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Doug McCleary: Celebrant, Officiant, Musician


Shop Before You Drop

Posted by Doug McCleary on January 4, 2016 at 7:40 PM

You may not realize this, but it can be very expensive to die.  While the "average" funeral (according the the National Funeral Director's Assocation) costs about $7000, in my years as a celebrant, I've occasionally seen contracts for funeral services cost upwards of $30,000.  That price of course includes many high-end amenities--service, burial, expensive casket, etc.  But still...$30,000.  I don't know about you, but for me that's not pocket change, nor is even $7000.  And price is not always an indicator of quality.

Often people don't think or worry about funeral expenses until suddenly they have to.  A loved one dies and now they're seeking a funeral home to handle their loved one's remains.  So, they call the closest home to them, or the funeral home they remember their parents or other family or friends once used, not realizing that they might have been able to save money elsewhere.  They might be taken aback when they see the actual costs, but will still take out a loan or find some other way to pay because they didn't realize they had options, and that not all Funeral Businesses are the same.

Prices, in the Portland, Oregon area (where I offer my services), can vastly differ.  For example, a simple direct cremation through one local independent group of homes will cost a mere $495.  The same direct cremation, through one of the premier funeral homes of the largest international death-care corporation will cost the consumer over $2000.  That's a 500% difference.

Many funeral businesses--particularly independent homes--will encourage their directors to more flexibly work with you, the consumer, to create a funeral contract that fits your needs and budget, without options you may not want.  When my own mother died in 2004, we (my sister and I) worked with a locally owned funeral home, and our director gave us all the time we needed to pick out a casket (with no pressure to purchase an expensive model), honored our wishes regarding costs, and bent over backwards to serve us, with no pressure to "up-sell" or get us to buy options we did not need ( c.f. this 2001 article).

Even when it comes to my little niche of the funeral industry--as an officiant at memorial and funeral services--prices can vary significantly.  An experienced and proven independent celebrant or officiant in my work area will cost the consumer anywhere from $300 (my own requested fee) to $800 per service. The corporate homes may offer their own celebrants.  You can inquire with them regarding availability, cost and experience.

For some, the idea of "shopping around" for funeral services seems improper or disrespectful.  After all, they are dealing with one of the most heart-breaking and awareness-challenging transitions in life.  Often it is thought "we should pay whatever we have to pay to do things right."  Yet, as with every other aspect of life, you are a consumer purchasing a product, and you have every right to find the best deal possible to suit your needs...and no obligation--social, religious or otherwise--to spend more than you want or can.

One more thing to take into consideration is where you prefer to spend your money.  "Shop local" has become a well regarded notion.  It is something to consider, even in this industry.  Your money can go to support a local business and the people who own and run that business, or it can go to better pack the portfolios of shareholders and CEO's.  This decision all depends on what's important to you.  And do be aware that there are all levels of funeral home ownership, from the independent "mom and pop" homes, to local franchises, to small corporations, to the largest corporation globally. All are different, and the price you will pay will vary no matter which route you choose. One cannot, with a black-and-white certainty say that every independent home will be the lowest price option, and every corporate home the highest. You must research for yourself and choose the option that best suits your needs.

So let me encourage you to shop around and learn your options, and to do so before you die, or a loved one dies.  Make phone calls.  Research websites.  Know what is available in your city.  If money is no object to you, and you wish to have "cadillac" services, then higher prices and more "frills" are easily available.  If money and saving are important to you, that too can be found.

Start by considering what you want when you die.  Do you want to be cremated? Buried?  A "green burial"?  Do you want a traditional funeral or memorial service? What kind of casket would be acceptable?  Is cost a concern?  What costs are you willing to bear, or to have your family bear?

You can do much of this pre-planning with a funeral professional, and save your family much of the potential financial hardship.  If you do, be aware that just because you or your loved ones have pre-purchased services at one funeral provider, you aren't obligated, except under certain circumstances, to use the money in that "pre-paid funeral plan" at the funeral home where it was purchased. You can transfer the benefit to a funeral business which will provide you with the level of service you desire at lower prices.

So search the web.  Make some phone calls.  Take notes.  Here are a few suggested questions you might consider asking as you do explore options:


  • A good place to start getting an idea of price differences is to ask "what is the cost for a simple direct cremation?"  The difference between funeral businesses when it comes to this basic service will give you a good idea of the kind of differences you can expect for other services.
  • Is the funeral business independent, part of a local franchise, or part of a national corporation?  Is that important to you?
  • Are costs clearly presented on the Funeral Home's website, or do you have to show intention to purchase to discover actual prices?  In other words, is there clear disclosure of basic costs, or do you have to sit down with someone to uncover this information?
  • Will the funeral business encourage its directors to tell you how their prices compare with other funeral homes in the area?
  • Will the business offer you individual services and items to fit your needs, or will they insist you purchase a "package" of services, with little option to personalize?
  • If you wish for your funeral director to help you find an officiant/chaplain/celebrant, does the business encourage it's directors to suggest price and style options, or insist on only one choice? And a follow-up to this: will they help you find someone who will best fit your needs, or will you be required to "take who you get"? 

Now, with all that said, remember that "cheapest" isn't always the best option, nor is "most expensive."  The cheapest option may not give you all that you want, and the most expensive may offer you more than you need without opportunity to refuse services you don't wish to purchase.  Ultimately, it is your decision how much you feel is reasonable to pay, and what level of service you wish to receive for funeral or death-care services, and which funeral business will best provide that.  But the only way you will know is by shopping...preferably before you drop, but even after you have lost a loved one.

If you would like to discuss these issues further, you may always contact me through the "contact" link provided on my website, directly via my email [email protected], or call.  I will get back to you as soon as possible.

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