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Cost of a funeral on the rise, but directors advise planning ahead

Greg Norman, a fourth-generation funeral director, established the Gregory J. Norman Funeral Chapel in 1993. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service1 / 2
Greg Norman, a fourth-generation funeral director at the historic Gregory J. Norman Funeral Chapel in Grand Forks, suggests pre-planning as a way to protect against the rising costs of funeral services. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service2 / 2

GRAND FORKS — Dealing with the death of a loved one can be stressful and overwhelming. A person has days to plan a ceremony that will honor a life, all while facing the prospect of saying goodbye for the last time.

There is one aspect that can be intimidating for the family of the deceased, especially if details of what the person wanted have been planned in advance: the cost of a funeral. Family members must answer a variety of questions that play a financial role in planning a funeral: deciding on a traditional funeral or cremation, picking a casket or urn, choosing a funeral home to work with, choosing flowers. Even choosing where to be buried can affect the final bill.

"It's really kind of a, not so much of a dilemma, but a concern," said Gregory Norman, owner of the Historic Norman Funeral Home in Grand Forks, adding the finances are a key factor in planning a funeral.

The median cost of a traditional funeral by burial last year in the U.S., including basic service, viewing, transportation, print materials, body preparation, casket and a vault was $8,755, an increase of about 20 percent since 2006, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. The same services for cremation with a casket and urn — no vault — came in at a median price of $6,260, according to the survey that included input from more than 1,100 NFDA members.

The West North Central region, which includes North Dakota and Minnesota, had the highest median price for a traditional funeral, minus the vault, and cremation with $7,815 and $6,763, respectively.

The point of a funeral home is to guide families through a hard time and help them celebrate a life lived, Norman said.

"That's actually the old term, when they used to call us undertakers, that's where that came from," said Mark Amundson, co-owner of Amundson Funeral Home in Grand Forks. "We would take a lot of the responsibilities of these details that the family was originally dealing with on their home. We would help relieve them of those details and make it easier on them."

Wide range in price

There was a time funerals could count most of their services as a single cost. That changed in late 1984, when the Federal Trade Commission implemented the Funeral Rule.

This required funeral homes to itemize expenses, Amundson said. The federal law was the FTC's move toward consumer protection and transparency.

Funeral homes needed to determine what costs should go where, breaking them down into three categories: services, merchandise and cash advanced items, or outside costs from other partners that a funeral home pays for on behalf of the family.

"Funeral directors took a long time trying to figure out to properly balance where they should be putting their prices on various items," said Dan Isard, president of The Foresight Cos. in Phoenix.

Norman compared the sheets that he and other funeral homes present to clients to a menu, from which they can choose packages, add items or go the simplest route. For example, a person who wants direct cremation could forgo the services or choose a traditional ceremony with all of the features of a funeral.

"There are a lot of options," he said. "If you want to be very price conscious, I would say $3,500 to $4,500 would give you a direct cremation with the facilities."

Amundson said costs for a funeral can vary in prices and have a wide range, depending on what the family wants, which funeral home they use and where they are buried. The NFDA also points this out in its annual reports with an example of prices for "nondeclinable basic services." The average price across the nation the association found was $2,100, with the lowest of the respondents charging $130 and the highest price at $5,450.

Added costs

The median cost for a funeral has changed dramatically over the years, especially as the funeral industry, cemeteries and federal government added more requirements and expenses increased.

The median cost for general items without a vault in 1960 was $708, much less than the median price tag of $7,360, according to the NFDA.

Still, the No. 1 cost usually centers on staff, Isard said. He described a shrinking market of employees and students who want to go into the mortuary business, as well as an increase in prices for merchandise and services.

"The overhead of a funeral continues to increase," he said. "We've seen prices going up and profit for funerals going down."

Norman and Amundson both pointed to added items and costs as well. Many cemeteries require a vault for caskets and have increased the prices on land plots. Some cemeteries are starting to require a vault for urns, Norman said.

Traditional or cremation?

More people are choosing cremation as an alternative. About 48 percent of the U.S. population that died in 2015 was cremated, according to the NFDA. Projected numbers show that share increasing, with the NFDA forecasting 71 percent of the population to go with cremation by 2030.

It's a trend Norman said he has noticed, especially among families who may not be able to afford a full traditional burial.

Relaxations by churches probably play the largest role in deciding whether to cremate, Isard said. Some religious traditions believed a body was needed for resurrection and had strict prohibitions for cremation. But those beliefs have relaxed, allowing families to consider cremation as an option.

The West North Central region falls in the middle of the pack for cremations, according to the NFDA. Almost 50 percent of the population in that region opts for cremation while 46 percent go with burial.

Norman and Amundson said they are willing to work with families on prices and do what they can to make sure the family can celebrate the life of a family member. They encouraged customers to plan early with funeral homes as much as possible — some funeral homes do that free of charge. Writing as many details down as possible — from where they want to be buried to the person's biography — can make the process much easier.

"It's a very large gift to that person's family," Amundson said of planning.

Whether the funeral is needed suddenly or planned ahead, both said it is important to do research, shop around and consult funeral homes for help, Amundson said, adding "nobody is turned away."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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