When I walked out of his hospital room on that snowy day in April, I suspected that I wouldn’t see my dad alive again. That turned out to be almost true – we did make it up eight hours before he passed that Sunday night in August, but he was in a morphine stupor and could only smile and mumble (well, he did manage to yell almost coherently at my sister one last time; how poignant). Thankfully, his death was peaceful.
I should have started calling around to the funeral homes back then to find the best deal. But life gets back to normal, dad starts “getting better”, and the thought slips from my mind. Then again, when all one is taking for metastatic colon cancer is two tablespoons daily of baking soda, any rebound is temporary.
My dad’s girlfriend decided to use the same funeral home that she used for her husband. “It’s not too bad, only $10,000 eight years ago” (only!) she said after he passed. Also – she wasn’t going to cover any part of the funeral. That was our deal. Good thing my dad had a $6000 funeral policy.
My sister and I walked in to the funeral home on Monday morning, and the paperwork was already filled out to the tune of $11,000. And that’s with NO embalming (he was Greek Orthodox) and NO grave marker. I had already researched the national average: nearly $9000, INCLUDING embalming and a grave marker. I was born at night (true!) but not last night.
The owner seemed quite nice, but he wasn’t pleased when I cut him off early in his attempt to steamroll us: I’m sorry, but my dad only left $6,000. That’s all we have to work with. You’ll need to figure out how to make that work. “Oh. Did he have a pension?” No. “Retirement funds?” No. He was a self-employed gambler and Bejeweled in-app spender. “Did he own a home?” No. “Car?” Already signed over to the girlfriend. Would you like his two cats? “Any money left in his bank account?” $473, and he owes his girlfriend $1200, not to mention untold sums to the IRS. “Are you unwilling or unable to pay the difference?” None of your business. “What about his girlfriend? Will she pay the difference?” She already told us no because she bought the plot and will be providing food and paying for the service at the church. “Hmph.”
Yeah I told them “none of your business.” I was a bit annoyed at the line of questioning. I dislike it when I feel someone’s hand rummaging in my pockets. I might have been a bit less annoyed if the paperwork hadn’t already been filled out prior to arrival. I’m sure that was for our “convenience”.
Stick to your guns
Most people are unwilling to rock the boat at the funeral home, especially when their dad is in the back, already on ice, ready to be rubbed down with wine. I refuse to be taken for a ride regardless of scenario. The BASE CHARGE at this funeral home was well over $5000. And that was before the cost of the casket (special in this case because the whole top needed to be removable), cost of opening and closing the grave, cost of the cement vault, etc.
We went back and forth with the funeral home for awhile. We agreed that they wouldn’t provide a signature book for the 20 people that would be at the funeral (that “saved us $100”). They browbeat my dad’s girlfriend into contributing $1000 (which she later tried to browbeat out of us – we’re no longer Facebook friends). My sister and I tossed in $1000 between the two of us.
With the $6000 from the funeral policy, they got $8000. That’s $3000 under asking, and probably a little too much still since no embalming was done, and no grave marker was purchased. But the funeral home seemed to breath a sigh of relief, and my sister and I were glad to be done. You can find the national median costs in 2014 and 2017 as provided by the National Funeral Directors Association here.
Is this advice for you?
Hopefully your loved one has everything figured out – funeral home selected, money set aside in their estate, etc. You need to check in and ask. Have that discussion. Yeah, it’s uncomfortable.
If they’ve figured everything out, then you can probably skip this guide. This is really aimed for people whose loved ones who “don’t have their shit in one sock” as a good friend likes to say. You’ll might even find it helpful in planning for what you’d like after your own death. Then again, even if your loved ones do have everything figured out, it won’t hurt to go over their plans with a keen eye to make sure that you understand the plans and that they aren’t being taken for a ride (did they really want the dove release in the deluxe package for $13,999?).
The takeaways – what you should do differently:
Look, funerals are not inexpensive. But costs vary wildly.
