Trade Secrets of a Mortician (Funeral Director)

Funeral Director Of the many questions asked of me in my more than 25 years as a funeral director, there is one that is asked most: Why are funerals so expensive?

According to the National Funeral Directors Association's web site, the national median cost for a traditional funeral in 2009 was $6,560. This figure does not take into account outside costs for the cemetery or crematory, flowers, death notices, pallbearers and vaults. Add in all these expenses and the funeral bill can easily exceed $10,000 these days.

Keep in mind that some of the costs typically ascribed to a funeral are not controlled by the funeral home. Although charges for the transfer of the body from the place of death, preparation of the deceased, visitation and the casket are within the province of the funeral director, expenses related to the cemetery and crematory are not. Also not under the control of the funeral home are clergy fees, floral tributes and death notices. Lumping together the latter costs along with the funeral home charges can result in a final bill that appears expensive indeed.

So, what can you do to control the cost of a funeral? There are a number of things that can be done, some small, others more substantial. The following are 10 sure ways -- adapted from my book, 'Grave Undertakings' -- to cut the high cost of a funeral.

1. Limit the amount of floral tributes.

The majority of cemeteries and crematories only accept a limited number of floral arrangements. Instead of each family member sending an individual piece, pool your resources and send one or two.

2. Exclude non-essentials.

Certain things are not essential to a funeral. For instance, instead of using limousines, drive your own cars to the funeral. Today, almost everyone drives and funeral attendees can carpool. Memorial cards, pre-printed acknowledgment cards, metal plates with the deceased's name and newspaper death notices are often also not necessary.

3. Make it personal.

Instead of purchasing pricey "burial" clothing from the funeral home, use a favorite outfit that had meaning for the deceased and was perhaps worn on a special occasion. If you need to buy something new, consider an off-price store. And when needed, family and friends may serve as pallbearers.

4. Omit the outer burial vault.

Vaults, which enclose the casket, are available in concrete or steel, and can be costly. Cemetery regulations vary across the country; while some cemeteries require the use of a vault, many do not. Your funeral director will know what a particular cemetery requires. You can save by omitting this if allowable.

5. Opt for shorter visitation periods or no viewing at all.

Long visitation periods (two and three days) at the funeral home have, for the most part, become a thing of the past. Today, one day of visitation is most common. Often people who would come to pay respects have moved or passed away and so there are relatively few people available to attend the wake. Depending on your needs, one day may be enough. Another option is having a limited viewing on the day of the funeral. Or you can choose a religious service and burial or cremation without any visitation.

6. Consider cremation.

The cost of cremation is approximately one fourth less than the price of a grave opening. And if you don't already own cemetery property, the savings are even more substantial, since burial plots generally sell for upward of $1,000. Cremation should not be confused with direct cremation, in which the remains are taken from the place of death to the crematory with no preparation and no services. Direct cremation is the least expensive mode of disposition.

7. Meet at the cemetery for a graveside service or don't go at all.

A graveside service involves family and friends gathering at the cemetery for a funeral ceremony, bypassing the traditional wake at the funeral home. You may also choose to have a member of the clergy officiate and have eulogies given by those who were close to the deceased, all at the graveside. A lower-cost alternative to the graveside service is the direct burial, which like direct cremation, doesn't involve any services or attendance by family. In either case, you will be responsible for purchasing a burial plot (if the deceased doesn't already have one), as well as the grave-opening charge.

8. Choose a less-expensive casket.

A casket makes up a substantial portion of the entire funeral price. Prices range from several hundred to many thousands of dollars and there are numerous options available through funeral homes. Choose a casket in a price range you can afford; your loved one does not have to buried in bronze. Most people select a particular casket for personal reasons, such as color or decoration. Remember this is a major purchase that will soon either be buried or cremated. There is no need to feel you must spend beyond your means. Your love for the deceased is not measured by the price of the casket.

9. Options for those who served our country.

Honorably discharged veterans are entitled to a free grave for themselves, their spouse and dependent children (under 21), along with a monument or grave marker, in one of the 137 veterans' national cemeteries in the United States. In addition, the Veterans Administration will reimburse the transportation charges -- hospital removal and hearse to cemetery -- if a veteran dies in a VA Hospital or VA-approved nursing home facility.

10. Pre-plan the funeral.

Prearranging a funeral before a death has occurred allows for well-thought-out decisions not colored by emotion. What's more, you can decide in advance how much to spend. If you decide to pre-pay, funds will be placed in an interest-bearing burial account through the funeral home. Most funeral homes guarantee that the future interest on the savings will offset any increase in the costs of their services.

Using some or all of these suggestions can substantially lower the cost of a funeral; and the best advice to follow is the last one, to make plans ahead of time for the inevitable eventuality of the event. Letting your loved ones know what you would like for your funeral before the actual event relieves them of the burden of having to choose for you once you are gone.

Next:Confessions of a Mortician (Funeral Director)

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