companies, including automobile insurance, for immediate cancellation and refund, if available. 
  • Keep a record of all calls and visits. Arrange for friends or family members to answer the door and phone. 
  • Plan hospitality for visitors, including transportation, if necessary. 
  • Arrange childcare as needed. 
  • Coordinate food service for the first days. Different friends might each bring a dinner. 
  • Consider special needs of the household, such as cleaning. Again, friends can divide the work. 
  • Plan for disposition of flowers after the funeral—for instance, to a hospital or nursing home. 
  • Check promptly on all debts and installment payments. Some may carry insurance clauses that will cancel them. If there is to be a delay in making payments, ask creditors about extensions. 
  • If the deceased lived alone, contact the landlord, utility companies, postal service, and newspaper carrier, if necessary. Tell the police the home is empty, and ask neighbors to report unusual activity. 
  • Prepare a list of people who should be sent notes or acknowledgments for helping, visiting, calling, writing, sending flowers, or making donations. 

Grieving for a loved one is acutely difficult immediately after the loss. At this time, you don’t want to sit across the desk from a salesperson in a high-pressure, time-sensitive situation in which you have to make a series of important and expensive choices. In these moments, you’re vulnerable to making hasty, costly decisions that might not make sense with the perspective that a little more time would bring. 

Although funeral homes provide important services, they are also businesses, and as such are typically run with an eye toward profit margins and maximizing the sale of various products and services—some of which you and your family may not want, do not need, and cannot afford. 

This article reviews the many choices confronting you and will help you find resources to obtain appropriate services at a reasonable cost. 

It makes sense to read this article when there is no immediate need, to get a frame of reference if the need suddenly arises. 

In addition, take this opportunity to make decisions in advance for yourself and your loved ones—so that decisions are made based both on your expressed preferences and the emotional needs of your survivors. 

Though it is difficult for many people to do, preplanning your own funeral arrangements is sensible and thoughtful. Your willingness to become informed will give you some input for the final decisions of your life, and your personal involvement in planning your final disposition will be a source of comfort to your survivors. 

Imagine the more common alternative: A grieving family must respond on the spot to a long list of questions from a funeral director. The funeral director is at ease in a situation of death when the family is distraught and knows little or nothing about the choices or what they cost. The funeral director may subtly manipulate the family’s grief and guilt to encourage extravagant purchases. This situation, far too common, perhaps partially explains why most funerals and burial arrangements in the U.S. cost between $7,000 and $10,000. There is nothing wrong with an expensive funeral if that is what the family wants. What is wrong is for a family that might prefer a simple, dignified ceremony to end up with something lavish and costly. 

In what follows, we report our findings from surveys of funeral homes and funeral home customers. We also steer you to other resources that can help you make good decisions. And we review the basic choices you’ll need to make. 

Where to Get Help 

Most people need help making funeral arrangements, especially when arrangements are made during the period of bereavement. There is one firm rule: Never go by yourself to a funeral home to choose the services you will be purchasing. Alone, in the hands of a funeral director, you are too vulnerable to making decisions based on grief or guilt. You need a less-involved companion to assure you that sensible cost-saving decisions are all right. 

The obvious ones to turn to for help with funeral arrangements are family, friends, members of the clergy, and hospital social workers. But specialized organizations can help as well. 

A particularly helpful source of advice can be funeral consumer organizations, or “memorial societies.” These nonprofit organizations provide consumer education and resources regarding your rights and options for burial and cremation. Some also negotiate discounted prices with local funeral homes for their members. Typically, a one-time nominal donation is required to join. 

The Funeral Consumers Alliance (www.funerals.org) is the national umbrella group for affiliated funeral consumer groups in the U.S. Many local affiliates perform price surveys of area funeral homes. They also provide information on organ or tissue donation, and provide information on death benefits. They do not arrange for funerals, pay for funerals, or choose a specific funeral director for you. 

