Cost-conscious consumers can find the price of almost anything online these days, so it may seem strange that many funeral homes do not post their prices.  

Consumer advocates, including Checkbook, want the federal government to require online price disclosure. The funeral industry is vehemently opposed.

Planning a funeral is an emotional experience; it’s also a costly consumer purchase that typically needs to be done quickly.

The median cost of a funeral with viewing and burial in 2019 was $7,640, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. If a vault is included, something typically required by the cemetery, the median cost jumps to $9,135. These figures do not include cemetery costs, charges for flowers, or the price of a grave monument or marker.

The national median cost of a funeral with viewing and cremation, not including a cremation casket, rental casket, or cremation container, was $5,150. There would also be cemetery costs for families who choose to bury the cremated remains.

Remember, these are median prices (half more expensive/half less expensive). Some people will spend $20,000 or more on a funeral.

Checkbook’s ratings of funeral homes include feedback from consumers, plus costs for sample arrangements. Our undercover shoppers collected those prices; often they had to badger funeral homes into sending us their price lists.

Our shopping finds massive differences among funeral homes in the same region for the same services. For example, in the Puget Sound rea, Checkbook’s shoppers found the price of direct cremation ranged from $589 to $4,090, with an average of $1,903. For a sample traditional funeral, the price ranged from $4,815 to $15,220—a $10,405 spread.

Not Your Typical Consumer Purchase

The death of a loved one is the first time most people contact a funeral home—or even consider the costs involved. Most of us have no idea how to get a fair price.

The Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule, enacted in 1982, is designed to prevent unfair practices. It gives consumers the right to buy only the services and products they want and prohibits funeral providers from making misleading statements, such as saying embalming is required when it is not.

The rule also brings transparency to the transaction, requiring funeral homes to give price quotes over the phone and provide an itemized price list if you visit.

A national survey by the Consumer Federation of America and the Funeral Consumers Alliance released in January found that most consumers do not understand their funeral rights.

As part of a routine review of the Funeral Rule, the FTC is considering whether to require funeral homes to post their price lists online. Checkbook contributed a statement to the FTC’s requests for comments. We urged it to require online disclosure of pricing and to broaden the rule in other ways. The comment period closed last year, but the commission has yet to announce any decisions.

Consumer advocates say the rule change is long overdue. Simply requiring funeral homes to provide a price list  in person or some price information over the phone, they say, isn’t good enough.

“Funerals are complicated; there’s a range of different services available. You need to see what the options are before you can ask questions, which is why seeing the full price list is so important,” said Stephen Brobeck, senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America. “And to get the full price list, you actually have to visit the funeral home. Let’s say you’re arranging a funeral for a parent, for example, and you’re out of town. It’s very difficult to get those price lists.”

Funeral directors oppose any mandate to post their prices online. Market forces, they say, should control price disclosure, not the government.  

“We always encourage funeral directors, if they feel it's going to help them in their market, to post prices online, and more and more funeral homes are doing that if they're in a competitive market, or if they think that's going to help them,” said Scott Gilligan, general counsel at the National Funeral Directors Association. “But, if they're in a market where there's not any type of demand for that, where it's not going to assist them, we don't see the government having any basis for requiring every funeral home in the country to post their prices on their websites.

Joshua Slocum, executive director of the non-profit Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA), says the funeral industry limits competition by restricting price information.

“They want people to believe that it's normal to 'simply trust your family's funeral home' because it works out to their economic advantage,” Slocum told Checkbook.

Some Money-Saving Tips

Is there anything wrong with trying to save money when shopping for funeral services? It all depends on who you ask.

Consumer advocates believe it’s perfectly acceptable—and advisable—to comparison shop. Planning a funeral, they say, while filled with emotion, is still a consumer purchase that needs to be evaluated carefully.

“We want to prevent people from getting into a situation where they have sticker shock, or where they believe incorrectly that the only way they can bury a loved one is to go into debt,” FCA’s Slocum said.

Slocum suggests calling five local funeral homes and ask for the price of a direct cremation—a standard service that includes transfer of the deceased and the cremation. It’s not unusual for prices to differ by more than 300 percent, depending on where you live Slocum said, from about $900 to more than $3,000.

“Anyone who wants to make this process potentially much less expensive, and also much less forced and frenetic, is wise to think about planning ahead of time,” Slocum advised. “I don't mean paying ahead of time. I mean planning. That involves the same kinds of activities you'd undertake if you were planning on buying a new car. The most obvious one is shop around.”

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Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He is also the consumer reporter for KOMO radio in Seattle. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.