Saving on a funeral

Katherine Boyle
Reporter May 4, 2012

This is the last in a four-part series on life milestones. Deal Hunter talked to experts about ways to pay for life’s happiest moments. Now, we discuss the farewell.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.

Of all the milestones we’ve discussed, there’s only one you’re certain to be part of: a funeral. It’s inevitable, yet it’s the morbid, dreaded topic that few people discuss with family before it’s too late to prepare.

“Have the conversation and start talking about death now,” said Josh Slocum, executive director of Funeral Consumers Alliance. “It should be a household conversation. It’s not disrespectful or morbid to talk about funeral prices. Treating funerals like a taboo subject makes it taboo.”

And funerals are an enormous expense, with the average cost being between $6,560 and $7,755 according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

Make this article your excuse to discuss funerals with your family: Do your want to be buried or cremated? How much can you afford to spend? Do you want to save for the funeral now so your family won’t have to pay? These are questions only you can answer, and are best answered when you’re healthy. Experts weigh in on how to start talking and planning for the undertaker.

To-Do List

Talk about it now

The first step is talking about what you want. While we plan for college and weddings, few of us discuss what casket we want for our burial. “The same way we talk to our kids about shopping for cars or credit-card interest rates, we should be teaching them about death,” Slocum said. Anthony Giorgianni, associate finance editor of Consumer Reports Money Adviser agrees. “A death is a high-pressure kind of event. You’re dealing with the emotional issues and you’re not making choices in an informed way.” The best way to prepare to is to make plans before the death occurs, and revisit these plans every few years in case your wishes change.

Shop around

Visit funeral homes before you need one because prices vary widely. In one area, Slocum found that: “For the same exact simple cremation or burial, prices varied from $700 to $4,050. It is extremely important for people to shop around by calling and asking for prices.”

Get Rid of the Guilt

Experts find that casket showrooms look a lot like car showrooms, with expensive ones well-lit in the front rows. Don’t buy into the need to have an expensive casket. “You can’t show how much you respect and love someone by the amount you spend. Buy what you can afford,” Slocum advises.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Know the Laws

The Funeral Rule, a national law, requires funeral homes to give you a list of prices over the phone or a price sheet if you visit a funeral home. “They are no longer allowed to force to you to buy an all-inclusive package,” Slocum says. Giorgianni agreed, saying, “This law is designed to stop funeral homes from taking advantage of you at a very stressful time.” According to the Federal Trade Commission’s most recent report, 22 percent of funeral homes still violate this rule. Ask for prices and know your rights.

Know Your Needs

Did you know you can bring your own casket to a funeral home? Or that no state requires embalming? “Caskets aren’t even required” in most states, Slocum says.“You can rent the coffin, and some funeral homes will let you display in a nice casket and then use a less elaborate burial container,” Giorgianni says. “For cremation, law requires that they provide an alternative container,” meaning one that isn’t expensive or for display. In short, different states require different things, but most don’t require much. Visit finalrights.org to find out the minimums you need for burial.

Things to Avoid

Beware of sealed caskets

An expensive vault or a special sealed casket won’t do anything for the body of your loved one. “None of these will prevent decomposition or keep out air and water,” Slocum said. “Sealed caskets and expensive vaults drain your wallet. Honest funeral directors will tell you this. Buy on appeal to eye and what you can afford.”

Don’t prepay

Slocum and Giorgianni agree that it’s best not to prepay a funeral unless you’re spending down assets for Medicaid eligibility. If you want to move or change your wishes, prepaying locks you into an inflexible program. “A large problem is that over the years, funeral homes go out of business and the money disappears, which is why we generally don’t recommend prepaying,” Giorgianni said.

Talk to a financial adviser

If you are trying to spend down assets to become eligible for Medicaid, prepaying is an option, but a complicated one. For those who want to set aside money for funerals, Slocum and Giorgianni recommend putting funds in a CD or savings account that are payable upon death. “If you want to move and you’ve prepaid, it’s almost impossible to off-load or sell plots. A simple CD or saving account can be paid anywhere,” Slocum says.For those with complicated wishes, consult a financial adviser or elder law attorney.

Bottom Line Take time to talk about your funeral wishes. It’s not an easy conversation to have, but discussing your wishes now will save your family from making emotional, expensive decisions down the road. Write down whether you want a traditional or an inexpensive memorial service. Make the decisions so a loved one doesn’t have to.

ON SALE

Maxx out your spring wardrobe.

Grieve no more, Filene’s Basement shoppers. T.J. Maxx has opened a downtown store, where recent finds included a $119 Nanette Lepore spring shift and a French Connection striped jersey tank dress, $75. Vince, Theory and Ralph Lauren are among the well-known labels here. 8 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-8p.m. Sunday. 601 13th St. NW, 202-637-1261. www.tjmaxx.com .

Through May 13 at Jos. A. Bank, buy one regularly priced shirt, suit, pair of trousers, sweater or tie, get two others (of lesser or equal value) free at area stores in the District, Maryland and Virginia and online at www.josbank.com.

Arts Afire Glass Gallery is closing its shop and moving to e-commerce. Contemporary glass jewelry, perfume bottles and small decorative pieces are selling for 20 to 50 percent off their original prices. Glass artist Lucy Bergamini’s earrings with aquamarine crystal beads are $60, reduced from $75. Through May 31. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. 1117 King St., Alexandria, 703-838-9785. www.artsafire.com .

On your way to the Eastern Shore, stop at Queenstown Premium Outlets. Through Tuesday, men’s and women’s short-sleeve T-shirts are $9.99, down from $16.99 at the Eddie Bauer outlet. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. 441 Outlet Center Dr. Queenstown, Md., 410-827-8699.

Janet Bennet Kelly

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