Below, we list contact information for the memorial societies in the Boston area. To find memorial societies in other areas, contact the Funeral Consumers Alliance at 800-765-0107 or visit www.funerals.org

Disposition Options 

There are several options for disposing of a deceased person’s remains. 

Burial 

Burial is the traditional choice of disposition. It can be done directly, with no viewing or ceremonies, or with any combination of viewing, ceremony, and graveside service. In any case, burial usually requires you to pay for a casket; cemetery plot; fees to open and close the grave; cemetery endowment (upkeep); and a marker, monument, or headstone. At most cemeteries, a grave liner or vault is also required. Though most burials are below ground, another usually more expensive option is burial above ground in a mausoleum. 

Direct burial is the least expensive option: A funeral home files the necessary paperwork, places the unembalmed body in a casket, and takes the remains to a cemetery for burial, usually within one day. Direct burial is often accompanied by a simple graveside service. This alternative eliminates expenses for embalming and some expenses for funeral home facilities, and often results in use of a minimum-priced casket. 

Cremation 

Cremation is an increasingly popular choice. Neither a casket nor embalming is usually required, but if the body must be held for several days, refrigeration or embalming may be necessary. Cremation, like burial, can be direct or following a funeral. It is also possible to have an embalming, viewing, and ceremony followed by cremation. Some funeral homes offer rental caskets for cremation, while others sell modest caskets designed for cremation. Cremation also allows flexibility as to when or where services are held—many families now hold memorial services in their own homes or at the deceased’s favorite place. 

Cremated remains may be scattered, kept at home, buried in a cemetery, or interred in a columbarium (an above-ground structure containing permanent niches). Burial in a cemetery or placement in a columbarium adds to the cost. 

Donation 

Whether a body is to be buried or cremated, part or all of it can first be donated to improve the quality of life of others—or offer the gift of life itself. Donation of at least some body parts is an option for almost anyone, regardless of age or medical history. Whether donation is right for you is a matter of personal choice. 

Individuals can donate organs or tissues or their whole bodies. If you wish to become a donor, let your family know, enroll with the local organ donor registry (see below), and have it noted on your driver’s license. If you wish to make a whole body donation, make prior arrangements with the medical school of your choice. Donation of a whole body cannot be made without these prior arrangements. 

After organ and tissue donation, you still need to make all the usual funeral arrangements. Even after the removal of organs and tissues, open casket ceremonies are usually possible. 

If arrangements have been made for donation of a body to a medical school, upon notification the school will transport the body and assume responsibility for disposal by cremation. Depending on the school, the ashes may be returned to the family, who may not get them back for two years. With the exception of removing corneas, whole body donation usually precludes the donation of individual organs or tissues for transplants. 

Planning the Ceremony and Choosing Funeral Home Services 

The type of ceremony ranges from a simple, direct disposition to a lavish funeral. Consider whether you want a traditional funeral, with the casket open or closed, or would prefer a memorial service with no body present. Memorial services, church services, and graveside services usually cost less than conventional funerals. 

You also need to decide between a religious and secular service. Either can be held at a funeral home, religious establishment, residence, or elsewhere. 

Finally, decide whom to invite. Do you want the ceremony open to all relatives and friends, or to immediate family only? 

Determine what would be a meaningful commemoration of the deceased. Something simple can often be quite profound. You don’t need an expensive funeral to express love and respect. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires funeral homes to provide a copy of their General Price List (GPL) if you visit their facility and ask about costs. Although they are not required to send you the entire price list if you call on the phone, many will. If you have chosen a specific type of service, such as a simple cremation, they are required to quote a price over the phone upon request. Some funeral homes now also post their GPLs on their websites. GPLs must include itemized prices for at least the following, if offered— 

