1. Go ahead and plan your funeral, but think twice before paying in advance. You risk losing everything if the funeral home goes out of business. Instead, keep your money in a pay-on-death account at your bank.
2. If you or your spouse is an honorably discharged veteran, burial is free at a Veterans Affairs National Cemetery. This includes the grave, vault, opening and closing, marker, and setting fee. Many State Veterans Cemeteries offer free burial for veterans and, often, spouses (www.cem.va.gov).
3. You can buy caskets that are just as nice as the ones in my showroom for thousands of dollars less online from Walmart, Costco, or straight from a manufacturer.
4. On a budget or concerned about the environment? Consider a rental casket. The body stays inside the casket in a thick cardboard container, which is then removed for burial or cremation.
5. Running a funeral home without a refrigerated holding room is like running a restaurant without a walk-in cooler. But many funeral homes don’t offer one because they want you to pay for the more costly option: embalming. Most bodies can be presented very nicely without it if you have the viewing within a few days of death.
6. Some hard-sell phrases to be wary of: “Given your position in the community …,” “I’m sure you want what’s best for your mother,” and “Your mother had excellent taste. When she made arrangements for Aunt Nellie, this is what she chose.”
7. “Protective” caskets with a rubber gasket? They don’t stop decomposition. In fact, the moisture and gases they trap inside have caused caskets to explode.
8. If there’s no low-cost casket in the display room, ask to see one anyway. Some funeral homes hide them in the basement or the boiler room.
9. Ask the crematory to return the ashes in a plain metal or plastic container — not one stamped temporary container. That’s just a sleazy tactic to get you to purchase a more expensive urn.
10. Shop around. Prices at funeral homes vary wildly, with direct cremation costing $500 at one funeral home and $3,000 down the street. (Federal law requires that prices be provided over the phone.)
11. We remove pacemakers because the batteries damage our crematories.
12. If I try to sell you a package that I say will save you money, ask for the individual price list anyway. Our packages often include services you don’t want or need.
13. Yes, technically I am an undertaker or a mortician. But doesn’t funeral director have a nicer ring to it?
Sources: Funeral directors in Illinois, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Washington; funerals.org; and Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance and coauthor of Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death.