Death Literacy Intros: avoid the rip-offs!
Updated: Sep 29
Death Literacy - a coin termed by Dr Kerrie Noonan. "Death literacy is defined as a set of knowledge and skills that make it possible to gain access to understand and act upon end-of-life and death care options" (Noonan, et al 2016).
Today's post will offer some basic tips and tricks for avoiding the biggest costs, aka rip-offs, when it comes to funerals. I know that some Gentle Readers among you will be rolling their eyes in impatience with a second Death Literacy Intros post in a row that is focused on finances and savings, and I understand. For many of us, it is simply not 'nice' to discuss, dissect, acknowledge, or mention money - however I am delving back into the cost/saving aspect again for this post because our social niceties are literally costing the individual consumer far too much. As there are well-known, specific, easily identified and prominent areas of rip-off in funeral planning or execution, I am presenting them here today. And, with this post's information, you can be confident that savings accounts, flowers, 'upgrades', and catering are all areas of funeral planning where you can easily be a savvy, sensible consumer.
It pays to remember that in Australia many funeral homes are 'vertically integrated' business models, so the choices we think we are being offered are in fact no choice at all. Florists, catering, guest books, etc. are generally in-house (or at the very least in-corporation) items, tied to the funeral home front with hefty built-in profit margins. Death in Australia is an AUD $1.2 billion industry each year, so do not be afraid to say 'no' or 'NO, thank you' firmly whenever you consider you are being upsold unnecessary expenses.
I do not ever recommend, ever, that clients take out "funeral insurance" or a funeral 'plan' that is an instalment-based payment system. Set up a dedicated bank savings account instead.
Studies in both the UK and Australia have confirmed that the best possible way to help your family and friends out by avoiding a large payment for a funeral is to open a high-interest saving account. Treat this bank account the way you would a Christmas or holiday fund - you can put in a lump sum and forget about it (make sure it follows you if you change banks), you can put money in from time to time as suits your, or you can have a direct debit set up from a primary account. The way you set the account up is not important, as long as there is money there that you put aside for your funeral. Opening your own savings account means never having to be double-charged for your funeral inclusions (or for exclusions you do not receive).
Poor people, in particular First Nation Australians, are being targeted by insurance providers, and unscrupulous funeral homes*, however reading the Ts and Cs is always smart for anyone considering paying in advance or on a plan for their funeral. Don't buy on the spot, and do comparison shop - Choice and comparison websites may be useful here, but I don't ever advise this course; in most cases the plan ceases if a single payment is missed, making this option a very dangerous one for poor people, as well as those living with dementia. In addition, with plans and pre-pays family members and executors are often charged twice for services covered in the original agreement. Remember, when we are grieving, or if we are not conversant with the original plan, we may not check the fine print for details of what is covered and what is not. For example, earlier this year I was told by a man whose mother had died in Northern NSW recently that the funeral director offered to retain her ashes until the 'gap' payment between her plan and the 'service charge' from the funeral home was covered by the estate, although his mother had purchased what she was assured was a full-cover plan with no extras. Plans of any kind also may see you paying many, many times over the cost of your actual funeral if you live for many years of plan payments, so the expenses can be interpreted as biting us both coming AND going, if you take my meaning...
No joke: the sales of funeral plans and insurance is one of the fastest-growing areas for consumers to be shamelessly taken for a ride by funeral homes and insurance companies. If you are in any doubt about how fast and important this revenue stream is to the funeral industry, stop and think about how much prime-time TV advertising is devoted to funeral insurance and plans. There is no point in spending money on the most expensive time slots if you are not anticipating a whacking great return on your investment, and the funeral plan or insurance payment route is pure gold from an industry standpoint... I myself use the savings account option as I am not interested in propping up exploitative and expensive end of life options, so I am openly walking my talk on this point.
FLOWERS - BEAUTIFUL BUT STILL RIP-OFFS, BEWARE!