  • Direct cremation 
  • Immediate burial 
  • Basic services of funeral director and staff (and overhead) 
  • Transfer of remains to the funeral home 
  • Forwarding of remains to another funeral home 
  • Receiving remains from another funeral home 
  • Embalming 
  • Other preparation of the body 
  • Use of facilities/staff for viewing 
  • Use of facilities/staff for funeral ceremony 
  • Use of facilities/staff for memorial service 
  • Use of equipment and staff for graveside service 
  • Hearse 
  • Limousine 
  • Either prices for individual caskets or the range of prices available on a separate price list 
  • Either prices for individual outer burial containers or the range of prices available on a separate price list 

Many consumers find deciphering a GPL confusing and overwhelming. Because some run 20 pages or more and include unfamiliar jargon and bewildering package options, get a written price quote for any services you’re considering. 

Funeral homes offer many other items, and it’s reasonable for you to expect full disclosure of their prices as well. For example, a home might offer prayer cards, flowers, music, burial clothing, programs, memorial flags, placement of newspaper death notices, a police escort, hired pallbearers, and acknowledgment cards. 

The funeral home is required by law to make certain disclosures about your choices. A home must tell you— 

  • About all services it offers and that you are free to select only those you desire. If legal or other requirements mean you must buy any items you did not specifically request, this must be explained in a written statement describing the goods and services you selected. 
  • Except in certain special cases, embalming is not required by law. Embalming may be necessary, however, if you select certain funeral arrangements, such as a funeral with viewing. If you do not want embalming, you usually have the right to choose an arrangement that does not require you to pay for it, such as direct cremation or immediate burial. 
  • If you want to arrange a direct cremation, you can use an alternative container. Alternative containers that encase the body can be made of materials such as fiberboard. 

Since each option offered by funeral homes costs money and affects the atmosphere of a funeral service, you need to choose carefully what you want and don’t want. These decisions are personal matters and should not be dictated by a funeral director. Several deserve brief discussion. 

Preparation of the Body 

Most funeral homes require embalming if an open casket will be available for public viewing. Some funeral homes will arrange a private viewing of the remains without embalming if it is performed soon after death (usually for an extra charge). 

The average cost for preparing the body—including embalming, cosmetology, and dressing—in our survey of funeral homes was about $1,000. It costs extra if the funeral home provides the clothing. The main thing to remember is that embalming and an open casket open the door to all sorts of additional funeral expenses. 

If not embalmed, the body is refrigerated. The FTC requires funeral homes to offer up to three days refrigeration without charge as a part of standard funeral arrangements. After three days, the funeral home can start charging for it, but most funeral homes charge for refrigeration only if there is an extended delay in time of disposition. 

Casket 

The casket is usually the single most expensive item in funerals, but just how expensive depends on you. Casket prices range from less than $1,000 for the least expensive pine or pressed wood box to $25,000 or more for elaborate caskets made of copper or bronze with innerspring mattresses and plush velvet or silk linings. Since the markup on a casket is often three to five times its wholesale price, a funeral director’s advice—and even the design of the selection room—may steer you toward an expensive choice. Most people choose midrange models made of steel or hardwoods like mahogany or walnut for $3,000 to $6,000. If a closed casket is draped with a flag, funeral pall, or flowers, a less expensive casket can be used. 

The least expensive containers, cardboard containers or pouches, are adequate for cremation or direct disposition. Some homes may have rental caskets that can be used for viewing, which allows you to buy a less expensive one for disposition. 

You may have to ask to see less expensive models, as they may not be on display. Do not be misled on emotional grounds or on the basis of a casket’s claimed preservation attributes. 

Urns 

With cremation becoming increasingly popular for many funeral homes, urns have replaced caskets as major profit centers. You can purchase an urn from the funeral home or provide one yourself. Like casket prices, funeral home urn prices range dramatically, from less than $50 to thousands of dollars for artist-made urns. 

