Six questions to ask funeral directors when you need to select a funeral home for a loved one…

Is embalming necessary? If you are told it is, ask who requires it and why. Embalming is almost never legally required (there are rare exceptions in some states), nor is it required by airlines when a body is transported. So be very suspicious if the funeral director claims his hands are tied. Most likely it’s the funeral home itself that has a policy requiring embalming—because embalming pads its bill. If a body must be preserved, such as for a viewing, refrigeration usually is effective, legal and significantly less expensive. If the funeral home does not offer refrigeration, that could be a reason to select a different funeral home.

What’s the advantage of a sealed coffin? You likely will be shown some extra-cost “sealed” or “protective” coffins if you visit a funeral home. A less-than-honest funeral director might insist that these seal out the elements and protect the body from decomposition. In fact, water and air will eventually enter any coffin and the body will decompose. An honest funeral director will admit that sealed coffins are offered mainly because it makes survivors feel better to imagine they are protecting the body.

Do you offer any lower-prices caskets that are not on display? Can I buy the casket elsewhere? Funeral homes do not always display their most affordable casket options. What’s more, federal law requires funeral homes to let customers use caskets that they purchased elsewhere (urns, too) and prohibits them from imposing any extra fee when customers do so. A funeral director who claims otherwise should not be trusted.

Why haven’t you given me a General Price List? It’s a huge red flag if you’ve been speaking with a funeral director for more than a minute or two about burying or cremating your loved one and he hasn’t handed you the funeral home’s price list. Don’t let the funeral director explain this away with “you didn’t ask for a price list” or “I was about to hand you one.” Federal Trade Commission regulations require that this list be provided at the outset of the conversation whether the customer asks for it or not. Be at least mildly suspicious if the funeral director says he did give you a price list and it turns out he included it among a pile of paperwork he passed you. He might have intentionally made the price list hard to spot.

I see by your price list that your price for (mention a funeral service of interest, such as cremation) is more than I would pay at (mention a less expensive funeral home in the area). What is it that you provide that they don’t? The funeral director might reasonably cite his funeral home’s nicer viewing rooms or more convenient location. If these things are important to you, it might be worth paying extra. But if the funeral director simply drones on about the funeral home having been a trusted part of the community for generations, give this little weight. Even the lowest-cost funeral home in the area almost certainly can be trusted to arrange a burial or cremation.

What are your personal funeral plans? If the funeral director mentions a high-end casket and other extravagant options but your tastes (or budget) are less grand, you might be better off working with a funeral director whose priorities are more in line with your own. Or you might question whether this funeral director is even being honest about his own plans. Surveys of funeral directors conducted by industry trade magazines suggest that a surprisingly large percentage of them intend to have very simple “direct” burials or cremations when they die, with no embalming or viewing.