The most important piece of advice is: Don’t put yourself in a situation where you have to negotiate or even just find a funeral home when you loved one is already dead. Know your options beforehand. It’s a stressful time. You don’t know what mental condition you’ll be in. My sister and I were OK. You may not be. I still think we paid too much.
But if you need to negotiate, do it. And keep your wits about you.
I’ll provide some general advice, and then specific advice for those who didn’t plan in advance like me, and finally some advice for those of you smart people who actually have their crap together and are planning in advance.
- Know what your loved one wants in advance. Cremation? Burial? Have ashes shot out of a cannon? Which newspapers do they want their obituaries in, if any? Did they belong to any professional organizations that need to be notified? Who do they want you to call? Do their verbal wishes match what they have in their will? If they have a burial policy, who is the beneficiary?
- Know what the average price of a funeral is by checking here.
- Also know the price of death certificates in your loved one’s state. We were told “here are the costs of death certs, we’ll take care of that for you”. What they didn’t tell us is that they were tacking on $8 extra per certificate. You know what grinds my gears? Lying about costs. I probably wouldn’t have had a problem with this, as long as they were upfront.
- Is your loved one a veteran? Death certificates are often free. There are other benefits from the VA – click here for more details. Ask if the funeral home gives veteran discounts.
- Don’t expect much help from the Social Security Administration. There is a $255 lump sum benefit.
- Ask for a price list at the funeral home. They have to break out the costs. Don’t settle for a sheet that has only packages. Don’t buy into the sales pitch to go deluxe.
- The funeral home is a retail operation. They are NOT selling caskets, vaults, prayer cards, guest books, headstones, grave markers, etc. at cost. They may imply differently. Which reminds me…
- Shop around for headstones and grave markers (It’s OK to wait until after the funeral. The worst time to buy is when you are emotional). You can even find markers for sale on Etsy (and they start much cheaper than the $1000 we were quoted for a “basic marker” by the funeral home).
- You can buy caskets at Sam’s and Costco. Yeah it’s a bit macabre, but you can buy the coffin and the food for the celebration of life at the same location – and save money on both in the offing.
- Buy your memorial books off of Amazon (but maybe avoid the used ones…yes, they have used ones for sale, that’s a little weird.) They will be there in two days (or one with a minor extra charge), and oftentimes the funeral home wants to charge you $100+ for them. Yes, you read that correctly.
- They will also charge you an arm and a leg for prayer cards, etc. You are forewarned.
- They may offer to post a basic obituary in the local newspaper. Again, check prices. You may be able to do this yourself, “cheaper.” Heads up: an 86 word obit cost us nearly $200. Cheaper is relative.
- If your loved one dies in the hospital, they can usually store them there for a day or two without a problem. That will give you time to make some phone calls and get some prices, if you haven’t already done your homework, or if you things go sideways with your pre-selected funeral home.
- If your loved one wants to be cremated, there are vast disparities in cost. In my hometown, there are companies that do full cremation services starting at $595 (and that includes picking up the body). Good luck getting that pricing at a funeral home – you’re probably looking at $3000 min, not including a viewing. (They’ll probably try to convince you to do a viewing. If that’s important to you, look into renting a coffin. Yeah, that’s a thing. But you’re going to be back up over $6k in all likelihood). Avoid the funeral home if you want to just do the simple cremation. This wasn’t an option for us – my dad’s faith doesn’t support cremation.
- Take someone with you to the funeral home to discuss prices and plans – certainly the loved one if they are still alive, and ideally a non-family member whom you trust to to sniff out BS. I was fortunate that my sister and I had fairly clear heads and were able to negotiate without the grief affecting our ability to think clearly. Either way, you need a second set of ears and eyes.
- Do your best to comply with your loved ones wishes. Of course, if they don’t leave the money behind and they want something expensive, you’ve got some ethical issues to work out. But it’s reasonable to say no if your loved one wants to do something very expensive and they don’t leave money for it. We didn’t advertise obits in all newspapers my dad asked for. The newspaper in his Scandinavian hometown is barely read by anyone these days. And his sister over there called all of his friends and relatives who are still living. So we saved the $400. We’ll probably put that towards the grave marker.
