Amid the tears, don't overpay for funeral costs

Funeral, casket, death
Kris Loertscher | EyeEm | Getty Images

Comparison shopping is a key bargain-hunting strategy — especially, as it turns out, when you're planning for your last big purchase.

Funeral service and cremation prices vary widely. Even a simple direct cremation — with no ceremonies, viewing or casket — can range from $495 to $7,595, according to a new survey from the Consumer Federation of America and Funeral Consumers Alliance. The report solicited pricing information from 142 funeral homes and cremation businesses in 10 major cities.

"This extreme price variation provides compelling evidence of the need for effective price disclosure," CFA Executive Director Stephen Brobeck said in a news release.

Even in the same city, the difference can be thousands of dollars. In New York, for example, direct cremation might run as little as $550 or as much as $10,125 — more than 18 times as much, according to data from comparison site Parting.com. That's a potential premium of more than 1,800 percent.

The new CFA/FCA report is a follow-up to research the consumer advocates released in 2015, which 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.

Although the Federal Trade Commission's "funeral rule" requires funeral homes to give pricing information by telephone, 24 of the 150 businesses in the 2015 survey did not provide that data after a phone and email request. And only a quarter had price information listed on their website.

Nor is advertised pricing always reflective of the final bill. In the cremation survey, 22 percent of the businesses surveyed did not include in their pricing the cost of the cremation itself, a charge that advocates said could tack on another $250 to $400.

Low and high prices for funeral services

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Direct Cremation
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Immediate Burial
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Full-Service Funeral
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Low High Low High Low High
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: Funeral Consumers Alliance and Consumer Federation of America

"The funeral industry certainly makes it more difficult than it needs to be," Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, told CNBC.com earlier this year.

Part of the problem also falls with consumers, who aren't shopping around.

"Most people go to the same funeral home their family has always used, and just say 'yes' to everything," Cheryl Reed, a spokeswoman for review site Angie's List, told CNBC.com earlier this year.

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, Bob Arrington, president of the National Funeral Directors Association, told CNBC.com earlier this year.

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.

"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.

Consumers looking to compare prices might cold-call local funeral homes or look for comparisons on their local Funeral Consumers Alliance group. There's also Parting.com, a free site that details price lists by ZIP code and type of funeral.

Don't shop on price alone. Facility quality and service levels vary, which will influence pricing, Parting.com co-founder Tyler Yamasaki told CNBC.com earlier this year. (Arrington likened 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," Arrington said. "The hardest thing you can do is, a death occurred last night and all of a sudden you're scrambling."