The high cost of saying goodbye (pg. 4)

  @Money November 9, 2012: 9:25 AM ET

High-pressure funeral sales tactics

"Upselling Without Upsetting the Client" is one of the continuing-education courses approved by 27 state boards for funeral directors to maintain their licenses.

The online class, which a MONEY writer signed up for, advises funeral directors about techniques to persuade customers to buy more than they need. The sweet spot for going above a client's budget: 20%.

The course instructor encourages funeral directors to ask about the family's budget, then say, "We are going to stay as close to that number as possible" -- conditioning customers to think prices will stay within reason. Then directors are urged to use phrases like, "We might go a little over your budget, but this particular add-on will go perfectly."

Lynch, the former NFDA president, calls the title of the course "tacky and inappropriate" and says he's not familiar with its content. But in general he says upselling is not the norm. "The service we render for folks is far more important than the stuff we sell them," he says. "If we treat people properly, the sales will take care of themselves."

And yet many homes do offer a slew of extras: memorial videos and websites, fancy vehicles for the funeral procession, keepsake jewelry (say, a pendant that holds ashes), even a white-dove release for the memorial service (six birds with music might run $200).

"It's not unethical; it's just business," says funeral director Joe Kalmer, a 23-year industry veteran, who left a traditional facility in 2009 to open a discount home. (He keeps prices down by lowering overhead -- he has a single van, not a fleet, to transport bodies, and doesn't store a supply of caskets.)

Special services that add to the cost of cremations are becoming more common too.

In a July webinar offered by the NFDA, consultant David Nixon suggested offering "private time to say goodbye with the body, or making up a body that hadn't been embalmed with cosmetics to create a better memory picture." In an interview, Nixon said funeral directors' experience and training justifies extra fees for these services: "We're providing added value that helps make a loved one's passing a little easier."

Related: Funeral cost-cutting boosts cremations

Not everyone sees it that way. Max Miller, a technology consultant from Los Angeles, was put off by the pressure he says he faced to buy add-ons when his father died at 65 two years ago.

The family wanted a simple cremation and memorial. After being quoted $1,300 over the phone by one funeral home, Miller went with his wife and mother to finalize the arrangements. Once there, they were pitched a decorative box for the remains, a memorial video, and elaborate decorations.

"They insisted we buy a mandatory package with a floor of $2,600, even though we didn't need the components," says Miller. His family left, later finding a direct cremation service that charged a flat $895 fee.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

Detail your wishes now. After planning funerals for his mother and two aunts, California dentist Runes and his wife created an end-of-life document spelling out how they want their deaths handled for their two daughters. Knowing what you want ahead of time helps loved ones avoid being upsold later, says Gail Rubin, author of "A Good Goodbye."

Bring a wingman. A friend who's less invested can help you make decisions with a clearer head, says Brian O'Laughlin, a Kansas City, Mo., funeral planner.

Shop with a list. Funeral homes play on your emotions by presenting the priciest options first, says Rohling, the consumer advocate: "It gives the impression the lower you go, the cheaper you are -- the less you thought of your loved ones."

Solution: Research options at the funeral home's website and decide what you want before going in.

NEXT: Complaints about cemeteries

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