Vault or Grave Liner 

Many cemeteries require a vault or grave liner to hold a casket to prevent the ground from collapsing or caving in. Unlike caskets, this item is rarely included in the package price of a “complete” funeral. Prices of outer burial containers typically range from about $500 for the least expensive concrete grave liner to $8,000 or more for a “triple reinforced” bronze vault. Because neither vaults nor liners preserve remains, a cement liner serves the same purpose as an elaborate vault at a considerably lower cost. Because a vault or grave liner might cost less from a cemetery than from a funeral home, check this out before making a decision. 

Selecting a Funeral Home 

Once you have decided on means of disposition, type of ceremony, and services and merchandise you desire, you can select a funeral home. We have gathered some data to help you. 

Ratings from Clients 

We surveyed area consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) for their ratings of funeral homes they have used. Our Ratings Tables show results for the homes for which we received 10 or more ratings. In general, funeral homes rate rather high. (Click here for more information on our survey and other research methods.) 

Complaint Histories 

In addition to ratings from consumers, for firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our Ratings Tables show counts of complaints we gathered from the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for a recent three-year period. For more information on reported complaint counts, click here

Prices 

Our callers asked for prices of three types of services: 

  • Direct cremation—Includes home’s basic fee, least expensive cremation container/casket, and crematory cost. 
  • Immediate burial—Includes home’s basic fee, least expensive casket, and least expensive grave liner. 
  • Traditional funeral—Includes the minimum services of the funeral director and staff; transfer of deceased from place of death to funeral home; embalming, cosmetology, hairdressing, dressing, and casketing; least expensive oak (solid or veneer) casket; least expensive grave liner; one two-hour visitation session at funeral home the day before the funeral service; supervision by staff of funeral service at a church; hearse; and supervision of a committal/graveside service. 

The price range for each type of service was very large. The price of direct cremation ranged from $1,245 to $4,285, with an average of $2,748. For our sample traditional funeral, the price ranged from $6,265 to $13,705—a $7,440 spread—with an average of $9,558. 

If you want services different from what’s included in our packages, Table 1 indicates what they would cost if selected separately. As you can see, the variation is large. 

Table 1—Low, Average, and High Prices at Surveyed Funeral Homes for Elements of a Traditional Funeral

Table 1
Low, Average, and High Prices at Surveyed Funeral Homes for Elements of a Traditional Funeral
Service Low price Average price High price
Transfer remains to funeral home $225 $432 $745
Embalming $495 $730 $1,295
Cosmetology, dressing, and casketing $55 $290 $635
Least expensive oak casket $1,295 $2,498 $4,795
Visitation at funeral home the day before funeral service for two hours $250 $623 $1,050
Supervision of funeral service at a church (day after visitation) $250 $692 $1,450
Hearse $280 $414 $745

If you wish to consider one of the many area homes for which we have no data, if time permits shop first by phone and then personally visit a few homes. When you call for prices, the funeral director very likely will encourage you to come in because “these matters are too complicated to discuss over the phone” or “we will surely be able to work something out between us.” But you do have the right to get price quotes on specific services over the phone, and it may be a more convenient, less pressured way to get several quotes. 

Other Considerations 

In addition to customer ratings, complaint histories, and prices, consider a home’s location, tastefulness, and willingness to accommodate your wishes. 

Payment Options 

Timing of Payments 

The funeral industry is aware that many people find it difficult to quickly pull together several thousands of dollars to pay for a funeral. On the other hand, since it is impossible to reclaim a coffin or take back any of the services associated with a funeral, funeral homes understandably want to be sure they get paid. Our survey of area homes turned up several arrangements for financing funerals. A few homes ask for payment in advance once arrangements are decided upon, although in cases of need they might work out a payment schedule. (Advance payment is expected most often for cremation.) Other homes allow 30 to 60 days for payment with no interest charges, and almost all homes accept credit cards. Some funeral homes have their own installment plans, some charging interest and some not. 

Benefits That May Be Available 

Because settling an estate usually takes quite a while, benefits are an important factor in partially or even completely defraying funeral expenses. Because many people are not aware of the benefits available for final expenses, money often remains unclaimed. Remember that most death benefits are not automatically sent to survivors and must be applied for. 

