Choosing the right funeral home during a difficult time

- It is, perhaps, the very worst time to spend a couple months’ salary. Yet, when a loved one dies there's little choice but to open your wallet—seemingly blindly—to a funeral director.

The median cost of a funeral in 2014 was $7,181, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. That money is spent while emotions are roiled. A stranger is handing over a tissue as the sleepiest of elevator music plays in the background. The showroom of coffins is a surreal sight that will forever occupy a painful part of the brain.

But even if your head were clear enough to comparison shop for funeral services, you probably would be hard pressed to do so.

The Consumer Federation of America recently contacted 150 funeral homes and found room for improvement in transparency. In 16 percent of cases, the CFA found funeral directors breaking federal law.

CFA’s survey also found wild swings in prices for the exact same product or service. Simple cremation, for example, ranges from $495 to $7,595, according to the survey. 

“The huge price ranges for identical funeral services within individual areas indicate that these markets lack effective competition,” said CFA Executive Director Stephen Brobeck in a statement. “The lack of price competition is unfortunate given the relatively high cost of funeral services and the reluctance of many bereaved consumers to comparison shop for these services.”

Just 25 percent of funeral homes post prices on the Internet—largely because they don’t have to. Federal law only requires funeral homes to provide prices by telephone or mail—antiquated relics, the CFA says, of 1980’s rulemaking.

CFA is calling on the Federal Trade Commission to improve price transparency and to require funeral homes to post prices on their websites. It plans to provide its research as ammunition to help make its case.

In the interim, you can help protect yourself.

PLAN AHEAD

Ideally, each of us would plan our farewell well in advance. We can begin inquiries early, draw comparisons intelligently, and make decisions without the weight of sudden loss. There’s also no time pressure.

ASK QUESTIONS

Planning a funeral services is, by and large, foreign to most of us. You’ll be barraged with decisions about details you’ve never even considered. And their gravity of those choices might weigh on you. But don’t be shy. Ask questions. Don’t agree to a product or service until you understand it.

ASK A FRIEND

Your natural emotions will be a distraction. And for some people, sorrow will be all-consuming. If you think that will be the case with you, try to appoint a friend to help make decisions for you. Empower them to make sure your best interest isn’t being compromised. Choose someone who is close enough to trust, but distant enough that grief will not color their judgment.

AVOID CONFUSION

Funeral homes and cemeteries might have their own “requirements.” Do not confuse these internal regulations with state law. Case in point: Florida law does not require the dead to be embalmed. But some funeral homes might require it. Burial vaults are another item that cemeteries might require, but state law does not. If you don’t want to pay for these options, consider choosing a different funeral director—ideally in advance.

CHECK LICENSE

Never agree to service until you have checked the provider’s license. If you discover an issue, feel free to question the provider – but also prepare yourself to move on to someone whose license is clear. Run your search here: http://www.myfloridacfo.com/data/Pnslicensesearch/index.htm

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