The High Cost of Death: A Death in the Family Can Drain Your Emotions. Smart Strategies Can Keep It from Draining Your Wallet

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WHEN CLARA BELL RECEIVED THE NEWS IN JUNE THAT her beloved 27-year-old nephew had died of an undiagnosed heart condition, she rushed to be with her sister, Bridgett Young, knowing how devastated she would be by the loss of her only child. "We didn't really think about much else at that point," says Bell, who resides in De Soto, Texas, not far from her sister. "For four days we basically just watched her, took care of her, and loved her."

But the clock was ticking. While the entire family grieved over James Brandon Young's sudden death, funeral arrangements needed to be made, life insurance companies had to be called, and a newspaper obituary needed to be written and paid for. Realizing that her sister wasn't in any shape to manage those details, Bell and other family members rose to the occasion.

"We started contacting funeral homes to see how the process worked and how much it would cost," says Bell, who estimates that the total funeral tab came to $9,000. It took only a few calls to realize there were vast differences in funeral home practices. Some morticians wanted deposits of 50% and demanded that the balance be paid 24 hours before the service even if the family was still waiting for a life insurance check. Others tried to pressure Bell into buying "a lot of fancy stuff," she says, including high-end caskets that cost as much as $10,000, and extras including embalming. "We had to weed through everything that was being thrown at us to find someone who could meet our needs."

Bell selected a funeral home that seemed more compassionate than the others and that required no upfront payments once it received direct confirmation on the phone with the life insurance company that her nephew's insurance payout would cover the full cost. She ran into more difficulty, however, when she attempted to sign off on decisions for Bridgett, who was too grief stricken to help with the planning process.

"Insurance companies and employers don't want to talk to anyone but the next of kin," says Bell, who discussed with her sister whether her son would be buried or cremated. "Our family tradition is burial but, of course, we asked his mother what she wanted."

Once funeral arrangements were made, Bell and a few other family members wrote Young's newspaper obituary. The first version included names of relatives, information about the deceased, and a personal message from his mother. The total bill for publication came to about $600, but the family wanted to spend no more than $200. "We had to cut it down to get within budget," says Bell. "During the editing, a lot of my sister's ideas fell by the wayside."

Lower costs with dignity

Bell's family isn't alone in tackling the high cost of burying a loved one. But even in the midst of their grief, the family took a prudent first step by calling several funeral homes to compare prices.

Although many people choose funeral homes because of proximity or family tradition, the purchasing of funeral services is actually a business transaction that should be part of a family conversation, says Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. "In any area of the country, prices at funeral homes differ by thousands of dollars for the same services. There is no justification for such excessive prices."

To help keep costs down and honor a loved one as well as family or religious traditions, consumers have several options.

Plan ahead. "Just the way we teach our children how to compare prices at an auto dealership or to examine credit card interest rates," says Slocum, "we need to equip them to make end-of-life decisions." Planning ahead doesn't mean prepaying a funeral home, however, which Slocum and other consumer advocates discourage. Instead, you can open a "pay on death" account at any bank, and choose a friend or family member as the beneficiary. But it does mean discussing with family members what you want. …