Ric Edelman

We all know the costs of living are high. But did you know the costs of death are equally so?

Funerals now cost about $10,000. This includes $2,180 (the average cost of a casket, according to the National Association of Funeral Directors), plus embalming and preparation of the corpse, hearse, flowers, obituary notices, clergy, cemetery plot, headstone, opening and closing the grave, and catering services. The bill rises when family members travel long-distance to attend the funeral.

This is why it is entirely appropriate to consider final expenses as part of the financial-planning process. Many Americans make their own arrangements in advance. They purchase their own gravesite, contract with a funeral home and purchase a headstone or marker.

There are three important benefits of engaging in pre-needs planning: You ensure that your funeral consists exactly of what you want, and you spare your surviving spouse and children the trauma of having to make big decisions during an emotionally difficult time. You also eliminate the risk that family members will fight over the arrangements or be confused by the sales pitch of a funeral home director.

But if you're going to engage in pre-needs planning and 60 percent of Americans over the age of 50 have done so make sure you consider three important aspects of the process:

1. Will the vendors be in business when you need them? It could be years, even decades, before you need the casket you're buying today. Will the manufacturer still be in business? Will the product still be offered, and if not, who will choose its replacement?

2. Where will you die? Before you choose a cemetery and funeral home, consider the implication if you move across the country in 10 years to be closer to children and grandchildren. Will you want your body to be shipped back to your hometown? Who will pay for that expense?

3. Inform your family. If you don't tell your kids that you've purchased a casket and cemetery plot, they'll buy those items all over again. As much as it might be difficult to talk about this with your adult children, it's the responsible and mature action.

For a variety of reasons not the least of which is the desire to avoid the decisions and costs of funeral planning 25 percent of Americans choose cremation. If you're involved in making funeral arrangements for someone who elected cremation, don't have the body embalmed and don't buy a wood casket.

In fact, cremation or not, you don't even have to use a funeral home or hold a formal funeral service. But if you do choose to work with a funeral home, be aware that you are in control of the event, not the funeral director. Funeral directors are required to give you an itemized price list, and you are free to select from that list as you wish. Here are some items to consider:

Embalming, which is only done in the United States and Canada, is not required by law. It's not needed if burial will take place within 48 hours. It does not protect the public from disease; it is merely a cosmetic preservative process in which the deceased's body is injected with formaldehyde. Embalming is considered a desecration of the body by orthodox Jewish and Muslim religions. Refrigeration prior to burial is considered by many to be a better (and cheaper) option. You are not required to hold the funeral at the funeral home. Consider having the viewing and funeral at a church, synagogue, lodge, hotel or other location including your or the deceased's home. This is where funerals were held for most of our nation's history, and it saves the cost of viewing and funeral fees. You don't have to buy the casket from the funeral home, which typically marks up their casket prices by 300 percent to 500 percent. Instead, buy your casket on the Internet; most provide overnight shipping directly to the funeral home of your choice. Funeral directors are required to accept any casket you supply, and they are not permitted to charge handling fees. Consider a "green" burial. Instead of cremation or a traditional casket, the deceased's body is buried in a bag or wood box; a tree or bush is often planted on the grave. Green burials are considered environmentally friendly and inexpensive.

Shopping for a funeral may sound distasteful, but the alternative is worse: grieving family members arguing over the cost while listening to the sales pitches of funeral directors. Shopping can save the family thousands of dollars while preserving the dignity and wishes of the deceased.

For additional information, contact the Funeral Consumer Alliance at 800-765-0107 and ask for the number of the local non-profit Memorial Society in your area. Also visit www.funerals-ripoffs.org.

Financial Adviser Ric Edelman is the author of several best-selling books about personal finance, including "Ordinary People, Extraordinary Wealth" and "Discover the Wealth Within You." You can e-mail him at money@ricedelman.com.

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