ONE AREA in which I'm not happy to have had a lot of financial experience is in planning funerals.
I've had to pay for or help arrange funerals for my grandfather, grandmother, two brothers, great aunt, brother-in-law, father-in-law and, most recently, my mother.
And although the staff at the funeral homes were kind and professional, one thing was consistently frustrating: I couldn't get any price information on the Internet. I had to call. And still, I never got a full sense of the costs until I actually visited the homes.
The Funeral Consumers Alliance and the Consumer Federation of America just released a survey that quantified my experience and those of many others.
The consumer advocates surveyed 150 funeral homes from 10 regions: Philadelphia; Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; Mercer County, N.J.; Indianapolis; Minneapolis; Denver; Tucson; Orange County, Calif.; and Seattle. Researchers asked for information on direct cremation without a service, immediate burial without a ceremony or the cost of a casket, and a full-service funeral, which included transport of the body to the funeral home, preparation of the body, viewing or calling hours, a ceremony with the casket present, a hearse to the cemetery, a vehicle for the family, and a graveside ceremony.
The survey found that only one in four funeral homes disclosed prices on their websites. Sixteen percent didn't reveal prices, either on their website or when contacted by email or phone.
The Federal Trade Commission's "Funeral Rule" requires funeral establishments to provide cost information over the phone and to give a general price list to consumers who visit their establishment. It does not require disclosure on their websites. But it should.
Given the way we use technology to shop, the law needs to be updated, especially for such an emotional purchase. Consumers ought to be able to find prices for funeral services online as easily as they can shop for a car.
California requires funeral homes to disclose on their websites the same prices they give to folks in person or when they call. Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, says the FTC should follow California's lead.
"Many people are surprised at how much funeral prices vary, even within in their hometown," he said in an interview.
The survey revealed huge price differences for a full-service funeral from a low of $2,580 in Minneapolis to a high of $13,800 in Washington.
Researchers said that what they found was discouraging. In Washington, they randomly selected 15 funeral homes and cremation businesses. All had websites and yet only one posted a complete price list. Only three provided prices after an initial email request, according to the report.
"Until federal rules compel funeral homes to do business the way contemporary consumers expect, most D.C. area residents will have to shop '1970s-style' through in-person visits and telephone calls," the report said.
Similar results were found in other regions.
Until there is change, here is what Slocum recommends when shopping for funeral services:
* Slow down. "Take your finger off the panic button," he said. "Yes, things have to be done in a reasonable time, but if your wife, who has been in hospice, dies at home, that doesn't mean you have to rush to phone the funeral home at 3 a.m."
If you're too grief-stricken to call around to get quotes, have a friend do it for you. In fact, when you get your will done - and you should - include information about the type of funeral you prefer and how much you can afford to spend. Me, I want to be cremated. I don't want my family to spend a lot of money to bury me.
* Set a budget. Arrange a funeral that fits your emotional needs but also fits your budget. "And if your budget is $800, there is no shame in that," Slocum said.
You can get some general price information from surveys conducted by local affiliates of Funeral Consumers Alliance. Go to www.funerals.org and click on the link for "Find a local FCA." Still, the surveys don't include itemized price listings.
* Spend wisely. You can have a $20,000 funeral at which the body is on display for three days or an $800 simple cremation and memorial service. Either way, "the amount of love and genuineness of your grief is the same," Slocum points out.
It's OK to shop for a funeral as you would for any other service or product. And don't equate how much you spend with the love you had for your loved one.