Planning and shopping
How far in advance should I plan for a funeral? What type of planning should I do?
How can I best shop and compare funeral service providers?
I have a list of services and charges from a funeral home but I don’t understand it. How do I read the statement?
Who has the right to make funeral arrangements? Who has the right to remains?
Why do I need certified copies of the death certificate? How many should I get?
What recourse does a consumer have for poor service or overcharges? Where can I complain?
Almost always the answer is no, though it can be a good idea if you are sure you want more funeral than you or your family can afford.
- Generally no. While New Jersey has excellent consumer protection laws, there are a number of things that can go wrong.
- The family-owned funeral home you chose could go out of business or be sold to a national corporation, the merchandise you chose might no longer be available, prices can go down (more common as funeral homes become more competitive and pricing more transparent), and there are a myriad of items that can’t be prepaid.
- You do not know where you will be when you die so it is risky to commit yourself to a specific geographical area
- Honest funeral directors have told us that pre-paying benefits them, not you.
- The main reason people say they want to pay ahead, and the main selling technique used by funeral directors, is the false claim that “everything is taken care of” and your death will be less of a burden on your survivors. But that’s not true; it is not possible to take care of everything. The best thing you can do to lessen your survivors’ load is to carefully plan ahead and make sure to set adequate money aside for the expense.
- Exception: To spend down for Medicaid eligibility
- A better option is a pay-on-death account at your own bank. Your survivors will have access to the money by showing a death certificate.
- If the deceased was receiving Social Security, the surviving spouse who was living in the person’s household at the time of death (or, if living apart, was receiving certain Social Security benefits on the deceased’s record) or a dependent child who is eligible for benefits on the person’s record in the month of death, may be eligible for a one-time payment of $255. To apply, call 800-772-1213 or see ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10008.pdF
- If the deceased was on full Medicaid, the state will give $2,246 towards funeral expenses. Because Medicaid gives that amount, most funeral homes will do a scaled back funeral for that price. However, remember that the cost of a plot and grave opening and closing have nothing to do with the funeral home and will be extra.
- Many veterans are eligible for the VA Burial Benefit https://fcaprinceton.org/?page_id=689
- If you cannot pay, the county will pay for an “indigent” cremation or burial. However, there will be no service and they are not required to let you know when it takes place.
- The TEARS Foundation can help pay for funeral expenses for those under one year.
- As of July 2015, Memorial Gallery is offering free, slightly blemished urns to those who can’t afford one. Mention Funeral Consumers Alliance memorialgallery.com or 253-649-0567. Let them know what style of urn would be appropriate (for example, masculine, feminine, child). They will select an urn and mail it to you free of charge.
- Least expensive options
- Donate your body to science
- Direct Cremation followed by a memorial service
- For burial
- Home viewing
- No viewing
- Spend the time you need with the deceased at the place of death
- Single viewing at funeral home directly prior to the service
- Ask if the funeral home charges for a private family viewing without embalming
- Home funeral (family-led funeral)
- Have a simple graveside service (no funeral home charges for space or transportation or charge for service at place of worship)
- Have a memorial service at a community center, church, restaurant or home, for free or a lower charge.
- Buy the casket online (can be half the price the funeral home charges and they have to accept it and cannot charge you handling or other charges)
- Never buy a protective or sealed casket; they’re a waste of money
- If the cemetery requires that you purchase a vault (there is no law but they can require it), ask for a “grave liner” (four sides and a top but no bottom) or a “rough box” (the simplest concrete vault)
- Buy prayer cards online
- Buy your own guest book (online or in a paper goods store)
- Make your own programs
- Don’t get more death certificates than you actually need (you can always get them later), generally one per financial institution, one for house, car, etc.
- Other services
- Ask for no embalming. There is rarely a legal need for it but the funeral director can insist for a public viewing. Call around and see which are comfortable with it.
- Don’t rent the hearse and fancy cars. The casket can be moved in a van. Avoid a processional and have everyone meet at the religious institution or cemetery.
