The Intelligent Divorce

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Funerals, Psychology and Cost

The cost of dying

Most people know something about death and dying thanks to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and others. We know about the stages of grief, including denial, anger, depression and acceptance. We know about guilt and that deep feeling of loss. But, how much do we talk about the psychology of burying your loved one? I am not talking about the ceremony, of burial or cremation.

I am talking about the business of your local funeral home.

Loss & Emotions:

Here's the scene. You just lost your loved one, say a father.  You are overwhelmed with grief and you have to take steps to bury him. Here are some of your feelings.

  • Overwhelmed
  • Desperate
  • Guilty
  • Alone
  • Depressed
  • Worried

Under normal circumstances this is not the state to be in to make a purchase. The last thing you want to bring into the moment is concern about money. You don’t want to feel that you disrespected your father by paying less or bargaining too much. After all, he deserves the best, doesn’t he?

An Expert on Funerals:

So, I spoke to a specialist who deals with Funeral Homes on a regular basis. His name is Stephen Block and he spends his free time helping grieving families with these arrangements. Let me tell you a bit about him, and then share his advice.

Stephen is the head of our local Chevra Kadisha, a group of Jewish citizens who work with families immediately after a death is announced. According to Jewish Law, the body must be cleaned and watched over until burial. This duty is considered an honor in the community. Stephen has been doing it for over twenty years.

Like a surgeon understands appendicitis, and a psychiatrist understands depression, people like Stephen understand the psychology and the business of death.

The Excessive Costs of Funerals:

Funeral Homes are big business these days, with a number of chains listed on the Stock Market. The old days of a family run business where the owner cares about the community is going the way of the coffee shop and Starbucks. Corporate, for good and ill, is here to stay. According to Stephen,

“You may be going to the Funeral Home that’s been around for many generations. Your family used them for a long time. But, sadly, it not unlikely that this recognizable name actually sold out to a big corporate conglomerate in another state, and you’re getting corporate service, not family service.”

Directors are not clergy. Some are more compassionate than others, but all of them are business people. In funeral chains, Directors often rotate from one location to another and often are not super familiar with the needs of a member of a community. Plus, profit is a motive with prices for a complete funeral varying wildly. In one town for instance, a full funeral in one place will almost certainly cost over $10,000 while ten minutes away, it’s almost half the price.

It’s really a sacred moment. You are in acute grief, and the Funeral Director counsels you. He or she may be the first person to offer help right after your loss. It’s the last place you ever wanted to be, but here it is. You’re in great need, and the director may well wish to help, but the nature of the beast is that it’s a business; a big business.

A person in grief may want to show his love by spending money. But, as Stephen tells us, be cautious because sometimes you are buying too much or being overcharged. And, this is not a moment when you are in the mood to push back.

The Itemized Bill:

The Federal Trade Commission requires an itemized bill for funerary services. This is a good thing because it gives you something on paper to look at. Take the time to go over the form and have a friend review it as well.

The Basic Service Fee can vary widely between Funeral Homes, as well as costs for a service or coordinating with the cemetery if you choose to bury the deceased. You may want to ask what’s included in the Basic Service Fee.  For example, if the burial is happening quickly a $500 fee for refrigeration may be excessive. (This may be a morbid subject, but that’s the whole point. You are still a consumer here.)  Some places offer discounts if the family is under great financial stress. It’s good to ask. 

A casket (or urn) is a big ticket item. You have choices here too. It’s possible to buy an urn or casket on site, or have them delivered to the Funeral Home. They are supposed to accept your choice. And, like for most things, buying online is cheaper. On the other hand, it’s perfectly okay to spend money at the Funeral Home. You may get a good feeling from the place or the Director, and feel comfortable making big purchases through them. It is your choice. Just do it consciously so you don’t feel exploited later.

The Value of a Casket:

Caskets are also big business. In the religious Jewish realm, it’s often not a problem, because for them it’s just a pine box (Steve has even seen overcharging for this bare necessity).  In other circles, the wish to purchase an expensive bronze or mahogany casket may be psychologically gratifying, but watch out – they can be massively expensive.  And, is that what you really want, or are you just acting out your pain – and getting a bigger bill as a result?  For instance:  

  • Organic Burial Shroud - $300 to $500
  • Plain Pine Box – $500 to $1000
  • Quality Caskets – $2,500 to $7,000
  • Mahogany Casket – Up to $10,000 or more
  • Bronze Casket – Up to $10,000 or more

There is value in thinking twice before making this big purchase.

Would Dad have wanted you to spend this kind of money?  Do you believe that you are protecting him in some way from deterioration that has already started to happen? This may be your last chance to buy something for him, but just know that it is more for you than for him…because he’s gone. And, you can consider spending the money on living causes like his grandchildren or favorite charity. 

Stephen’s Suggestions:

  • Call a few Funeral Homes for Prices (or have a friend do it for you).
  • Get an itemized bill. It’s required by law.
  • Question what’s included in Basic Services.
  • Try to get the full cost up front, if possible – a “total out the door cost.”
  • Consider having a neutral observer join you when meeting the Funeral Director.
  • Is everything necessary? For instance, you may choose to have service at the gravesite.
  • What kind of casket do you want? Ask yourself why.
  • If death is imminent, have a friend inquire about prices (be prepared).
  • Take a moment to breathe deeply and think before spending money out of guilt.
  • In the end, feel good about your decisions. They were yours alone to make.

Conclusion:

Loss of a loved one, a father, mother, or Heaven forbid, a child, is a tender and overwhelming time. The Funeral Home is a player in this life moment. And, sometimes these places can take advantage. One does not think about saving money when you are grieving. But, no one benefits from being ripped off.

The first think is to recognize that you are vulnerable. Don’t hold back on getting extra support if need be. And, know that whatever you do, the value of your relationship with the deceased has more to do with countless special moments together than an expensive ceremony that may be over priced.

___________________________________________

I want to thank Stephen Block, who runs the Chevra Kadisha in Stamford, Connecticut for his helpful insights. It’s Stephen’s sincere hope that this article helps a family out there in need.

___________________________________________

For more from Dr. Banschick:

The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Kindle)

The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Amazon)

The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Yourself (Kindle)

The Intelligent Divorce- Taking Care of Yourself (Amazon) 

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Mark Banschick, M.D., is a psychiatrist and author of The Intelligent Divorce book series.

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