How to cut costs on dying

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It's getting easier to shop prices on the one big expense many people put off planning — their own funeral.

Costs for those final arrangements can vary widely. An October survey from the Funeral Consumers Alliance and the Consumer Federation of America found full-service funeral prices ranging from $2,580 to $13,800. Even within the same city, the groups said, highs and lows often had variances of more than 200 percent. (See chart below for pricing.)

Although the Federal Trade Commission's Funeral Rule requires funeral homes to give pricing information by telephone, 24 of the 150 businesses in the survey did not provide that information after a phone and email request. And only a quarter had price information listed on their website.

"The funeral industry certainly makes it more difficult than it needs to be," said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. "Unfortunately, consumers have to do a lot more work to get an apples-to-apples comparison than they do in almost any other industry."

Or at least, they did.

New comparison-shopping site details the price lists of every funeral home in the United States, site co-founder Tyler Yamasaki said. Users can enter their ZIP code and type of funeral — traditional, cremation memorial, immediate burial and direct cremation — into the free site to see estimated prices from local businesses.

Low and high prices for funeral services

Click to edit Direct Cremation Click to edit Immediate Burial Click to edit Full-Service Funeral Click to edit
Atlanta$850 $3,640 $1,195 $5,200 $3,370 $11,050
Denver$1,055 $2,840 $1,260 $2,945 $2,600 $7,855
Indianapolis$895 $3,295 $1,295 $4,365 $2,700 $6,415
Minneapolis$760 $3,000 $650 $3,395 $2,580 $7,855
Philadelphia$1,365 $3,345 $1,080 $3,600 $4,135 $7,990
Seattle$495 $3,390 $690 $3,395 $2,805 $5,515
Tucson$649 $2,440 $640 $3,140 $2,630 $8,140
Washington, D.C.$1,295 $7,595 $1,410 $6,800 $3,770 $13,800

Source: SOURCE: Funeral Consumers Alliance and Consumer Federation of America

"It's something consumers need and want," he said. "So you're not at the mercy of time, and having to make hasty, uninformed decisions."

Yamasaki embarked on the months-long endeavor of building a price database after planning his grandmother's funeral last spring. "I quickly realized that finding prices online was difficult," he said. many homes were unwilling to give detailed pricing over the phone — they wanted him to visit. (Several other sites offer comparison pricing reports, for a fee. Many local Funeral Consumers Alliance groups also release regular local pricing reports.)

To build, Yamasaki and his business partner Will Chang cold-called funeral homes around the country. While many voluntarily sent over their price lists, for those that wouldn't, the two "mystery shopped" as potential customers. As a last resort they said they cited the FTC Funeral Rule to secure pricing.

Easier cost comparisons could make a big difference in how consumers plan. "Most people go to the same funeral home their family has always used, and just say 'yes' to everything," said Cheryl Reed, a spokeswoman for review site Angie's List.

That's a bad idea — and it's unusual for such a big purchase, Slocum said. "You don't make that decision when you buy a car, you don't do that when you decide on a Realtor to sell your home, and you don't do that when you're buying $6,000 worth of new kitchen appliances," he said.

Whether you're planning for your own funeral or arranging one for a loved one who died, before you start comparing local funeral homes, think about what kind of funeral you'd like, said Bob Arrington, president of the National Funeral Directors Association. The FTC's Funeral Rule requires funeral homes to allow consumers to choose and pay for only those services they want, so knowing that you want a memorial service versus a viewing can yield more accurate quotes.

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"It's like going down the buffet line," said Arrington, who is also founder and president of Arrington Funeral Group in Jackson, Tennessee. "The family can decide how much they pay at the end of the line by what they pick up."

By that measure, it's also smart to have a sense of your budget at the outset, said Reed. The median cost of a funeral with a viewing and burial was $7,181 in 2014, according to the association. For a viewing and cremation, the median price was $6,078.

"A lot of people don't have that kind of money just laying around," she said. Knowing if the deceased set money aside or how much family members are able to contribute, can help in deciding the kind of service and with what funeral home.

Don't shop on price alone. Facility quality and service levels vary, which will influence pricing, said Yamasaki. (Arrington likens it to "Motel 6 and Marriott.") Read reviews, and visit the funeral homes you're considering to take a firsthand look and ask questions.

"Do it before you have to," said Arrington. "The hardest thing you can do is, a death occurred last night and all of a sudden you're scrambling."