- For cremation
- Use the funeral home’s “alternative container” or buy one online (around $75).
- Buy an urn online or use any lidded vase or container or use the sturdy plastic box they come in.
- Sprinkle the ashes instead of burying them and save the cost of the plot and grave opening and closing fees.
- Explain your circumstances to the funeral director and see what you can work out. Many funeral homes already do what they may refer to as a “Medicaid” funeral ($2.246).
- Shop around and compare prices for what you want before contracting with a funeral home. Every funeral home is permitted to set their own prices and prices vary greatly, even within the same town. By law, they must give you this information by phone and a written price list when there in person.
- Remember, spending more money does not equal more love. There are a number of ways you can have a meaningful funeral without spending a lot of money.
- It is almost always better to work only with the funeral home at the place of burial as opposed to the place of death. If you start by calling a funeral home at the place of death, you are likely to end up paying retail price for “Forwarding Remains” and paying the funeral home at the place of burial for “Receiving Remains” plus all the other charges.
- “Forwarding Remains” (at place of death) includes transportation to funeral home; embalming and other preparation, and transportation to common carrier. It does not include airfare or container.
- “Receiving Remains” (at place of burial) includes transportation from common carrier to funeral home. There may be an additional mileage cost depending on the distance. “Receiving remains” is usually less expensive because funeral homes often use Inman shipping company (wholesale $925 in 2015) which replaces the airfare charge.
- Federal law requires that all funeral homes list a price for “Receiving Remains” and “Forwarding Remains” on their General Price List. The law also requires them to quote you these prices over the phone.
- If cremation is an option, this can be arranged at the place of death for less than $1,000 in many areas of the country. Then the ashes can be mailed home for burial.
Technically, yes. But, a funeral director will have to meet you there since the facility will need the permit and the funeral director has to be present at disposition. Town clerks will only issue the permit (for transit/burial/cremation) to a funeral director.
There are many ways to reduce your carbon footprint at death.
- A local burial with no embalming and a biodegradable casket is generally the greenest option
- There are green burial grounds popping up all over the country. Check online to see if there is one near you. In most states, you can bury a body on private property in a rural area, but you have to check your local zoning laws. Some cemeteries have green sections.
- If you want to use a cemetery that does not have a green section, refuse embalming and choose a biodegradable container. Cardboard or just a fabric shroud is best or choose a sustainable wood.
- If the cemetery requires that you purchase a vault (there is no law but they can require it), ask for a “grave liner” (four sides and a top but no bottom so you will return to the earth) or a rough box” (the simplest concrete vault). If they will not accept the protector/liner, ask if the rough box can be put in upside down with no lid. Tell them that your religious beliefs require that you return to the earth.
- Cremation is not as green as it requires lots of fossil fuels to heat the retort. However, it is nothing compared to the driving and flying you’ve done in your lifetime. A local cremation could be greener than traveling out of state for a green burial.
- Is rarely required by law and provides no public health benefit according to the CDC and WHO (though some funeral directors continue to believe otherwise). It does not preserve the body forever, but just delays the inevitable and natural process.
- Embalming is an invasive procedure that many people would never choose if they knew the details of what was involved. It has no roots in Christian religion and is common only in the U.S. and Canada. Embalming is considered a desecration of the body by Jews and Muslims.
- Refrigeration is usually a viable alternative. If cremation or burial can take place within a few days, air conditioning or opening a window in the winter is sufficient. New Jersey requires that the body be refrigerated/cremated/buried or embalmed within 48 hours.
- You can buy a grave plot or space in a columbarium or mausoleum
- You might be required to buy a vault.
- There will be opening and closing fees that may vary by time of day and day of week
- If you buy space ahead of time and then move away, it can be hard to re-sell the graves. On the other hand, if your favorite cemetery is running out of space, the price will climb until they are sold out.
There are loads of potential veteran’s benefits including burial in a veteran’s cemetery, a flag, monetary assistance, markers, etc. Check www.cem.va.gov or call 800-827-1000.
