18 January 2012

Lamar W. Hankins : Funeral Costs Need not Require Charity

Making an informed decision:
Paying for a funeral need not require charity

Many families succumb to grief, social pressures, and salesmanship by a funeral director and spend much more on the funeral than they can afford.
By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / January 18, 2012

I was startled last Friday to see a news item in the Austin American-Statesman about a family that needs $8,700 in additional donations to pay for a funeral. It struck me as peculiar for two reasons. I’m surprised that the leading commercial newspaper in central Texas considered the circumstance newsworthy, and in my experience, soliciting money to give to a funeral home does not generate charitable impulses in most people.

For 20 years, I have been an advocate for families who have to deal with the funeral industry. Most of that work has been done with the Austin Memorial and Burial Information Society (AMBIS) and with the national organization with which it is affiliated, the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA).

I’ve learned a lot about the funeral industry over that time. I have testified before a U.S. Senate committee looking into fraud and deception in the preneed funeral business, and many times before committees of the Texas Legislature.

I’ve learned that many funeral businesses are operated by kind and caring people who have chosen funeral service as their life’s work. I’ve experienced some of the satisfaction that many of them find in helping people at one of the most difficult times in their lives -- handling the death of a loved one. I’ve also learned that there are vast differences in costs among funeral businesses. What costs $10,000 at one costs only $4,000 at another.

Certainly, there are differences in services from one establishment to the next, but those differences have little to do with the cost of the funeral. They have more to do with the amount of money the funeral business has put into its building, landscaping, and funeral vehicles, as well as its location.

The funeral home chosen by the donation-seeking family is one of the more expensive ones in the Austin area, including the counties of Travis, Williamson, Bastrop, Caldwell, and Hays. Consumers can easily find out about those costs. AMBIS publishes an annual survey of funeral costs it provides free to anyone with access to a computer. The 2012 survey will be available in February.

A quick look at the 2011 price chart reveals that the funeral home chosen by the family seeking donations offers a hypothetical full-service funeral (used to make fair comparisons among all area funeral homes) for about $7,000. That same hypothetical funeral could be purchased at another area funeral home for less than $3,500. In fact, 22 funeral businesses in the survey offered the same funeral for less than $7,000. The description of the hypothetical funeral can be found in the survey’s narrative at the same website link given above.

I don’t begrudge anyone choosing the kind of funeral they want for a loved one, but this family appears to have arranged for a $10,000-plus funeral, including the obituary (from which the Statesman makes a lot of money) and cemetery costs.

It reminded me that the Executive Director of FCA, Josh Slocum, often points out that it is not necessary for any family to spend beyond its means on a funeral if the family will just be diligent consumers and adjust its thinking about how the family can honor the memory of the deceased without spending money it does not have.

After all, we needn’t all drive luxury automobiles, and we needn’t all be buried in $12,000 caskets, especially if we can’t afford those purchases. To read some of Slocum’s ideas about what to do when you can’t afford a funeral, go here.

Many families succumb to grief, social pressures, and salesmanship by a funeral director and spend much more on the funeral than they had intended or can afford. I meet people regularly who borrow $8,000 to $15,000 to pay for a funeral and are left saddled with debt for many years.

Just as there are differences in the costs charged by funeral businesses for the same or similar goods and services, there are differences among funeral directors about how they sell funerals to families. Some actively discourage families from spending beyond their means; others encourage spending as much as they can convince a family to spend.

Families can avoid spending beyond their means in several ways: be prepared for family deaths by having a general idea about what sort of funeral will be wanted when that time comes; ask for help in purchasing the funeral from someone not emotionally involved with the decedent; take advantage of the free resources available to learn about cost differences among the area’s funeral businesses; or do some research on your own.

All funeral establishments are required by federal and state regulations to give out price information over the telephone, and to provide a copy of their General Price List if it is requested in person. In addition, prices are available at many funeral providers’ websites.

When a death is unexpected, families may not have enough money to pay for the kind of funeral they prefer, necessitating a reevaluation of their expectations, or relying on charity to pay for their choices. If a family is indigent, Texas law requires that the county pay for burial or cremation, though such services are usually minimal and families have little or no say about the arrangements.

AMBIS offers in its survey narrative some “Cost-saving suggestions for consumers.” Below is a slightly edited version:
  1. Choose immediate burial, a graveside service, or direct cremation followed by a religious or secular memorial service held almost anywhere people can gather together. This choice can reduce funeral costs by 75%. Or choose a reasonably-priced funeral home for 50% savings over average costs. If all services are held at a religious or other facility, the location of the funeral home is not important.

  2. Avoid embalming and viewing of the body in the funeral home's parlor, a practice falsely promoted by many funeral directors as essential to the grief process. Instead, display pictures and mementos of the deceased at a gathering where sharing and visiting can occur that focuses on the memories of the deceased, rather than on an elaborately displayed body.

    (Embalming is not required by Texas law for any reason, and it has no public health benefits that have been recognized by any public health authority. The industry uses embalming to increase funeral costs dramatically by appealing to a person's desire to preserve and protect the body. Embalming merely slows the natural decomposition process.)

  3. If you need a casket, choose the least expensive available (including a cremation casket) and cover it with a flag, the deceased's favorite quilt, a religious pall, or other cloth. The looks of the casket will be unimportant, and the money saved can be put to a use significant to the deceased and survivors. (Remember, consumers can buy a casket from any source or supply their own homemade one without incurring any additional funeral home fees or charges.)

  4. Don't be led to believe that the more spent on the funeral or the casket, the greater the love felt for the deceased. Most funeral directors have always been salespeople. To persuade consumers to spend lavishly, unscrupulous funeral directors appeal to feelings of guilt, family pride, and social pressures.

  5. Become informed consumers now. The funeral industry has depended on the fact that most consumers avoid death and its trappings until they are in the throes of grief just after the death of a loved one. Such feelings can make anyone vulnerable to exploitation. If faced with this situation, take along a trusted friend for assistance -- one who is less emotionally involved with the dozens of decisions to be made and who can give sound advice and help.

  6. Check out religious questions with your minister, priest, rabbi, pastor, or other religious leader, rather than with the funeral director.

  7. Compare all the prices in the survey. If a funeral home is willing to gouge consumers for any service, consumers should beware.
By following these and similar suggestions, no family should ever have to beg the public for money to pay a funeral director.

[Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins. Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.]

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