Sam Kaplan for AARP
En español | None of us likes talking about death. Or funerals. But at some point you’re going to shuffle off this mortal coil and need a funeral. You can make things easier on your family and get the send-off you want by planning your own. To some, this feels like creepy, death-obsessed prepping. That’s probably why, according to a 2017 survey by the National Funeral Director’s Association, just 21 percent of Americans have talked with a loved one about their funeral. You’re also likely to plan a funeral for a family member at some point, so you need to know how to make smart decisions. Here are some tips to help you.
Learn what’s involved.
To plan a funeral, you need to know what happens at one. There are three general components: preparing the corpse, holding the ceremony and handling the interment. There are a range of options for each. Embalming or cremation? A full service at a funeral home, a graveside one or a DIY ceremony? Who will be there? A viewing of the body or not? Burial in the ground or in a tomb, or ashes scattered someplace meaningful? You can get funeral planning checklists online to help you know what decisions you’ll need to make.
Plan in advance, but don’t pay in advance
Funeral homes sell plans that promise better rates if you buy a package now, years before you die. Don’t do it, says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a death-care industry watchdog group. "You can plan a funeral ahead of time without prepaying,” he says. “Planning is not the same thing as prepaying.” The drawback to prepaying, Slocum says, is you can lose your money in cancellation fees if you change plans or move away from the state where you bought the plan. “A much better approach to save money is to comparison shop at the time of death,” Slocum says. The one exception is if you’re facing a Medicaid drawdown. In that case, a prepaid funeral can be a smart move.
Find out what the average costs are.
The FCA has links on its site to itemized lists of funeral costs, by state. Check it out so you have an idea of what you can expect to pay in your area for everything from a casket to the cost of that final hearse ride to the cemetery.
With the average funeral costing between $7,000 and $10,000, you need to treat this like any other large purchase. You wouldn’t buy a car from the first dealership you walked into. So don’t buy a funeral without checking with more than one funeral home. You can pay thousands less just by going a few miles down the road. Call several funeral homes and get quotes. Some funeral homes are reluctant to reveal prices, but if they resist, insist. The Federal Trade Commission requires them to quote prices over the phone or in person. They are not required to give prices online or by email. You can get some pricing info online at funeral comparison sites Parting.com and the interestingly named Funeralocity.com. Both offer itemized lists of goods and services available at many funeral homes around the country.
Be sure you know exactly what’s in a package deal.
Funeral homes sell packages of goods and services, but sometimes there’s more wrapped into them than you want. Sometimes they don’t have all the goods and services you want. For example, a gravestone and cemetery plot may not be included in a package. Ask for an itemized list upfront, with prices for each service or item.
Buy only what you want.
You don’t have to buy a package. You can unbundle them and buy goods and services individually and combine them into the funeral you want. You don’t have to buy everything from the funeral home, either. You may save money by buying flowers, an urn or grave site elsewhere. You can even buy a casket somewhere else. The average cost of one bought from a funeral home is $2,400. Amazon will deliver a $740 casket with free shipping for Prime members. Really.
Consider joining a memorial society.
These nonprofit organizations offer price surveys of local funeral homes and guidance in planning a funeral. Many of them negotiate discounts at local funeral homes for members. They’re like a buyers club for funerals. One-time membership fees vary but generally cost less than $50. Check the FCA’s website for a state-by-state list of memorial societies to find one near you.
Talk it over and write it down.
Tell your loved ones what sort of funeral you’d like to have, and how much you want to spend. Be specific, but realize your loved ones may not be able to deliver on everything you want. “Funeral planning is not a dictation to your survivors,” Slocum says. “It’s a conversation you have with your kids (or other loved ones.) Make them part of the process.” You can make the burden of organizing your funeral greater by being too specific with your plans, Slocum says. Your family may not be able to pull off that jazz funeral you wanted, so don’t leave them feeling guilty because they didn’t fulfill your final wishes to a T. Tell them it’s OK if plan B is a sax solo, graveside. You won’t be listening anyway.