- Our Mission: To promote informed advance planning for funeral and memorial arrangements
- We are not affiliated with the funeral industry or any religious groups.
- We educate the public on their rights and options when planning for and/or purchasing funeral goods and services.
- We encourage people to plan arrangements that are in keeping with their personal wishes and budget, and then share that information with their survivors.
- We provide written information on a wide variety of end-of-life related issues including: advance directives and health care proxies, how to put your financial house in order, hospice, burial, green burial, cremation, body, tissue and organ donation, embalming, viewing, funeral and memorial services, prices, how to choose a funeral home, and more…
- We provide speakers for organizations and groups, and hold our own informative annual conference, open to the public.
- We are available for personal phone consultations to answer your questions and help you make plans.
- We have relationships with a number of area funeral homes who offer members significant discounts on their funeral arrangements.
- We encourage pre-planning, but not pre-paying (except under certain circumstances).
- We serve people of all ages and encourage generations to talk to one another about mortality and planning for death.
- We are a member of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a national federation of funeral consumer information societies. Visit them at www.funerals.org
- We are a 501 (c)(3) education and advocacy organization run by an all volunteer board. Our income is from tax-deductible donations.
PLANNING AND SHOPPING
- We have lots of price lists! If we don’t have them for the funeral homes in your area, shop around and compare prices for what you want before contracting. Every funeral home is permitted to set their own prices and prices vary greatly, even within the same town. By law, they must give you this information by phone and a written price list if you show up in person. Call around and ask the prices for the services you think you will be using. It’s easy if you’re interested in something like Direct Cremation. It’s harder if you want a full service funeral, but you can get a sense by asking the cost of their Basic Services Fee, Embalming, Viewing, Funeral Service at funeral home, Graveside Service, least expensive casket, vault, etc.
- Federal law requires funeral homes to give you a copy of their General Price List (GPL) at the beginning of any discussion of arrangements. GPLs must include these disclosures:
- Consumers may select only the goods and services desired
- Embalming is not required by law except in certain special cases
- A Basic Services Fee will be added to any items purchased
- Alternative Containers, such as those made of cardboard, are available for direct cremation
- A Casket Price List is available
- An Outer Burial Container (vault) Price List is available
- The prices of 16 items must be listed including the basic services fee and cost of embalming, picking up the body, viewing, funeral or memorial service, funeral vehicles, and several other commonly offered goods and services. In addition, four simple options must be offered: Direct Cremation, Immediate Burial, Receiving and Forwarding of Remains.
- Direct Cremation & Immediate Burial are the simplest options. These required packages include pickup of the body, obtaining permits, filing the death certificate, transportation and arranging for the cremation or burial. For cremation, ask if the package price includes the crematory fee — if the funeral home doesn’t own a crematory, it is considered a cash advance item and you might not see it until you get a final bill. For immediate burial (or the burial of cremated remains), the cost of a graveside service, the plot, opening and closing fees (charged by the cemetery) and marker (charged by the monument maker) are extra. With both, an alternative container is included in the package and any upgrade would be extra.
- The Basic Services of the Funeral Director and Staff is usually the most expensive item on the price list. It’s kind of like a “cover charge” (but there’s no band) and it’s the one fee that you cannot decline. Many funeral homes inflate this fee and charge less for itemized goods and services. While the fee was intended to cover services common to most arrangements such as filing death certificates, coordinating with the cemetery or crematory, and filing for various benefits, it usually also includes overhead costs. The national average for this fee is more than $1,800. Note: If you purchase a package such as direct cremation or immediate burial, the funeral director cannot charge you the Basic Services fee in addition, as those services must be included in the package. In fact, at some funeral homes the charge for those packages is less than their basic services fee.
- If you are not buying a package, you can choose only what you want (other than the basic services fee). For example, you might want to hold a funeral ceremony, but skip the embalming and viewing. Or, you might want a private family viewing without embalming. If you want something that is not listed on the GPL, be sure to ask. Many funeral directors are glad to accommodate your wishes.
