Keeping funeral costs affordable
Anyone who's put a loved one to rest knows that death is not cheap.
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average adult funeral cost $6,560 in 2009 (its most current data). That doesn't include such common add-ons as a cemetery plot, headstone, flowers, obituaries and limousine, which can add thousands to the bill.
Because death is a frequently avoided topic, many people aren't armed with information about the many variables and costs involved in planning a funeral. Thus, just when survivors are grieving and most vulnerable, they're bombarded by decisions that must be made quickly, often without even knowing what their loved one would have wanted.
The key message for the living is to decide on preferred funeral arrangements ahead of time and to convey those wishes to your family -- ideally in your will.
Another important lesson: Know your legal rights and what funeral-related goods and services cost so you or your survivors don't feel pressured into buying things you don't want or need. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) oversees "The Funeral Rule," which regulates how funeral providers must deal with consumers. Among its provisions:
* Upon request, funeral homes must provide an itemized price list of all their goods and services, whether you call (even anonymously) or visit in person.
* You have the right to choose among their offerings (with certain state-mandated exceptions) and are not required to purchase package deals containing unwanted items.
* Prior to purchasing a casket or outer burial container from a funeral home, they must share descriptions and prices before showing you stock on hand.
* Providers that offer cremations must make alternative containers (besides caskets) available.
Note: The Funeral Rule does not apply to third-party sellers such as casket and monument dealers, or to cemeteries that lack an on-site funeral home. If your beliefs don't require following specific funeral protocols, here are a few ways to reduce costs while still honoring the deceased and their survivors:
Veterans, immediate family members, members of the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service and certain civilians who've provided military-related service may be entitled to burial at a national cemetery with a grave marker. Burial is free, but families are responsible for funeral home expenses and transportation to the cemetery.
A $255 lump-sum death benefit is available to surviving spouses or minor children of eligible workers who paid into Social Security.
For many, cremation is a viable, less expensive option to burial. If you plan to hold a viewing first before the cremation, ask whether you can rent an attractive casket for the ceremony.
Some families prefer not to hold a public viewing. For them, "direct cremation" or "immediate burial" may make sense. Because the body is promptly cremated or interred, embalming and cosmetology services are not necessary, which saves hundreds of dollars. Also, with direct cremation you can opt for an unfinished wood coffin or heavy cardboard enclosure for the journey to the crematorium.
You can purchase a casket or cremation urn from a source other than your funeral home. The funeral home cannot assess handling fees or require you to be there to take delivery.
The death of a loved one is always upsetting, but you may be able to ease your family's emotional and financial burdens by planning ahead.
--Jason Alderman directs Visa's financial education programs.