Consumer advocates are quick to advise shopping around for funeral prices, pointing out that even a modest funeral is a major expense and that prices can vary widely depending on what kind of service you choose and which funeral director you do business with. This is certainly true but, like a lot of things, price-shopping for funeral services isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Since very few funeral homes put their price lists online, there’s no easy way to compare prices. There are a few websites that claim to provide comparison shopping data but it’s not easy to know how accurate and up-to-date their listings are.
In this information vacuum, what often ends up happening is that the family goes to a funeral home they have used before or perhaps one where they have attended a wake or a service for a friend or relative. Sometimes it’s as simple as picking a funeral home they drive past every day or one recommended by a friend or acquaintance.
Once inside the door, the emotionally fragile family is greeted by a trained “counselor” who guides them through the process and makes it all seem quite painless and dignified, with price taking a back seat to other considerations. After all, we want the best for our departed loved one, don’t we?
It’s hard to fault funeral directors for this. They are running a business, after all, and must turn a profit to keep their doors open. So, as in all major purchases, it’s up to the consumer to be inquisitive and assertive — to select the most appropriate level of service and, when possible, shop around to find the best provider.
But while most of us are fairly diligent about shopping for cars, appliances, homes and other big-ticket items, a funeral or memorial service is a “distress purchase” and emotions often cloud our judgment and make it tempting to take short-cuts.
Finding a funeral price list
In theory, reviewing prices is supposed to be as simple as asking for a funeral home’s printed list of services. The Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule requires funeral homes to quote their service prices over the phone without requiring you to identify yourself or provide your telephone number. They must also give you a printed, itemized price list (officially called the General Price List) if you show up and ask for it in person. Realistically, though, few recently bereaved families are going to traipse around collecting funeral prices.
The most convenient way for consumers to make a wise choice is to have access to online prices but the FTC does not yet require this. California is so far the only state to do so but compliance is not exactly exemplary. It’s been five years since California passed its law requiring funeral homes to post their prices online but a recent survey by two consumer groups found that only 45 percent were doing so.
In Baltimore, by contrast, the Consumer Federation of America found that 13 of 45 funeral homes were voluntarily posting their prices online. Ruck Funeral Homes, for example, displays a complete list of services ranging from embalming to conducting a graveside service, as shown in this partial excerpt:
There are other funeral directors who are taking a transparent, consumer-friendly approach. One that we found in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., is Funeral Choices, which posts its complete General Price List on its website. (The list is dated 2016 but a representative told us it is still in effect).
Online funeral price comparisons
We contacted each site and asked for information on how they gather their information, how often it is updated and so forth but neither site responded. A public relations representative for Funeralocity, Jeremy Murphy, said in an email that he would arrange an interview with the site’s founder but did not follow through. Parting.com didn’t respond at all.
Murphy did offer the claim that Funeralocity is “the only site that provides up to date pricing” and took a shot at the competition. “Parting.com tried but they gave up on the model and shifted responsibility to the funeral homes. We do it independently,” he said in an email.
We tried to compare the two sites’ listings with those posted by Ruck Funeral Homes in Baltimore (above). It’s not quite that easy though. Compare these listings to Ruck’s.
At this point we have a shopping cart filled with apples and oranges. Each of these illustrations shows only a small portion of the information available on each site but the lack of uniformity gives an idea of how difficult it can be to come up with an actual price comparison. Just as with cars, homes and appliances, there are so many choices to make that a direct comparison of any two vendors becomes an exercise in data extraction.
There is also the issue of the sites’ business models. Both are free to consumers and there are no traditonal display ads. But both clearly maintain business relationships with the funeral homes listed on their sites. They offer premium listings and other types of enhanced displays for an extra fee. “A premium listing helps you sell to more customers by driving traffic to your funeral home and helping you stand out,” as Parting puts it on its FAQ page.
On both sites, the inquiring consumer enters the city and state where service is needed. Funeralocity shows a list of local funeral homes in the very next page, sorted by distance. Some have reviews and star ratings. Parting starts an interview process that supposedly lines you up with the provider that is most suitable.
Neither site provides any kind of disclaimer to clarify that funeral homes may be paying a fee for a premium listing. The Federal Trade Commission generally requires that paid content be identified as such and most review sites now display disclaimers like this one we found at ConsumerAffairs.com:
Although it does not affect our ratings or reviews, we may receive compensation for links on our site that direct you to a company’s website.
Pre-planning can hold down funeral costs
If there is a lesson in all of this, it is that planning ahead is the key to keeping funeral costs in line. This doesn’t mean you have to sign up with a funeral home and pay in advance. Although this can sometimes be a good move, it also exposes you to potential fraud, provider bankruptcy and other complications.
A better course of action is to plan ahead without handing over your hard-earned cash until it’s necessary. Find a funeral provider in your area that has the right combination of price and service. There is nothing wrong with calling around and visiting funeral homes to discuss your options. If someone tries to high-pressure you into signing a contract and forking over payment in advance, it may be a sign you should continue your search.
If you want a simple cremation, no embalming and a cardboard coffin, you should be able to price that out now and leave instructions (and ideally the funds) with the person who will be in charge of settling your affairs when you are gone.
They say that life is for the living, so our goal in planning ahead for our demise should emphasize saving time, money and indecision for those we leave behind. A simple, paid-in-full exit just may be the best legacy you can leave your loved ones.
More about funerals …