- Embalming is one of the most misunderstood aspects of funerals; many people believe that it is required, though it usually is not. The following disclosure must be on all GPLs: “Except in certain special cases, embalming is not required by law. Embalming may be necessary if you select certain funeral arrangements, such as a funeral with viewing …” The unfortunate phrase “may be necessary” allows a funeral home to require embalming for public viewing. Most do, but some will allow a viewing without embalming so shop around. Beware of the unscrupulous salesperson who tries to dissuade you using generalizations about what happens to dead bodies (as opposed to real knowledge of your particular situation). While there are some cases where a body would not be in a condition to view, that is not typical. Remember that until the early 1900’s, most Americans did not embalm their dead. Jews, Muslims, Bahá’í and others still do not embalm and it is not done in most of the world.
- The GPL must also list a range of casket and vault prices. If the least expensive casket isn’t on display, you can ask to see it and ask what other colors it comes in. Remember that the vault is just a box-for-the-box that won’t be seen at graveside because it will already be installed in the ground. The least expensive option is called a “grave liner.”
- Want to be sure that your body disposition and funeral wishes are honored? A Designated Agent for Body Disposition is a legal document that allows you to name a person to be in charge of final arrangements. It is important to have one if you are not married but want your partner involved, if your survivors won’t agree on body disposition (e.g. cremation) or funeral wishes (e.g. a religious service), if you want a home funeral or to not use a funeral director, etc. With no agent named, control is given in the following order:
- Funeral Agent or designee on an active duty service member’s DD Form 93*
- Legal spouse, NJ registered domestic or civil union partner
- Majority of surviving children over the age of 18
- Surviving parent(s) of decedent
- Majority of surviving siblings over the age of 18
- Other relatives according to the degree of relationship
- If there are no known living relatives as outlined above, the funeral director may accept the written authorization of other interested parties (i.e., friend, neighbor, colleague)
- In NJ, the Designated Agent form needs to be included in your will. We have the following sample forms on our website. Be sure to talk to your attorney before using these forms.
Designated Agent Information and Instructions
Designated Agent in a Last Will and Testament (if you don’t have a will)
Designated Agent for Body Disposition as a First Codocil (if you already have a will)
- Many financial institutions require a certified copy of the death certificate to transfer ownership, etc. Don’t get more than you actually need (you can always get them later), generally one per financial institution, one for house, car, etc.
- No one is perfect, including funeral directors. We all make mistakes. If you are dissatisfied with your funeral or cemetery experience, try to settle your concerns with those involved first. Write down everything from the minute you feel you might have a complaint, to make sure you record details while they’re fresh in your mind. If another person is with you and shares your concerns, ask that person to write down what happened, too. Be sure to date your notes and include the names of everyone you deal with. Keep a log of all phone conversations.
- Funeral home and cemetery complaints generally fall into the following general categories or a combination of them.
- Unreasonable or unexpected cost — the price list shows that the least expensive casket available is $595, but the funeral director claims there is nothing available less than the $2,000 casket on display
- Unethical or unprofessional conduct — you were told that embalming was required even for private family viewing, or that the handles will fall off the third- party casket
- Negligence — the funeral home failed to send the obituary to the newspaper, and no one showed up for the funeral
- Breach of contract — the cemetery or monument dealer failed to deliver the marker you ordered, even after six months.
- How you word your complaint is extremely important. “It was a terrible funeral” or “It cost too much” are not valid complaints. It might have been terrible or cost a lot, but you will be more effective in getting results when you can be specific or identify a law or regulation that was broken.
- There are several agencies that regulate the funeral industry and provide consumer protection. The Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection enforces the Funeral Rule, designed to protect consumers. In addition, in New Jersey, funerals are regulated by two separate agencies, the New Jersey State Board of Mortuary Science and the New Jersey Cemetery Board. Both boards operate under the state Division of Consumer Affairs.
