Funeral planning can save money, heartache
The days of the cookie-cutter funeral are fading.
Staid remarks at a church or funeral home lectern are being supplemented with slide shows, and services are moving to golf or yacht clubs to reflect a person's life.
Baby boomers are confronted with many more options than their parents had for planning a funeral or memorial service, and all these choices can lead to a big bill. It pays to plan ahead. Here are some tips on working through that process.
DECIDE WHAT YOU WANT: Funerals or memorial services are for the living, not the dead, funeral directors say. They help people grieve and remember the person who died. Personal touches are becoming much more common, so think about what the person liked and whether that can be worked into the service.
James Olson, a funeral home owner in Sheboygan, Wis., once arranged a service that featured wine and cheese to celebrate the life of a person who liked to entertain. Guests at another service for a woman who made quilts as gifts brought with them more than 200 of those quilts.
Aside from the service, you need to think about disposition of the body.
More often, people are choosing cremation, because it can be cheaper than a traditional funeral with burial, it makes it easier to transport or move someone's remains and it has become more accepted in many religions. Nearly 41 percent of all U.S. deaths led to cremations last year, a big jump from about 15 percent in 1985, according to the Cremation Association of North America.
People typically store cremated remains in urns or scatter them at a beloved spot. But some are choosing to have them embedded in pottery or placed in lockets for family members to wear.
Even if opting for burial, there are more choices than just the traditional.
Green or natural burials, which involve no embalming and allow the body to decompose into the earth, are on the rise. Caskets made from recycled paper or cardboard can help this process.
Some people may even want to be buried with their pets if the cemetery permits it.
PLAN, SET ASIDE MONEY: People can spare their survivors some of these decisions and expenses by writing a plan for how they want their service to be conducted and setting aside money in a trust set up through a funeral home.
There are typically no limits to the amount that can be placed in a trust, except when a person is spending down their resources to qualify for Medicaid, said Joe Marsaglia of the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science.
The trust can cover the funeral service and, depending on the state, costs for items that fall outside it like flowers or cemetery plots. Money left in the account is usually returned to the family.
A plan can at least give family members a starting point for thinking about your service, and it may prevent quarrels over what you would want.
"Death is going to happen, and if we can face it and take care of it in advance, it's not going to be a hardship for the survivors when the time comes," Marsaglia said.
SHOP AROUND: Funeral costs vary widely. The average funeral cost about $6,500 in 2009, the latest figure from the National Funeral Directors Association. That doesn't count cemetery costs, which can add several thousand dollars to the bill.
It may pay to shop around, and that's easier to do when planning ahead. Funeral directors are required to provide an itemized list of products and services so customers can pick what they want.
A direct cremation with no visitation or funeral service costs around $2,000. Wal-Mart offers caskets and urns on its Website, including the Classic Platinum Keepsake Urn for less than $35.
Buying a casket separate from the funeral service might save money, but shipping costs can eat into that, and the customer should make certain it will be delivered in time.
IF THERE'S NO PLAN: Sometimes deaths are unexpected, but more commonly, people avoid planning for their own deaths or those of their loved ones.
When starting from scratch after someone has died, first figure out who will put together the service. Ask friends and family for recommendations. A rabbi, minister, nurse or hospice worker also may have suggestions.
"It's not the time to open the phone book and run your finger down" the page, said Olson, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association.