Social Security 

A Social Security death benefit of $255 is available to a surviving eligible spouse or dependent child (under 18). When there is no survivor, no payment will be made. An application for the payment must be filed within two years of the death. Payment is made directly to the surviving spouse or entitled child, never directly to the funeral home. 

Veterans’ Benefits 

Honorably discharged veterans and their spouses may be entitled to burial in a national cemetery with a grave marker and a flag for the casket. Other benefits may be available if the death occurred during active duty or during hospitalization in a veterans facility. Check with the Veterans Administration’s Benefits Office (800-827-1000 and www.cem.va.gov) to determine the benefits to which you (or the deceased) may be entitled. 

Other Benefits 

Other benefits that may be available are death payments from fraternal organizations, lodges, clubs, union welfare funds, retirement plans, and employers. 

Filing for death benefits on behalf of survivors is a standard service of most funeral homes. If survivors decide to file their own claims, the funeral director should be asked if this will reduce the home’s “professional services” charge. 

Necessary Documents and Papers 

Whether survivors apply for death benefits themselves or let the funeral director do it, they will require a number of documents. Certified copies are required in some instances; photocopies are not always acceptable. Survivors will need: 

  • Social Security number of the deceased 
  • Typically five to 10 certified copies of the death certificate to establish insurance claims, Social Security, and other claims 
  • Copies of birth certificates of surviving spouse and minor children for Social Security, VA, and other benefits 
  • Copies of marriage certificate for Social Security and VA benefits for surviving spouse and minor children 
  • Copy of W-2 form or federal income tax return for the most recent calendar year as proof of deceased’s record for Social Security benefits 
  • Copy of veteran’s discharge papers for VA benefits 
  • Copies of receipted bill from funeral home for VA benefits—also for Social Security benefits if applicant is not the surviving spouse 

Prepaid Funeral Plans 

You can write down your own preferences for your funeral arrangements and give them to a likely survivor. Alternatively, you can file a preference form with a funeral home without making any financial commitment. Both actions are advisable. 

In contrast, prepaying for a funeral represents a major financial commitment and, in our opinion, is usually not a good idea. Under a prepayment plan, you arrange with a particular funeral director to pay a lump sum or make installment payments for the items you select for your own funeral. You can make these payments into a trust or a life insurance policy arranged through the funeral home. Before making such a commitment, find out— 

  • What the contract does not cover; 
  • What happens if you die before the plan is fully paid up; 
  • How much you get back if you cancel; 
  • Whether the funeral home has been in business for many years and has a good reputation; 
  • What happens if the funeral home goes out of business or changes ownership; 
  • Whether the arrangement is guaranteed to cover all your funeral arrangements even if prices go up; 
  • Whether the money you put away will earn interest, and at what rate; and, 
  • What happens if you move. 

Do not sign a prepayment plan until your attorney looks over the contract. And be aware that while the funeral industry wants to sell you the peace of mind in sparing your family difficult decisions and expenses when you die, prepaid funerals often create more problems than they solve. It’s not uncommon for the new owner of a funeral home to refuse to honor price guarantees made by the previous owner. Likewise, many “cash advance items”—items or services provided by a third party such as fees for death certificates, opening and closing graves, grave vaults and liners, engraving, and honoraria for clergy or musicians—are not guaranteed, so families frequently face additional expenses. And many unscrupulous funeral directors across the U.S. have simply embezzled customers’ prepaid funds, leaving the family with nothing. 

A simpler arrangement is to open a savings account called a Totten trust at a bank, naming your chosen funeral home as the recipient of the funds upon your death. Alternatively, you can open a joint savings account with a likely survivor; then the survivor will have access to the funds when you die. Both arrangements let the funds avoid probate and make them available immediately for funeral costs. Under both arrangements, however, you must pay income taxes on earnings. 

In any event, tell your likely survivors about any arrangements you make with a funeral home, so they don’t pay for services at a different home. 

