National Edition

Undercutting the undertaker: Reducing the unavoidable expenses of dying

Published: Thursday, Jan. 23 2014 7:00 a.m. MST

Funeral Director Ron Henderson oversees Fred Young Funeral Home in Cloverdale, Calif., (part of the Santa Rosa Mortuary family located in Sonoma County's wine country).

Mary Jo Winter, Santa Rosa Press Democrat, used by permission

It is expensive. It is unavoidable. And nobody wants to talk about it. Except maybe Ron Henderson. Like other funeral directors, he likes to discuss death.

"Funeral directors love to go to funerals," he says in a quick, happy voice. "We have this transition from life to death, and we help people get started down that road to heal. We like people to have funerals. … We like them to remember the deceased."

Henderson, who oversees Fred Young Funeral Home in Cloverdale, Calif., acknowledges that funerals are not inexpensive. But there are ways to reduce the cost and be better prepared for the inevitable.

And that inevitable price is continuing to rise.

In the last decade, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, the median cost of an adult funeral has increased 35.2 percent. Currently, the median is $7,045 in the United States — $8,343 if you include the cost of the vault.

And there are so many ways to spend money.

The median cost of transporting the body to the funeral home is $285. Embalming costs $695. The viewing, $400. The funeral, $495. A hearse, $295. Metal casket, $2,395.

These few costs are just the median, according to the NFDA — half the costs people experience will be more, half will be less. And different places in the country may have different costs. For example, in California, according to Henderson, bodies must be refrigerated if they are not embalmed. That is just one of the costs people can look at.

The problem is that, in most cases, people are making decisions about a funeral at a time of need. A loved one has just died without any stated plans, and the survivors have to make decisions at a vulnerable time when it is easy to equate love and care with the quality and expense of the funeral, casket and other services being sold.

Vulnerable choices

Henderson, who has been in the business since he was 19, says the vulnerability of the grieving is something he takes very seriously and tries to not take advantage of.

"It is something a funeral director has to guard against," he says. "Everybody wants to make money."

And it is not just funeral homes and cemeteries that are hoping to make a legitimate profit. People can buy caskets and cremation urns online or even at discount retailers. Casket kits are also available for those who want do it themselves.

This world of competition affects the funeral home's profits — but Henderson says it doesn't help funeral homes to charge excessively.

"If it is too much and people can't pay you, it is the worst experience and you don't make any friends," Henderson says. "And building your reputation and building a business comes to customer satisfaction. It's not all about price."

Mike Boyd, a non-practicing funeral director who consults with people about funeral planning and runs the website Ask the Funeral Expert (askthefuneralexpert.com), says people can save a lot of money by shopping around — but warns against saving too much money.

"If you could get a cheap funeral," he says, "but you had to use a run-down funeral home that needed painting on the inside, the hearse had dents in it, the limousine ... wasn't clean but you could get a cheap funeral, the odds are you wouldn't use that facility."

Boyd, who was a funeral director in New York but now lives in Florida, says to save money, consumers need to become educated and knowledgeable.

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