Eyewitness News investigates laws, rights in funeral planning

Eyewitness News investigates laws, rights in funeral planning »Play Video

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — In the wake of a Bakersfield funeral home closed down for code violations and under investigation by the state, Eyewitness News wondered about your rights when it comes to cemeteries and funeral homes during one of the most emotional times of your life.

"She was an artist, professional artist, loved to dance and she loved to have a good time," said Bakersfield resident Dianne Garratt.

When Dianne Garratt's mother Francis died of heart complications in 2004, she had a pre-paid plan.

"Everything else we thought was all taken care of," said Garratt.

But turns out, it wasn't - nearly $4,000 in extra expenses, such as the opening and closing of the grave, were not covered.

The family left with the debt.

"There are probably 20 different things that are third-party that you end up having to pay for and nobody tells you," said Garratt.

According to the most recent data from the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a funeral is just over $6,500. That includes transferring the remains to the funeral home, embalming, a metal casket, use of the funeral home and staff for a ceremony and hearse. That doesn't include a cemetery vault or marker that can increase the cost to over $7,700 or more.

Cremations are much less expensive, averaging $3,200. But how do you know you're getting what you pay for?

"We're an open book. You can open the guide and see what the costs are," said Dave Hepburn, general manager of Bakersfield's Union Cemetery.

Union Cemetery is the resting place of the city's namesake, Col. Thomas Baker.

Hepburn said prices are no mystery. That's because the state requires them to show you a general price list. On top of that, a surprise state inspection happens every year.

"You can check and see if our license is either clear or revoked. If its clear then it means we're clear in every way," said Hepburn.

When it comes to funeral homes, they're required by law to post prices next to each casket or urn. They also must quote you prices over the phone. And, federal law requires you get a dollar total before services begin.

"In our funeral home we always try to make them comfortable by telling them this: That we're here to do what you what you want us to do, not what we want you to do," said Ray Mish, co-owner Mission Family Mortuary.

Mish has been in the funeral business for 76 years. As co-owner of Mission Family Mortuary, his home averages a funeral each day.

With emotions running high, his advice to families is to wait at least 24 hours before coming in.

"So it gives them time to get together with family to get them together to come in and make arrangements to decide what they want before they even get here," said Mish.

What else should you know?

Embalming is not required by law. You can actually prepare a body at home, but must obtain a permit.

It's OK to buy a casket from somewhere other than a funeral home or even build your own, as long as it meets the specifications of the individual cemetery you choose.

And, if you choose one of those options, a funeral home is prohibited from charging a "casket handling fee."

According to the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance, consider a "do-it-yourself" tribute or "direct burial" or "direct cremation." Doing so skips viewing or visitation, saving you cash.

By holding your tribute at a home, park or church, it can save you money, too.

"The biggest mistake that gets made is actually that they haven't told any family members they have already paid for funeral arrangements," said Russ Heimerich of the California Cemetery & Funeral Bureau.

Heimerich has been with the California Cemetery & Funeral bureau for nearly nine years. He said most cemeteries and funeral homes are on the up and up. But, he added, shop around, compare prices and consider a pre-paid plan.

"So they're a very good thing. What you need to watch out for is the type of pre-need plan and you need to think a little bit about how you want to pay for your pre-need plan, " Heimerich said. The most popular: a Pre-Need Trust contract.

But, before you choose, ask for a guaranteed price plan. Make sure your funds increase in value. Decide to pay for it all now or over time. Ask if there is a penalty for late payments. And to guarantee prices of cemetery goods, such as a vault or marker, buy them now and have the cemetery store them until needed.

Finally, know exactly what is included in your plan. It's something Garratt unfortunately learned the hard way at one of the most emotional times of her life.

"We thought it was all taken care of on paper, but it wasn't," said Garratt.

If you do go "pre-need" make sure there is a cancellation clause in the contract. And beware, if a funeral home goes out of business, you could be out of luck.

Above all, talk about funerals with family members ahead of time so they will know your wishes and you will know theirs.