The high cost of saying goodbye (pg. 3)

  @Money November 9, 2012: 9:25 AM ET

Beating the high cost of caskets

With average prices ranging from $2,400 (for steel) to $3,500 (wood) and some copper and bronze models going for $10,000 or more, the casket is usually the most expensive item in a funeral.

The good news: Discount suppliers are growing in number, from independent online sellers to retailers like Costco and Wal-Mart, where coffins often go for less than half the price of comparable ones sold by funeral homes.

The bad news: Funeral homes don't make it easy for you to take your casket business elsewhere.

In some cases, funeral directors may refuse to accept outside merchandise or charge a handling fee, which violates the Funeral Rule. The practice resulted in one of the three enforcement actions by the FTC this year: In June, Andrew Torregrossa & Sons Funeral Home in Brooklyn agreed to pay $32,000 to settle charges that it had refused services to two families (one was an FTC secret shopper) unless they bought a casket in-house.

Owner Andrew Torregrossa called the incidents "unfortunate" and declined further comment.

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In the February issue of the trade publication Funeral Services Insider, funeral directors anonymously shared other tactics for handling customers who want to buy merchandise elsewhere. Several suggested raising the basic-services fee to offset lower merchandise revenue. Another favored disparaging the quality of outside vendors by saying, "Go ahead. But we are offering American-made products and not Chinese-made."

The publication also recommended buying caskets from firms that create private labels: "It will have a different model number, and the family won't know it's the exact same option available at another firm."

Choosing cremation won't inure you to the casket push. A growing number of funeral homes offer casket rentals, usually for $800 or so, to view the body and expensive urns and containers for the remains.

Some also encourage buying a casket outright for the cremation, even though a cardboard box is sufficient.

Directors may try to get around that with questions that imply going without a casket is less than savory, says Markin. "They might say, 'Would you like a chance to say goodbye?' When the grieving party agrees, the funeral director might say, 'Well, you don't want to see your mom laid out in a cardboard box.' Suddenly you're back to buying a coffin."

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Gary Runes, a retired dentist from Tiburon, Calif., experienced this while making arrangements for his aunt's cremation in 2007. She had prepaid the cremation fees, but the funeral director "assumed we would buy a coffin to put her in," says Runes. "At first, that was the only option offered. I had to ask if there was a plan B -- and only then was I told a cardboard box was all that was required, and it was already covered in the cost of the cremation."

Runes says he was also pitched other products, such as amulets and special urns for "safeguarding" the ashes. Slocum says it's not uncommon to receive cremated remains in a box or a bag marked "temporary container" to get you to buy a pricey urn.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

Look outside the home. Check out retailers like Costco.com, whose bestselling casket goes for $950, including shipping. Another direct supplier with a wide selection, BestPrice Caskets.com, has free ground shipping. Most caskets can be delivered within a day.

Ask for more options. Casket shoppers generally buy one of the first three models they're shown. Press for more choices and ask to see a catalogue, says Markin. Also request 20-gauge steel, not 18-gauge, which is thicker and costs $700 to $1,000 more. Markin says, "Both are suitable, and no one would know the difference."

NEXT: High-pressure funeral sales tactics

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