UI report helps consumers navigate funeral homes’ prices and language
Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Family members experience many emotions when a loved one dies. What can be lost during the grieving are decisions about final arrangements.

A new report from the University of Iowa aims to ease the stress for individuals and families wrestling with end-of-life decisions, from choosing a funeral home to paying for services, burial, and related expenses.

The report, from the UI’s School of Social Work, is intended to help social workers who are responsible for discharge planning in health care settings, where 80 percent of deaths occur. The report’s lead author, Mercedes Bern-Klug, also casts it as a news-you-can-use guide to help people navigate funeral homes’ pricing and terminology so they can make wiser decisions about after-death expenses.

“(End-of-life arrangements) are not the kind of thing that people are comfortable discussing,” says Bern-Klug, an associate professor at the UI who has studied aging and older-adult issues for two decades. “We think it will be useful to have this information ahead of time so individuals and families know they have options, and which ones might be best suited to meet their loved one’s wishes.”

Among other points, the current report

• Defines funeral homes’ terminology, such as “basic services”

• Shows price differences among 48 funeral homes in the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City, Des Moines, and Sioux City markets

• Explains federal and Iowa state laws surrounding funeral, burial, and other after-death options

• Includes a checklist of “Things to Do” when a loved one dies

• Includes tips for those who want to keep costs as low as possible

This is Bern-Klug’s third report on end-of-life arrangements and funeral home pricing. The previous one was published in 2011.

Bern-Klug says most funeral homes don’t publish their price lists online, even though they’re required by federal law to provide their rates to anyone who asks for it in person. They’ll also give out the information over the phone, she adds.

One way to save money is to scrutinize the “basic services” charge, according to the report. This item is a standard charge by funeral homes, but the UI report found the actual price ranges from $300 to $3,000—a 10-fold difference.

“This is not something that most people even know to ask about,” Bern-Klug says.

Besides being more familiar with funeral homes’ services and prices, Bern-Klug recommends planning in advance as much as possible. At the very least, she says, document your loved one’s vital statistics and know the plans for the body (burial, cremation, donation for science) and final dispositions (a funeral service, burial plans, and site, etc.).

The report includes a checklist to help simplify the process.

“One of reasons we included (the checklist) is to help people understand a lot has to happen right around the time of death,” she says. “If you’re inclined to get this organized ahead of time, you can share or delegate tasks, and it will make it easier on you or somebody else.”

The report also includes tips for saving money, including asking about burying more than one person in a plot, acquiring a temporary grave marker, exploring casket choices, and asking funeral home directors about all of the options available to you.

“Information is power. It’s in everybody’s best interest to have that transparency,” Bern-Klug says.

The report is available on the School of Social Work website.

Master’s students Anna Hepker and Lindsey Sinn compiled the sections on Iowa laws, rules, and resources. Bonnie Heikens and Marcelina Cockburn, master’s students in the School of Social Work’s Sioux City location, collected funeral home prices in Sioux City. UI alumna Andrea Walker, along with Jacqueline Gloede, an undergraduate attending the UI’s Des Moines campus, collected funeral home information in Des Moines. Master’s students Ellen Petersen and Tarrah Syfert collected information for Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.