It pays to shop around, even for a funeral.
Consumers who pick a big-box funeral home assuming its prices are competitive could be overpaying, according to a new report from the Consumer Federation of America and the Funeral Consumers Alliance.
The consumer advocates say median prices at funeral homes operated by Service Corporation International — the largest corporate provider, whose brands include Dignity Memorial and National Cremation Society — run 47 to 72 percent higher than prices at other, independent funeral homes. (See chart below.)
"Although media reports on SCI have often described the company as the 'Wal-Mart' of funeral service, the comparison does not hold," the alliance's executive director, Joshua Slocum, wrote in the report. "Unlike Wal-Mart, SCI's economies of scale don't translate into cost savings for consumers."
SCI officials did not respond to multiple requests from CNBC for comment.
There are more than 19,000 funeral homes nationwide, and 86 percent are privately owned by individuals or families, according to statistics cited by the National Funeral Directors Association. SCI owns 12 percent.
The consumer researchers compared 35 SCI-run funeral homes and 103 independent funeral homes in 10 major metropolitan areas. They used used pricing data on funeral homes' websites where available, and followed up with emails and phone calls to obtain prices when it was not, Slocum said on a press call. None of the SCI funeral homes disclosed its prices online, he said.
SCI's services weren't universally pricier. SCI funeral homes in Tucson, Arizona, had a median price that was 11 percent lower than independents' for simple cremation, and in Atlanta, prices were 10 percent lower for simple burial, among other examples in the data.
The report underscores the importance of casting a wide net when comparing prices on funeral services — whether you're planning your own or find yourself in the position of planning one for a loved one who has passed away. In recent years, CFA/FCA pricing data research has found wide ranges on funeral and cremation prices, even in the same city.
"In many cases, people just haven't thought about a funeral," said Cheryl Reed, a spokeswoman for review site Angie's List. "So they're dealing with their grief at the same time they're dealing with these decisions. It's hard to be a great shopper."
Funeral pricing site Parting.com estimates that families spend roughly $10,000 on final expenses. That includes an average $6,000 on goods and services from a funeral home, as well as an average $2,000 to the cemetery and another $1,000 to $2,000 for a headstone or grave marker.
Shopping around isn't always easy, however. In an undercover Federal Trade Commission investigation during 2015 and 2016, 23 percent of funeral homes failed to properly disclose prices, the commission announced last month.
The FTC's Funeral Rule requires funeral homes to provide you with a price list, and ideally, you should reach out to a few local providers for comparison as part of your estate planning, said Reed. Parting.com also offers a free search, by ZIP code.
"See what costs what, and treat this just like you would a major investment — because that's what this is," she said.