Specific advice if you have to find a funeral home at the last minute:
- Most people don’t negotiate or even shop around once someone is dead. The funeral homes count on this. That is their advantage. So make some phone calls. Ask if all the charges are necessary. Don’t just go to the funeral home that your friend recommends.
- This is a retail operation. So if in the negotiation process (if you have to negotiate – I hope you can just find a place that has reasonable prices) they try to tell you that there’s just no room to negotiate due to all the fixed costs (casket, etc.), stand firm or find a different funeral home.
Advice if you’re smarter than me and shopping around in advance:
- Of course, coordinate with your loved one. Make sure that they are part of this process – if they want to be. Some people get weird about death. You may need to do some planning on your own.
- Start thinking about this now, even if your loved ones are in good health. Do some googling, make some phone calls, get the lay of the land. Put some notes about costs and options in Google Keep or Evernote, and update that info every couple of years. When the inevitable does happen, you’ve got a head start. Know what your loved one wants.
- Don’t pay for services in advance to “lock in today’s price” – the funeral company may go out of business, and you’ll be up that stinky creek without a paddle.
- Don’t buy a funeral insurance policy. Good lord, I know you know this already since this is a FIRE blog. But in case you need a dope slap, you’ll usually pay in more than the policy is worth. If a loved one is considering this policy, kindly remind them that most people pay in far more than they actually get out, and see if they can just set aside the total amount up front in an online interest-bearing account. If not, get them set up with such a savings account with Ally or another company paying reasonable interest (that’s around 2% at the time of this writing), and set it up to POD (pay on death) to the person who will set up the funeral (check with your will and trust attorney for legal considerations which may vary by state). They can then pay into the account monthly as they would with the insurance policy until the requisite amount is there. Be prepared to “self insure” in this case.
- You should be able to move the body from one funeral home to another. If you find yourself in a situation where someone has already chosen a mortuary and you have good reason to not keep the body there, have it moved. If the body is in the freezer and you haven’t signed any paperwork, you’ll be on the hook for the transportation charges (figure $300-$400) to the current mortuary and to the one that ultimately does the work, but that should be about it.
Some final-ish thoughts:
Antepenultimate note: If I could rewind the clock, I would have shopped around for funeral homes before my dad passed. I knew what he wanted, and I knew that I was the beneficiary on his policy. His church was 45 minutes from where he lived. Both church and home are in small towns, but there were enough funeral homes in between church and home to have some competition.
Penultimate note: Our situation had one additional element to take into account: the funeral home had a history with my dad’s girlfriend (her husband was processed by them) and they may have had an incentive to take less now with the promise of more business later. On the other hand, making some money is probably better than making no money – and perhaps the promise of more business later didn’t come into the equation. As always, your mileage may vary.
Ultimate note: Of course, use your credit card to pay the bill. I took the 2% cash back on Capital One, but if I hadn’t been thinking about offsetting my sister’s share of the cost, I would have put the bill on my Southwest card – at 8000+ points, it would have been close to one round trip ticket, if I played my cards right. A trip away with my wife after this craziness would have been a nice thing…
Thoughts after the ultimate note (part four of the trilogy?):
If you made it to the end, congrats. Perhaps you can suggest this post to your friends as a cure for insomnia. Death is not something we talk about much on FIRE blogs. After all, FIRE is about living life to its fullest on our terms, not our boss’ terms and definitely not on our consumer economy’s terms.
But the often unspoken coda to living life to the fullest is: “before we die”. And we’re all headed that way. I hope that you’ll take some time to talk to your loved ones and start planning for the inevitable now – or at least review plans. No wants wants to think about this. No one wants to plan for this. But trumping that, you definitely don’t want to be dealing with a loved one’s death when they have no plans or incomplete plans. Make that call today, and give them a hug or tell them that you love them. You don’t know when they’ll be gone.
Have you been in a similar situation as my sister and I? Did you have the foresight to help plan ahead? Did your loved ones already make plans and your life easy? Did I miss an important piece of advice or say something off-base? Tell me your thoughts.