Extra Advice:
Death Away from Home 

If You Want the Funeral Held Elsewhere 

If a body needs to be shipped by public transportation, a funeral director can arrange the transfer. You will be charged for services provided by the funeral director who accepts the remains as well as by the business that ships them. The funeral director at either end can make the necessary arrangements, but if the funeral services won’t take place in the city where the death occurred, it’s usually less expensive to have the funeral home at the destination coordinate all arrangements. Find out the amount of the funeral director’s markup or service charge that will be added to transportation charges. 

Make sure that between the two funeral directors you are not charged twice for the same services, especially embalming. Also, unless you want one casket for shipping and another for the funeral, don’t let them sell you two caskets. 

The least expensive time to ship remains is following cremation. The ashes can then be transported by a family member or friend, or shipped to a final location. If cremated remains (“cremains”) are to be taken on an airplane, make sure they are in a container that can be x-rayed. 

Death Overseas 

When death occurs overseas, you must follow local rules and regulations. If you are overseas, make your first call to the American consulate. If you are in the U.S. making arrangements for someone who has died overseas, contact the Department of State’s Office of Overseas Citizens Services at 202-647-5225. This office will advise you about local requirements and options. Ask about all possible arrangements and how much they’ll cost. Keep in mind that local customs may limit your choices; for instance, embalming and cremation are rarely performed in some areas. 

Extra Advice:
Cemeteries 

Our survey of funeral costs did not include cemetery plots or the opening and closing of gravesites, items that typically add thousands of dollars to the other funeral expenses. The following tips can help you deal with cemeteries. 

  • Do some comparison shopping. Cemetery plots are like real estate lots: It’s all about location, location, location. You will find significant variation in the prices of lots, merchandise, and services. 
  • Buying a cemetery plot doesn’t mean you own the land, only the right to be buried there. The cemetery can dictate how your family can use the space. If you want to bury a second casket or urn of ashes, it will probably charge for a second interment. The cemetery is also likely to limit the number of burials per plot. And most cemeteries have rules on what monuments can be placed, what flowers (if any) can be planted, and how long the cemetery waits before clearing away items left at gravesites. 
  • If you are considering purchasing cemetery property and services before death— 
  • Remember that if a death occurs before payment is completed, the outstanding balance on the site, interment charge, and price of the receptacle for the casket are usually due immediately. 
  • Insofar as you and your family members may not always live in your present area, ask if the cemetery belongs to an exchange program so that your lot(s), merchandise, and/or services can be transferred if you move. If not, find out if the cemetery offers alternative plans, such as repurchase or resale on your behalf, and if there are any restrictions on your right to resell the property or merchandise yourself. 
  • Make sure you know how the cemetery will safeguard your prepayments. Find out if they will be deposited in an interest-bearing account or trust fund. 
  • Don’t let cemeteries’ suggestions that the cost of burial and burial merchandise could become prohibitive in a few years frighten you into making pre-need purchases. 
  • As an alternative, consider creating a special savings account for future cemetery purchases. 
  • Take note of the general appearance of any cemetery you are considering. Drive around and check the condition of the grounds. Are buildings and walls well-maintained? Is the grass mowed and clipped around monuments and markers? 
  • Be aware that a cemetery’s perpetual care does not always include maintenance of monuments and markers. Make sure you understand exactly what’s included in any purchase. 
  • When you talk to the sales representative: 
  • Determine whether sites you are considering for two bodies are side by side or a double depth. 
  • Ask whether you can bury cremated remains in the plot. 
  • Ask if the cemetery has a price list you can examine. While cemeteries, unlike funeral homes, are not required to prepare price lists, they should be willing to provide a quote in writing. 
  • Determine whether you are discussing an exact location or area within the cemetery (lot prices vary according to location). 
  • Explore potential savings of buying a family plot or lawn crypts. 
  • Read the cemetery rules and regulations to learn about any restrictions or additional costs. For example, although grave liners are not required by law, most cemeteries require them. Remember that vaults are more expensive than liners. 
  • Once you have made a choice, revisit the cemetery for another inspection before signing any contracts. 
  • You need to consider various options in the purchase of a grave marker or monument. Size, style, inscription, material, and installation charge determine the total price. 
  • You cannot be forced to buy a marker or monument from the cemetery where you buy your lot. Before you use an outside supplier, however, check the cemetery’s rules and regulations regarding installation, care, and maintenance of the memorial. 
  • Ask if the cemetery or supplier buys the merchandise in advance, sets it aside, and provides you with a record of ownership. This policy may protect you if the seller later has financial problems. 
  • Burial charges are usually higher on the weekend. If you intend to prepurchase these services, ask if there will be a refund if burial takes place during the week. 
  • Before signing any contract for property, merchandise, or services, carefully review its terms and provisions. Be certain that it conforms exactly to what you believe you are buying. Make sure that, among the other things listed, it includes: 
  • A full description of the lot and its location. 
  • A description of the type, size, and design of burial merchandise, and of services to be performed. Does the price include installation of merchandise? 
  • Guarantees for transfer of lots to another cemetery (or other arrangements) should you or your family members move, if that is part of the agreement. 
  • The cost of each item and the total cost. 
  • That all cemetery expenses are guaranteed, regardless of the actual cost at time of death. Because some cemeteries will not guarantee the price of opening and closing the grave, the vault or liner, the monument, or engraving, survivors end up paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars more to cover items they thought they already paid for. 

