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How to beat the high cost of dying

Fogartyville Cemetery
Fogartyville Cemetery Herald file photo

Making important decisions after a loved one dies isn’t easy. My mother, who died a few years back, prepaid for her funeral, and I think that was a mistake.

“I am against prepaying for funeral services,” says Josh Slocum, executive director of Funeral Consumer Alliance, a nonprofit educational organization advocating meaningful and affordable funerals. “The exception would be to qualify for a Medicaid spend-down,”

Trying to negotiate a deal from a hospital room isn’t advisable, so try to have a plan before death occurs.

“Ideally, planning happens well in advance so that you and your family can take time to research, think and plan for how they will want to honor your life after you've died,” said Jessica Koth, the public relations manager for the National Funeral Directors Association.

“Planning ahead involves getting quotes from funeral directors within a 20-mile radius,” Slocum said. “The funeral industry often, intentionally or unintentionally, confuses consumers who confuse prepayment with preplanning. Remember these words are not interchangeable. Prepaid is not a synonym for preplanning.”

Unfortunately, people who prepay, like my mother, often don’t understand the fine print and likely additional costs. Opening and closing a grave costs, for starters, and costs not associated with funeral homes such as newspaper obituaries, flowers, clergy charges and honorariums, and organists don’t come prepaid. These additional costs may cost about $3,000 to $4,000 more than were already prepaid.

Prepaid funerals’ inadequacies often create problems for relatives so, at a minimum, put prepaid funds into a trust. Also know that in Florida there may be a 30 percent nonrefundable cancellation fee.

Families with financial constraints should be open and honest with funeral directors — there's no need to feel embarrassed. Here’s how to cut costs and still have a decent funeral:

Shop

Something that many people don't realize is that they shouldn’t be afraid to “shop around” for a funeral home. This is hard to do while you are still grieving, but remember every funeral home offers unique services and pricing structures. Find a licensed funeral director who understands and respects your budget. Get a copy of an itemized price list that’s required by law.

“Ironically, people think of planning a funeral as an emergency,” Slocum said. “Death occurs and, to be frank, the worst is really over. Planning a funeral when the body is cold, surprisingly, isn’t as urgent as one might think.”

Budget

Grief won’t feel better in three months when you receive the bill. If you only have $3,000, you likely have to opt for direct cremation, no casket, no embalming, no ceremony. Many factors – such as material, color and price – come into play when choosing, for example, caskets. A funeral director helps identify the casket that best suits a family’s needs and budget.

According to the National Funeral Director’s Association, “The national median cost of a funeral with viewing, burial with a vault for calendar year 2014 was $8,508.” Now add another $6,000 for the plot, monument, opening and closing the casket. and extras. A full-service package can easily run $14,000, or more, if you’re careless — so determine a strict budget.

Buy online

You can find caskets and kits online for a fraction of the price charged by some funeral homes. Mortuaries are required by law to accept a casket from an outside vendor, and they cannot charge you a fee for doing so.

Direct cremation or immediate burial

Direct cremation (without any services) is by far the most economical choice for final arrangements. There is no embalming or viewing involved.

Many families economize with “direct burial” or “direct cremation.” With these options, the decedent is buried or cremated shortly after death, which skips the embalming and viewing.

Practically speaking, cremation doesn't mean the family can't have a meaningful service to honor their loved one.

“You may want to just have a graveside service at the cemetery, eliminating use of facilities at the funeral home,” says Anthony Medoro, a funeral adviser with West Palm Beach-based Tillman Funeral Home & Crematory. “Maybe you don’t want a service at all. Immediate burials generally involve only transport from place of death and arranging burial at a cemetery, without any formal service.”

Memorialize

“Funeral or memorial service or celebration of life — whatever a family prefers — is an opportunity for family and friends to gather together and offer comfort and support,” says Koth. Part of the experience is cooking together, for example, and sharing stories about grandma at the grief buffet. Other affordable services are no ceremony service at all.

Skip embalming and vaults

“If you choose not to have a viewing, you can eliminate the need for embalming, which can be quite costly,” says Medoro. “Choose an inexpensive casket for your interment, and purchase your own urn if you are to be cremated.”

Jim Germer is a Bradenton CPA and financial adviser at Cetera Financial Specialists, LLC, member FINRA/SIPC, located at 100 3rd Ave. W., Suite 130. He can be reached at 941-746-5600 or jim.germer@ceterafs.com.

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