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Funeral home director: Comparing prices isn't disrespectful — and it can save you thousands

Caitlin Doughty
Caitlin Doughty is a mortician, activist, author, and YouTuber dedicated to encouraging open conversations around death.
Courtesy Caitlin Doughty

After you lose someone, the last thing you probably want to do is haggle over funeral expenses. Grief can affect your whole body, including your brain, and while you're processing everything, my guess is that you're also not in the mood to get a $15,000 bill that has to be paid that day.

I own Clarity Funerals, a small, independent funeral home in Los Angeles. This may seem strange, but one of our goals is to stop you from paying too much money when your loved one dies.

My funeral home is an extension of my advocacy, which encourages open conversation around death. Knowledge and self-sufficiency are something many families aren't given at death, the time when they need it most.

Many people call our funeral home completely unprepared. A third of middle-class families don't have $400 saved for an unexpected emergency like a death. Or they expect there will be government financial help for them, even though the Social Security death benefit is only $255.

The fact is, you are your own best advocate when it comes to not overpaying after a death. Here are three very simple strategies that will save you thousands, if not tens of thousands, on a funeral.

Chart showing the median funeral costs in the United States.

Spend 20 minutes calling local funeral homes

Unless you have a longstanding relationship with a local funeral home, don't just call the first funeral home that pops up in a Google search. If calling a few places at one time is too hard for you (again, grief brain is a real thing), perhaps a trusted family friend will be willing to make the calls. There's an important reason to do this. Studies have found that you can save thousands of dollars by calling around.

For example, an all-inclusive cremation at my funeral home is $895. The exact same cremation at another funeral home in Los Angeles is $3,500.

This kind of wild price variation is likely the case wherever you live as well. You may believe that asking questions about funeral prices or comparing different funeral prices is disrespectful to the person who has died. Emphatically, it is not.

Know what you want, and what you don't

Have a conversation with your family about what service, or lack of service, your relative wanted before going in to meet with a funeral director. If you don't know what you want, the funeral director will tell you what you want.

Though it may be difficult, try to plan for the future. If relatives are resistant to conversations about money (understandable!) try appealing to emotion. For example: "Mom, I'm afraid of you dying and not being able to give you exactly what you want. Are you willing to ease my fear by having this conversation with me?"

You may believe that asking questions about funeral prices or comparing different funeral prices is disrespectful to the person who has died. Emphatically, it is not.
Caitlin Doughty
Owner of Clarity Funerals

There are federal laws in place that let you choose exactly what items you want for a funeral and absolve you from selecting things you don't want. Other than the basic service fee, which you can't decline to pay for, there are many micro-costs from prayer cards to fancy cloth cremation containers that you are empowered to say "thanks, but no thanks" to.

If money is a great concern, probably what you will be asking for is a "direct cremation." This is a simple, no frills cremation and, depending on where you live, shouldn't cost you much more than $1,000.

Consider an event at home

Not everyone wants the responsibility of planning a funeral or memorial themselves. But families have an enormous amount of power and discretion when it comes to handling things on their own.

For example, if your relative died at home in hospice care, you could choose to have a home funeral for her. Instead of having family and friends visit her body at the funeral home, often costing thousands of dollars for embalming, a casket, and visitation, they can come see her in her own home.

If having a service at the funeral home sounds too stressful, a memorial could happen later. Maybe Mom loved Bruce Springsteen or kayaking on the river or her garden. Arrange a get together of close friends and family at a concert or picnic. Mom's urn can make an appearance as the guest of honor. Getting together to eat and share memories doesn't have to break the bank.

There is no reason to go into serious debt because of a funeral. That would just add one painful situation on top of another. Know these facts and know your options, and you can feel more in control at an important time of your life.

Caitlin Doughty is a mortician, activist, and funeral industry rabble-rouser. In 2011 she founded the death acceptance collective The Order of the Good Death, which has spawned the death positive movement. Her books "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "From Here to Eternity" were both New York Times bestsellers. She lives in Los Angeles, where she runs her funeral home.

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