- State Board of Mortuary Science is the agency that licenses New Jersey funeral directors and funeral homes. The mortuary board regulates funeral director conduct, sales practices, funeral home facilities, licensing, and continuing education requirements for funeral directors.
New Jersey State Board of Mortuary Science
William Mandeville, Executive Director
PO Box 45009 Newark, NJ 07101
- The New Jersey Cemetery Board regulates non-sectarian cemeteries. It is separate from the New Jersey State Board of Mortuary Science, which regulates funeral homes. Duties of the cemetery board include monitoring cemeteries’ obligations to maintain and preserve their grounds in perpetuity, approving the purchase and sale of cemetery property for transactions beyond routine grave sales, and setting and enforcing rules that govern cemetery sales practices.
New Jersey Cemetery Board
Dianne Tamaroglio, Executive Director
PO Box 45004, Newark, NJ 07101
- The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates the funeral industry through its Bureau of Consumer Protection. The FTC’s Funeral Rule, which has been in place since 1984, requires that funeral directors and firms provide consumers with accurate itemized price information and various other disclosures about funeral goods and services. In New Jersey, only consumers who deal with licensed funeral directors and establishments are protected under the FTC Funeral Rule. If your complaint involves a violation of the FTC Funeral Rule, you can file a report online ftc.gov or mail to the FTC, 600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20580.
- Make sure you send a copy of your complaint to the person or company you’re complaining about. Also put a “cc” at the bottom of your letter to show that you’re sending a copy to Funeral Consumers Alliance too. That lets everyone know that we’ll be watching to see what they do.
- It is a good idea when you file your complaint to indicate what kind of resolution you would like to see. You will not always get what you want, but providing such information can be helpful to the intervening investigative agencies. Be realistic in your request. Asking the funeral director to write off the whole cost of a $10,000 funeral because Mom’s hair wasn’t quite right is not a reasonable request.
- Usually, a funeral board or the state has a number of options. It can order a refund or reduction in the funeral bill, it can impose a fine, it can order an apology or require additional education. It might issue a warning, place the offender on probation, or it might even revoke a license. Taking a funeral director’s license is rarely done, however, and then only for the most outrageous misconduct such as embezzling preneed funeral money. Furthermore, once the complaint has been filed, you may never be informed of the outcome, as these “hearings” are generally held in closed meetings. That doesn’t mean you still shouldn’t file a complaint.
In New Jersey, you can keep a body home for 48 hours with no special arrangements. After 48 hours, the body needs to be kept cool. This can be accomplished with dry ice. See Home Funerals.
- If the death was completely unexpected, call 911. The police will decide if the coroner needs to be involved, whether there will be an autopsy, etc. Keep in mind that a call to 911 will also summon EMTs and will likely involve resuscitation efforts, even if the person is obviously dead.
- However, if the death was not completely unexpected (elderly, ill, etc.), take a deep breath and prepare to resist any pressure to make a rushed decision about what you want to do or to choose a funeral home. An expected death is not an emergency.
- If the death was at home, take some time before calling the police if you do not want them to attempt resuscitation. If you can, find the non-emergency number for your local police instead of calling 911. If there is a home Do Not Resuscitate order or POLST form, have it out to show EMT personnel.
- If the death was in a hospital, there should be no rush as most have refrigeration and are used to holding bodies until arrangements can be made, although some hospitals may have less room.
- If the death was in a nursing home, staff people are likely to want to remove the body as quickly as possible, especially if in a double room. If you have not yet made arrangements, be polite but firm and tell them that you have not made a decision yet, but will do so as soon as possible. They can move the body into a single room (if they have one) or transfer it to the local hospital.
- In most states, you can handle some or all funeral arrangements on your own without hiring a funeral home [pull out your copy of Final Rights to give callers detail; invite them to download their state-specific chapter at funerals.org/bookstore].
- Regardless of the arrangements you choose, your choice of funeral home can mean the difference of thousands of dollars, even for the same services.
- Most newspapers will only allow a funeral director to place the obit, but you can ask.