Apples and Oranges- Part 1

We all do it. We do it online, in the newspapers, or simply by making some phone calls. I’m talking about comparison shopping. We especially do it when we plan to make an expensive purchase. It’s easy to compare the cost of a television, a washing machine, a digital camera, and of course, an automobile. We comparison shop when we purchase a house. We simply don’t buy the first thing we see without checking for a better price.

People are becoming more educated consumers, and an educated consumer makes healthier choices. With the economic recession in full swing, it’s even more important to use our limited resources to our best advantage. But, how do we comparison shop for a funeral? Because a funeral is a complex compendium of services and merchandise, and because there’s usually a deep emotional factor involved, “funeral shopping” isn’t something the average person looks forward to doing. Believe it or not, comparing funeral prices isn’t as complicated as it might seem at first.

Let’s begin with a little history and an overview of the funeral industry and how prices were set. Prior to 1984, the majority of funeral homes priced their services and facilities as part of the price of the casket. So, a single price included everything that the funeral homes supplied in terms of services, personnel, automotive equipment, and the casket. Since it was an “all included” pricing structure, families couldn’t reduce the charges by eliminating elements that they didn’t need or want.

In 1984, the Federal Trade Commission began regulating how funeral homes established their fees. No longer could funeral homes have a “one price” fee as part of the cost of the casket. Funeral homes now have to itemize all of their services, facilities, equipment, and merchandise. The fees must be printed in what is called a General Price List, and must be offered to every person who asks for it, asks about charges, or comes in to the funeral home to arrange a funeral. So, you would think that this would make comparing funeral prices easier, right? Well it can, but it can also make things more confusing for a family, especially if they are arranging a funeral for a loved one who has just died. I will be posting additional blogs dealing with different aspects of comparing funeral prices, but for now, I want to concentrate on being able to compare the costs for the “service” portion of the funeral.

Part of the Funeral Service Rule of the Federal Trade Commission states that funeral homes can have only one (1) “non-declinable service charge.” This means that in addition to their “service charge,” there will separate charges for using the funeral home for a visitation or funeral, the removal of the deceased from the place of death, the hearse to the cemetery, preparation of the remains, and the funeral home staff to carry out the wishes of the family. The cost of the casket, burial vault, grave marker, acknowledgment cards, clothing, and any other merchandise that is selected will all be additional. There will also be what’s known as “cash advance” items. These include things such as, cemetery charges, clergy honoraria, newspaper notices, certified copies of the death certificate, and any other items the family asks the funeral to “advance” the payment of on their behalf.

It’s important when comparing funeral costs to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples, not apples to oranges. If a person calls a funeral home and asks, “How much is your service charge,” the price they are quoted may not be the total cost for all of the services the family will need or want in connection with the funeral they are planning. It’s not illegal to answer the question by only quoting the “service charge.” It’s just not very accurate, or in my opinion, very ethical. By quoting only the “service charge” that funeral home will appear to be less expensive than the funeral home who responds by quoting the full charges for a funeral. For example, my “service charge” at Chesed v’Emet is $895. But the total cost for the arranging, conducting, supervising, funeral directors and assistants, the removal from the place of death, the hearse to the cemetery, washing, dressing, refrigeration, and casketing of the remains, totals $2945. (My current General Price List is posted on my website: www.chesedvemet.com.)

When calling a funeral home for their prices, make sure you get the total costs of all the services and facilities (such as embalming or the use of the chapel for service or visitation), including the automotive equipment, so that when you call a different funeral home, you will have a baseline for comparison. Since funeral homes can charge whatever they want for their services and facilities, some items at one funeral home might be more or less than at another funeral home. It’s the bottom line total for the same services and facilities is what matters.

It’s a matter of comparing apples to apples.

The next entry will deal with learning how to compare casket prices.