Extra Advice:
Green Burials 

“Green burial” is an increasingly popular choice in which an unembalmed body is placed in a biodegradable casket or cloth shroud and buried without a grave liner. The cemetery is planted with native vegetation rather than grass, and graves may be marked by native trees, shrubs, or fieldstones. Instead of looking like a cemetery, the land becomes a natural greenspace. 

To find out more about green burial, visit www.greenburialcouncil.org

Extra Advice:
Buying a Casket Elsewhere 

The price of the casket often represents a large portion of the price of a funeral. When we calculated sample costs for a traditional funeral for each of the homes listed on our Ratings Tables, we included their prices for the least expensive oak (solid or veneer) caskets. On average, the price of the casket alone accounted for roughly 25 percent of funeral homes’ total charges. Had we chosen a more expensive coffin—for example, an elaborate casket made of copper or bronze with plush linings—the price of the casket could have accounted for more than three-fourths of the cost of an average funeral. 

There is tremendous price variation among funeral homes for identical caskets. Many homes mark up caskets three to five times wholesale; some have even higher markups. 

Surprisingly, it is possible to comparison shop for caskets. By law, funeral homes must allow you to provide your own casket and may not charge a handling fee if you do (although they can withhold offered discounts for funeral packages to customers who don’t buy caskets from them). Dozens of online casket vendors sell directly to consumers for next-day delivery to funeral homes. Even Costco and Walmart sell caskets, and several models are for sale via their websites. 

When we compared prices charged by funeral homes for several casket models with prices from a sampling of online direct sellers, we found that direct sellers almost always offered considerable savings. For example, for the least expensive oak casket offered, the average price quoted by area funeral homes was $2,498, compared to $1,465 at www.bestpricecaskets.com, $1,495 at www.casket-online.com, $1,995 at www.peninsularcasket.com, and $2,390 at www.casketsite.com

Although Costco offers a very limited selection of caskets, its prices appear to be quite low: when we checked, all of the caskets it sold cost $950 to $2,600. 

Another strategy is to use prices quoted by direct sellers to negotiate with the funeral home. Once you’ve picked out a casket at a funeral home’s showroom, shop around for a better price online. Then let the funeral home know the best price you found, and that you’ll buy it elsewhere unless the funeral home lowers its price. By law, funeral homes must provide customers with price lists for caskets they sell, and they are not allowed to charge more than the prices shown on the price list; but funeral homes are allowed—at their discretion—to discount casket prices. 