We associate flowers with funerals, and there is nothing wrong with planning to have flowers at a funeral, or expecting flowers to be visual anchors for a celebration of life, wake, or offerings to guests on departure from a funeral service. Ordering 'floral tributes' - to use the patois of the funeral industry itself - from a funeral home and not expecting to pay a hefty price however, need not be a common association with funerals anymore for the savvy and price-conscious consumer of today. I remember when my grandmother's flower arrangement covered the entire coffin surface at her funeral, the funeral director having suggested that guests could take away a flower from the coffin spray. Great idea, except that my grandmother had emigrated at a late age, did not make friends here as she was elderly and did not go out much, and we her family had little use for an enormous arrangement. In hindsight, two or three of her favourite roses from the garden would have been a much more fitting adornment at her funeral service, and would have saved us hundreds of dollars.
Don't be afraid to use your own garden's bounty, or a neighbour's, for the purposes of making your funeral memorable and without rip-off in the bloom department. Don't be afraid to be creative, either - vegetables make great arrangements for a community garden member's funeral, or you could use paper flowers, origami, or crochet flowers. I recently planned a funeral for a younger client who is ticking all her planning boxes, and her desired flower display is to be a native branch from her own garden - zero cost, and a meaningful floral display to her family.
UPGRADES FOR CATERING, COFFINS, LININGS, FUNERAL SERVICE EXTRAS, AND OTHER SEEMINGLY INNOCUOUS EXPENSES ARE STILL RIP-OFFS TO BE AVOIDED
Funeral homes are businesses, and there is nothing wrong with making enough profit to stay in business. However, do be aware that coffin-shopping - even via a catalogue rather than a showroom - is modelled and designed to rip us off for as much expense as possible. In the previous post in this series, I pointed out that we have an odd set of financial and economic drivers when it comes to death: we, literally, buy the false idea that the more money we spend on someone's funeral equates magically to the depth of our love for them. Funeral homes will usually walk families and friends through from the most expensive option to the cheapest - although the lowest cost options are often not on the showroom floor, by way of indicating how 'inferior' they are, subtly underlining the idea that greater expense is approved and expected. If your budget is small, ask firmly to be shown the least expensive option only and stick to your guns.
In an age where the majority of us are boxed and burned - cremated - it makes very, very little real sense to pay thousands of dollars for pillows, lining, and costly wood. For many of us organising funerals however, the emotional blackmail of the up-sell/upgrade is the rip-off that is the hardest to resist. Advance planning, and being pragmatic about the knowledge that expense does NOT equate to love, affection, respect, or esteem, are the ways to best avoid this kind of rip-off. Much of what is on offer in this category is unnecessary, or available for far less elsewhere.
Want a guest book? Try the 2 dollar shop (you can find surprisingly nice note books in shops of this kind). Candles? Honestly, 2 dollar shop again. A more expensive coffin/casket for your dead friend or family member? Take a deep breath and bear in mind that they do not need to be 'comfortable' anymore as they are dead; physical positioning of their body is not important to them anymore, so the upgrade amount is pure cream for the funeral home. Catering? Do you have a local cafe or restaurant to call on instead? Do you have friends and family who love to cook and would like to feel included and useful by contributing? If the answer is 'yes' to either of these last questions then decline the catering option of the funeral plan.
Shopping around - remember that delegation is our friend at times like this! - will help you save a lot of money. As a happy bonus, perhaps you are simultaneously helping those around you to see that our funeral rip-off culture need not be the normal way of doing funerals and advance planning anymore.
Want to know more about how to improve your death literacy or become better informed as a consumer about end of life rights, choices, options, and realities? Please get in touch with me by email or phone - I am an End of Life Consultant who specialises in education, advance planning, and information for consumers and clients, and I am happy to help you as much as I can.
Let's talk - firstname.lastname@example.org
*N.B.: note that I do not infer or suggest that all funeral homes (or their staff) are by nature unscrupulous, however there are too many horror stories out there to ignore. See the Tender documentary for starters, also The Checkout at 2.30 minutes.