The High Creep of Funeral Costs

One of the great outcomes of the publication of The American Way of Death was increased consumer scrutiny of a lot of topics relating to funerals, including extremely high costs. Mitford’s expose pointed out that funerals were ridiculously expensive, and not only that, but many funeral directors preyed on consumers with very sleazy, transparent tactics to drive up the costs of funerals. Relying both on the confusion of grief and the desire to do right by the dead, a slick funeral director can upsell pretty much every aspect of a funeral in an hour appointment with minimal effort, leaving people reeling at the final bill, but, what are you going to do, say you change your mind and want to put Aunt Betty back in the low-grade casket?

In just one example of the tactics funeral directors use, coffins are very carefully arranged, in a pattern meticulously thought out. When you have low income clients whom you know you can’t wring much money out of, you show them an array of mediocre coffins roughly in their price point, with a few nicer ones at higher prices. They drift towards those coffins, naturally, and when they blanch at the price and say they want something cheaper, you show them the bottom of the line cardboard cremation casket. ‘Oh, ok,’ they say, taking the expensive coffin. Because you’d be ashamed to bury a family member in a cardboard box, wouldn’t you.

The National Funeral Directors Association says a funeral costs, on average, around $8,000. There are a lot of funerals that go into quintuple digits, and right fast, too; a coffin alone can cost upwards of $10,000, and funerals are surrounded with a myriad of padding and hidden costs. Refrigeration. Embalming. Casketing. Preparation of the body. Viewing. Compensation for religious officiants. Flowers. Vaults. Grave liners. Gaskets and seals. Grave markers. Opening the grave. Closing the grave. Opening the vault. Closing the vault. The grave itself. Or cremation. Transport. Administrative fees. Facility rental. Honorariums.

The FTC wants to protect you, but it can only do so much. These are all professional services, and people are entitled to charge for them, right down to the extra fee for casket shoes. And people are allowed to pay for them, if they think they are important and want to make sure they happen. When you have a situation where people need a service and see only one way of getting it, and service providers are ready to provide it, well, there’s only so much you can do with regulations, and investigations to see if those regulations are being followed.

Funeral prices are creeping back up in the United States. People are more stealthy about it these days than they once were, and many funeral directors do indeed follow the Funeral Rule and do things like providing price lists upon request and making sure people know that many services are, in fact, optional. Except for that ‘service fee,’ which people can pretty much bill however they want. But it doesn’t help to have all of these rules followed when the base prices are so high as to be ridiculous. And when people do things like checking to see how much life insurance you’re expecting so they can bid a funeral at precisely that price; after all, what good would the money do you?

People say that the funeral industry provides a service, which it certainly does. But at what price? The industry surrounding death and dying is, they say, structured to provide support and assistance to people in their time of need so they feel less isolated and alone. So they can focus on the details of the memorial and grieving, rather than having to handle administrative errata. It’s a selfless service, you know, providing care to the bereaved.

Of course, it’s also a for-profit enterprise. People do not do this out of the goodness of their hearts and the industry is heavily dominated by a handful of very large corporations interested in bottom lines with vertical monopolies to make sure they get it. You may go through a home, cemetery or crematorium, florist, and so forth, all owned by the same company, all billing at rates that company likes, with little recourse for you unless you want to care for your own dead, which a lot of people do not. It can also be a big hassle when you’re dealing with a company that wants to squeeze you for money and thus will hassle you for trying to arrange, say, a standalone private cremation.

As funeral costs creep up, many poor communities are hit hardest. Sure, funeral homes claim to provide funerals to everyone who needs them at prices they can afford, but ‘afford’ is a nebulous term, and what people can literally bear may not necessarily be what they can ‘afford.’ When life insurance settlements and pensions are quickly eaten through by funeral costs, it keeps people in the same position they were in before the funeral. That little nest egg that might have made a difference between getting ahead in this world or staying where you are is gone. And of course people want to do the right thing by the people they lose, want to care for their dead, want them to go out in style, and of course people are going to be susceptible to suggestion; sure, you could use that casket. If you wanted. I’m sure it would be fine for your mother. She wasn’t picky about her surroundings, right?