Extra Advice:
Donations 

Be aware that circumstances and location of death may limit organ, tissue, or whole-body donation possibilities. Here are a few caveats: 

  • Organs—If death occurs due to brain damage from accident, stroke, or any situation where life can be artificially sustained by machine, the body can be used for donation of all major organs. The only limitations could be a medical history of problems with any organs. 
  • Tissues—Tissues, including corneas, bone, bone marrow, skin, and connective tissues, can always be donated under the same circumstances in which organs can be donated and in other circumstances up to 24 hours after the heart stops beating. Corneas can be removed in the funeral home, but all other tissue must be removed in a surgical setting. 
  • Whole body donation—Whole bodies usually cannot be donated following embalming or an autopsy, if death was caused by a contagious disease, or after a mutilating accident. If death occurs far away from the specified medical school, donation might not be possible or the family might have to pay to transport the body. In some rare instances, the medical school may refuse a body because it has an oversupply. Since you won’t know for sure if the medical school will accept the body until time of death, be prepared to have an alternative arrangement. 

Except possibly to transport a body to a faraway school, families never pay for donation procedures nor are they paid for organs or tissues. Most medical schools will pay for cremating the body. 

Be wary of other organizations that offer free cremation in exchange for whole body donation, as some come from companies operating on the fringes of the law. Although it is illegal to sell bodies and body parts in the U.S., criminals can collect as much as $20,000 per body for distributing body parts. If you’re not dealing directly with representatives of a medical school, confirm with hospital staff or other professionals that the organization you’re working with is a legitimate community-based nonprofit. 

Here is contact information for the New England Organ Bank, which can advise you on tissue and organ donation, and a list of medical schools for whole body donation: 

  • New England Organ Bank
    60 1st Avenue
    Waltham, MA 02451
    800-446-6362
    www.neob.org 
  • Boston University School of Medicine
    72 East Concord Street
    Boston, MA 02118
    617-638-4245
    www.bumc.bu.edu/busm
  • Harvard Medical School
    260 Longwood Avenue, TMEC 158
    Boston, MA 02115
    617-432-1735
    http://hms.harvard.edu
  • Tufts University School of Medicine
    136 Harrison Avenue
    Boston, MA 02111
    617-636-0837
    http://medicine.tufts.edu
  • University of Massachusetts Medical School
    55 Lake Avenue North
    Worcester, MA 01655
    508-856-2460
    www.umassmed.edu

To become an organ donor, have your intent indicated on your driver’s license. Or register online at http://www.donatelife.net. It’s also a good idea to fill out an organ donor card and carry it with you at all times. 

It’s also important to inform your family about your wishes. Even if you’ve registered as an organ donor and have an organ donor endorsement on your driver’s license, and have completed a donor card, permission of next of kin is required before donation can take place. 

Extra Advice:
Questions and Complaints 

Funeral Consumers Alliance (national)
33 Patchen Road
South Burlington, VT 05403
802-865-8300
www.funerals.org 

Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts
66 Marlborough Street
Boston, MA 02116
617-859-7990
www.fcaemass.org

Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20580
202-326-2222
http://www.ftc.gov

International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association
107 Carpenter Drive
Sterling, VA 20164
800-645-7700
http://www.iccfa.com

National Funeral Directors Association
13625 Bishop’s Drive
Brookfield, WI 53005
800-228-6332
http://www.nfda.org

Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs & Business Regulation, Board of Registration of Funeral Directors and Embalmers
1000 Washington Street, Suite 710
Boston, MA 02118
617-727-1718
www.mass.gov/ocabr/licensee/dpl-boards/em 

Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association
536 Broad Street, Suite 2
Weymouth, MA 02189
781-335-2031
www.massfda.org 

Better Business Bureau
290 Donald Lynch Boulevard
Marlborough, MA 01752
508-652-4800
www.bbb.org 



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