Plan your own funeral, just don’t pay for it now

People can pay in advance for every step of their final goodbye, but experts say be careful.  (Wall Street Journal)
People can pay in advance for every step of their final goodbye, but experts say be careful. (Wall Street Journal)


Funeral homes push advance sales of caskets and services that can be hard for survivors to track or transfer.

Plan now. Die later.

Arranging your funeral now could save your family money and ensure you get the services you want. But think twice before paying ahead for your final fête. Many funeral homes encourage people to prepay under arrangements that benefit them more than customers.

“Don’t prepay but please preplan," said Sara Williams, president of Funeral Consumers Alliance, a consumer-advocacy group. “Write it down and tell the world, so it’s not this crazy cluster when you die."

Most people don’t plan ahead, leaving loved ones to shop for funeral packages and burial plots. “You’re not acting rationally when you are grief-stricken," Williams said.

Even in the best of times, accurate funeral-pricing information is hard to find. Some funeral directors say they are trained to upsell grieving families into buying more expensive packages and caskets for their loved ones—and to pay for their own future arrangements too.

Janine Carreno, who worked as a funeral director at Pierce Brothers Valhalla Memorial Park and Mortuary in North Hollywood, Calif., from 2008-18, said salespeople at the business would loiter around graveside services to sell future services to mourners.

“They were like hawks, watching every family walk by," Carreno said.

Diana Vactor told her family more than a decade before she died that she had prepaid for her service with a funeral home in Brooklyn, N.Y., and purchased cemetery plots in New Jersey for herself, her son and two grandchildren. Vactor’s granddaughter, Eartha Marks, remembers her saying she had paid $8,000 for the funeral expenses to E&C Owens Memorial Chapel.

“It was her own retirement gift to herself," Marks said.

When Vactor died in December at 94, her family discovered that E&C Owens had closed years before. They couldn’t find Vactor’s prepaid contract. The family hastily made arrangements with another funeral home and paid about $8,000 for a service and casket.

“My grandmother had left us some money but we didn’t have that in time so we ended up having to borrow from friends and family," Marks said.

The cemetery had a record of Vactor’s plot purchases. She was buried there without her family paying another cent. Marks has tried to find the money paid to E&C Owens. The New York Bureau of Funeral Directing told her it couldn’t find a record of the sale.

“My grandmother was such a proactive person. She would have been very disappointed," Marks said.

So-called preneed sales account for about a third of revenue at many funeral homes, industry analysts say. Funeral salespeople can earn lucrative commissions on such packages, which are sold as insurance plans or interest-bearing trust accounts.

People can pay in advance for every step of their final goodbye, from embalming to burial. Funeral directors say doing so spares next of kin from hefty bills. Packages can be guaranteed against inflation to save money in the long run, they say.

But prepaying can go wrong. It can be hard to get a refund if a funeral home closes, is acquired or if you move out of state, said Victoria Haneman, a law professor at Creighton University. She recommends people put funeral funds in a payable-on-death bank account instead.

“The prepayment instruments that exist today are so problematic," she said.

Customers who prepay should read the fine print. Is the contract refundable or transferable to another funeral home? If you pay in installments, know what your family could owe if you die before full payment.

Paying for a burial plot or cremation niche years before death could be wise if a buyer is set on their final resting place, said Jeff Jorgenson, owner of Elemental Cremation & Burial in Washington state.

“If you can lock in the cost 10 years in advance, you’ve saved a massive amount of money and a lot of headache," he said.

Wendy Wiener, a lawyer who advises the funeral industry, said that people with preneed contracts are protected by state regulators and that most states have a consumer-protection fund to reimburse customers who prove they had a contract. Prepaying increases the likelihood your wishes will be carried out by those left behind, she said.

Just make sure your family knows where to find the contract.

Genaro Juarez didn’t know his mother had prepaid for her cremation until after she died last July. He discovered her contract with Neptune Society in Tempe, Ariz., when he was sorting her belongings. Her body had already been picked up by another funeral home.

“They said there would be no refund and it was nonnegotiable," Juarez said.

He filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and called Neptune Society’s headquarters. Several weeks later he received a partial refund.

When planning your funeral, be clear about must-haves, said Sarah Chavez, executive director of the Order of the Good Death, a consumer-education group. Do you want to be cremated or wrapped in a mushroom suit designed to speed your body’s decomposition? Perhaps you want to craft your own casket or buy one online. You can request your funeral be held at home.

Shop around for the best prices, Chavez said: “By design, the funeral industry is not easy for the average person to navigate."

Jerry Dawson of Hernando, Fla., recently stopped his sister from prepaying for a cremation package. He was scarred by what happened to his father-in-law in 1999.

“Once bitten, twice shy. I would never fall for that again," Dawson said.

John M. Chapman died in 1999 at 82 after repeatedly telling his family that he had prepaid for all his funeral expenses, Dawson said. After Chapman’s death, Toale Brothers Funeral Home & Crematory in Bradenton, Fla., where he had purchased the package, said the family owed $500 more.

Dawson begrudgingly paid. “They were preying on our emotional status," Dawson said.

The funeral home didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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