The high cost of saying goodbye

  @Money November 9, 2012: 9:25 AM ET
rip saying goodbye

Laying a loved one to rest typically costs $10,000 or more -- making it one of the biggest expenses families face.

(Money Magazine)

When Guillermo and Norma Oropeza bought caskets and burial plots from a Florida funeral home and cemetery in 1992, they thought their advance planning would someday save their family money and stress.

Just before Guillermo, a retired print-shop owner, died in 2010 at age 71, the funeral home told Norma that on top of the $6,800 already paid, she would owe $5,000 for services ranging from prepping the body to digging the grave. Norma, by then living on a modest fixed income, didn't have that kind of cash to spare.

Shopping around does pay
The cost of a traditional funeral varies widely, even in the same area -- just look at the cities below.
City Low High
Atlanta $3,890 $11,595
Baltimore $3,170 $7,995
Boston $3,650 $8,795
Chicago $4,060 $9,675
Houston $2,025 $10,020
Nashville $2,945 $8,460
San Jose $2,595 $7,385
Notes: Costs within a five-mile radius, including chapel service and transportation, as of September 2012, for the 10 cities with the highest average funeral costs nationwide. Source: Everest funeral planning service

So the family switched to a nearby home that said it would charge $2,000 less and opted to bury Guillermo, a veteran, in a military cemetery at no charge (they figured they'd sell the other burial plots and caskets later).

That didn't end the Oropezas' stress. Told that state law didn't allow the family to move the body -- not true, as it turned out -- Norma was charged $300 to transport Guillermo to the new facility.

Her daughter, Cathy Kurtinitis, says they were pressed to accept add-ons, from a viewing (they had wanted to hold the visitation at home) to printed programs and a memorial web page.

She bought a casket online, only to be told the funeral home wouldn't handle it. "Instead of helping our family," says Kurtinitis, "we felt they were just trying to suck money out of us."

At a typical price of $10,000 or more for a traditional funeral and burial, making final arrangements for a deceased relative is one of the biggest expenses families face.

All too often, unwary funeral shoppers also meet with aggressive or misleading sales tactics from providers that can add substantially to the bill.

"A significant expense, a vulnerable time, a real problem comparison shopping, which is the key to any good purchase -- it's the perfect storm," says New York City consumer affairs commissioner Jonathan Mintz.

That some providers in the $17 billion death-care industry, as the government calls it, might take advantage of emotionally wrought customers isn't news.

In the 1963 bestseller "The American Way of Death," journalist Jessica Mitford was among the first to expose predatory practices in the funeral and cemetery business. Her work helped lead to the 1984 passage of regulations designed to curb abuses. Called the Funeral Rule, the regulations are enforced by the Federal Trade Commission.

Yet a three-month investigation by MONEY has found that consumers still face many of the old hazards -- with new twists, as the industry faces revenue pressure caused by a growth in less expensive cremations.

The FTC's spot check of funeral homes last year found nearly one in four had serious violations of the Funeral Rule, involving their failure to properly disclose prices. Misleading buyers about federal and state law is another common problem. And consumer advocates say grieving families encounter many of the same issues with cemeteries.

Industry training tools obtained by MONEY reveal funeral pros sharing tips on how to hook grieving families into going over their budgets and to divert them from buying cheaper merchandise elsewhere.

And the magazine's survey of regulators in 48 states shows that financial disputes are growing over pre-need contracts, which allow you to buy funeral arrangements ahead of time and are now one of the top sources of complaints about the death-care industry.

Related: The painful new trend in Medicare

Patrick Lynch, past president of the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), says, "The horror stories are exceptions." And indeed, many funeral directors are compassionate helpers who follow the rules. Still, one in four is a tough stat. You don't want your provider to be more eager to line his pockets than to smooth the process for you.

In this story -- the first in a three-part series looking at the financial challenges of end-of-life care -- you'll learn about the troublesome tactics you may come up against and the best strategies to counter them. This much is sure: You should be able to lay a loved one to rest in a way that honors his or her memory without paying more than is comfortable for you. And don't let anyone in the funeral business convince you otherwise.

Next month: Money will feature Part Two in the series, "In Search of a Better End," about managing the costs of end-of-life care for a terminally ill loved one; and Part Three, "Looking Beyond," a profile of a man dealing with Lou Gehrig's disease and planning for his wife's financial future without him.

NEXT: Funeral homes: Know your rights

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