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Don’t let paying for a funeral add to your grief

A life insurance policy or other savings accounts can help keep costs in line for your family while they are grieving

5 min

This is an updated column. It originally ran on May 21, 2000.

When I got the call telling me my dear brother had died more than 20 years ago, I doubled over as though I had been sucker-punched in the stomach.

I felt responsible for his death.

The day before Mitchell died, alone, I was supposed to pick him up to spend the Memorial Day weekend at my house. But I ended up working late. Too tired to drive the 45 miles to get him, I called and said I’d pick him up in the morning.

The next morning, Mitchell died of a massive epileptic seizure. He was 32.

The grief and guilt felt like someone was pushing a 50-pound weight down on my heart. I could hardly breathe. I couldn’t stop blaming myself.

If only I had picked Mitchell up as planned. If only he had been with me, I could have gotten him medical help.

If only.

If only.

Despite all my guilt-tripping, when it came time to make the arrangements for Mitchell’s “Homegoing,” as they call it in my faith, I tried not to let my heartache get in the way of planning a simple, economical funeral.

I was following my grandmother’s example. Big Mama was determined not to go broke burying my grandfather after he died of lung cancer.

I’ll never forget the exchange she had with the funeral director. When he pulled out the casket catalogue, he immediately flipped to the pages depicting expensive caskets of polished hardwood lined with fine fabric.

Big Mama didn’t pay him any mind. She flipped the pages back to the basic boxes. She chose a plain, gray metal casket that cost about $700.

“Of course that cheaper model will do,” the director said. “But don’t you think your husband deserves the best?”

“Lee Kelly got the best I could give him when he was alive,” Big Mama said. “Besides, he’s dead. He won’t know if I’m burying him in a pine box or a bedsheet.”

The director tried another tactic. He switched from “deserving” to “preserving.” He recommended a higher-priced casket that could help preserve my grandfather’s body.

“Surely you want to protect your husband’s remains,” he said.

“Why? Will he know when it rains?” she asked.

Big Mama also nixed getting limousines for the family, saving herself a few hundred dollars.

“I have a car, and I know where the funeral home is, and the children and grandchildren have cars, and those that don’t can ride with those who do,” she said.

In the end, my grandfather and brother had dignified but inexpensive funerals. Even in my most mournful moment, I knew the money I spent on my brother’s funeral did not reflect my feelings for him.

Perhaps at no other time are people more vulnerable than when a loved one passes away.

Who wants to comparison-shop for funeral homes, caskets, or burial plots while grieving?

And that’s exactly what some unscrupulous providers in the funeral industry count on — consumers too consumed with sorrow to be concerned about saving money.

There are many decent funeral directors out there. But there are also unethical death care providers just waiting to prey on the bereaved. They withhold price lists, overcharge for caskets and lie about what services or products are required by law, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

They fail to follow the federal Funeral Rule, which gives you the right to receive an itemized price list at the start of in-person discussions of funeral arrangements, caskets and/or outer burial containers. You don’t have to accept a package that may include services or items you don’t want.

For instance, a casket is not required for cremation. Some providers may try to charge a casket-handling fee if you provide your own casket from an outside source, although such fees are illegal under federal law, the FTC says.

Even relatively scrupulous providers can persuade grief-stricken relatives to spend far more than is probably necessary.

Funerals are among the largest purchases consumers will make, and the costs range from relatively affordable to expensive. Caskets alone can cost thousands of dollars.

Some people try to spare their relatives’ grief by prepaying for funeral and burial services. Yet problems are common with these contracts, according to consumer advocates and the FTC.

Prepay plans can be nonrefundable or nontransferable, meaning consumers can’t switch mortuaries or change their minds. Hidden fees later can result in mourning relatives finding they have to pay more money when their loved one dies. In the worst cases, the mortician may go out of business, and the money may disappear.

As an alternative, put your burial preferences in writing and keep control of their money. Instead of a prepaid plan, designate a certificate of deposit or life insurance policy for funeral expenses. You can open a savings account and make it payable upon death to cover funeral expenses.

What often drives prices up, however, is our own guilt.

There is nothing disrespectful in living — or dying — within your means.

My grandmother lived several years after my grandfather died, and the money she saved on his funeral expenses helped support her.

As Big Mama said, “it doesn’t make good sense to bury good money in the ground.”

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