hey say you can't take it with you, but that doesn't mean you want to give it all away at the end, either.

The "it" we're talking about, of course, is money. And the end, well, we all know what that means. Let's face it, the last bill your loved ones probably will pay regarding your life will be for your funeral. There's a lot you can do ahead of time to make sure the planning isn't excruciating and the costs aren't exorbitant.

When a loved one dies, we are grief-stricken, confused, and vulnerable. And it's that vulnerability that often clouds our judgment and is where the advantages of preplanning come in.

Enter memorial societies. Never heard of them? You're not alone. Like to learn more? You're not alone there, either.

"Most people will pay more for the funeral of a loved one than they would for a funeral of their own," says Allen Stensland, a volunteer with the Minnesota Funeral and Memorial Society (612-374-1515) located in St. Cloud, Minn. Stensland says that's largely a result of guilt—"If only I'd fed him better..." "If only I'd taken better care of her..."—but that memorial societies help you plan your funeral and the funerals of loved ones ahead of time, relieving many of those issues.

The Minnesota Funeral and Memorial Society is a nonprofit funeral consumer group that, like its 200 counterparts across the country, was set up to help consumers find affordable ways to give consumers choices about the cost and content of their funerals. The first memorial society was started in Seattle in the 1930s by a group of consumers who thought funerals were too expensive and too ostentatious, Stensland says. The societies haven't changed much in their philosophy since that time.

"We may have moved away from the belief that funerals are too ostentatious," Stensland says, "but keeping prices low is still a main goal of the societies." In Minnesota, the Funeral and Memorial Society sets prices for funeral costs and recommends to its members five funeral homes that will meet those prices. Members pay a one-time fee of $25, which covers mailings and phone calls. Each regional group operates somewhat differently, Stensland says, noting that the Chicago Memorial Association suggests that their members go to certain funeral homes to find the best costs instead of setting those costs themselves.

     Five steps to
     better goodbyes

We all pay in the end
According to the U.S. Senate's special committee on aging, the average cost of a funeral and disposition (burial or cremation) is $7,500. Kelly Smith, public relations director for the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), says the funeral portion of that total runs $5,000 to $5,700.

The idea behind the societies, which, like credit unions, operate as membership-ownership organizations, is that if members bind together they can create a buying group, garnering discounts from funeral directors. Society volunteers shop around for the best deals, then reach agreements with funeral directors, with the understanding that the societies will recommend them to their members in exchange for discounted rates on everything from caskets to cremation.

Before you go, you should know...
Lisa Carlson runs the Funeral Consumers Alliance, the parent organization of memorial societies across the country. The Alliance serves as the federation of nonprofit consumer information societies, and only lists nonprofit societies.

"We're dedicated to a consumer's right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral," Carlson says. While cost cutting is a big portion of her group's mission, her organization is also heavily into preplanning. The Funeral Consumers Alliance has designed a "Gorey Details Package" (with illustrations by artist Edward Gorey). The packet, which sells for $10 including shipping, includes a plastic pouch and a 6" x 9" booklet titled "Before I Go, You Should Know." Also included are a checklist (for family and friends to complete at the time of your death) and out-of-state death instructions. The pouch gives consumers a centralized place to keep living wills, important information about your wills, death certificate information, important but often overlooked information such as the name and phone number of the dog's vet, which plumber knows where the septic tank is, and so on.

Carlson, author of the book "Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love" is admittedly frugal. "A cremation can cost as little as $500 or more than $1,500, but the results are the same," Carlson stresses. She feels strongly that consumers should know their rights going into funeral planning—for example, few, if any, states require embalming, but it's often practiced—and that the more you can have preplanned, but not prepaid, the better.

Marjorie Bridges, office manager for the Funeral and Memorial Planning Society based in Palo Alto, Calif., agrees.

"We encourage people to preplan," Bridges says, "but we don't advocate prepayment. Too many things can change in 20 years," she says. Bridges adds that it's ironic that many of their members, who pay $40 to join, are in the upper-middle-class tax bracket.

"They don't learn about us in the poorer communities," Bridges says, echoing Minnesota's Stensland. "Often," Stensland says, "it's the people with the least money who pay the most [for a funeral]."

The NFDA's Smith agrees on the prepayment issue, but with exception. Smith says prepayment does make sense in a few cases, especially when clients are elderly and need to transfer assets out of their estates before going on Medicare or Medicaid. But he agrees that if clients are young or transient, it makes sense to hold off on prepaying funeral costs.

Although they might not always see eye to eye, groups representing both the funeral societies and the funeral industry say a preplanned memorial and funeral is the best way to go. Smith of the NFDA outlines five steps that make for a better process, which lets the bereaved grieve, which is what they should be focusing on at this time. The steps are:

1. Plan ahead as a family. Decide ahead of time if you want your death to result in an earth burial, cremation, organ donation, memorial service, and so on.

2. Estimate what kinds of goods and services you will want. Do you want a fancy casket? It will, of course, cost you more. "Different people have different values and rituals," when it comes to planning a funeral, Smith says. Be sure to stay in tune with your desires.

3. Shop around. Find a funeral home that can provide the services you want for the money you're willing to spend. Smith recommends visiting two, three, or more funeral homes before you settle on the one you'd like to handle your funeral.

4. Ask questions. Lots of them. This is the time to get your needs met. Federal law, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, requires that funeral homes disclose fees up front, so ask for all the information you can to avoid surprises later.

5. Plan how you're going to pay. Have you started saving for your funeral? Do you want to prepay? Many credit unions advise against prepaying, saying you can earn more interest by investing in a certificate of deposit or money market account earmarked for your funeral. Just make sure they're accessible to the people responsible for your funeral so that cashing in those funds doesn't become more of a burden to those dealing with your final arrangements.
     A cremation
     can cost as
     little as $500 or
     more than $1,500,
     but the results
     are the same.

     Most people will
     pay more for
     the funeral of
     a loved one
     than they would
     for a funeral
     of their own.

© 2000 Credit Union National Association Inc.