I remember one staff meeting a few years ago where we were discussing a funeral home on the other side of the country which was being investigated for improper treatment of human remains. Bodies were stacked in the garage, without refrigeration, and burials which were supposed to be conducted within 24 hours were actually put off for several months, adding to the growing stash of bodies in this garage.

What shocked many of the employees during that meeting was not that a place entrusted with the care of these bodies had acted in such an unprofessional manner, but instead, that another employee had eventually had enough and complained to the state board.

“He RATTED on his own funeral home?!” Yes. And good for him. If you would not do the same thing, you do not belong in this industry.

I believe most funeral service professionals to be honest people, but if I run across one who is intentionally committing acts of fraud or gross abuse, I will shut it down.

I don’t have anything like that to report. But I believe in full disclosure, and I will explain one way in which people are often misled.

If you are pre-paying for a simple cremation, most likely you will be shown a package price that supposedly “includes everything.” It doesn’t.

Pre-need salespeople are very rarely licensed funeral directors and they work solely on commission, with quotas to meet. If you don’t meet the quota, you’re out of a job. Under those working conditions, would you say whatever you had to say in order to make the sale? Would you lie to people if you could double your income? Especially if you knew that by the time that person died, you would be working somewhere else and not available to answer questions for their irate family who “thought this was all paid for”?

Ask. Ask what “everything” means. Here are the charges associated with a simple cremation.

1. “Basic Service Fee.” This is a non-declinable fee associated with every funeral arrangement you make, akin to the “walk in the door” fee from a hospital emergency room. It basically covers the operating expenses of the funeral home and the funeral director’s wages for the time spent with you arranging the funeral. It will be from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, but is usually discounted as part of a purchased package such as “direct cremation” or “burial with chapel service.”

2. Transfer of the deceased to the funeral home. Sometimes this charge is included in the cremation price, sometimes not, and this is why you have to ask. Don’t believe the salesperson. Ask to see a price list from the funeral home. Also see if there are extra charges related to where you die. Some places routinely send two people to pick up a body from anywhere that is not a hospital morgue, some only send two people if the person died at home. Some send two people if the person weighs over 300 lbs, or if they died in some weird place like that space between the toilet and bathtub, or if there is advanced decomposition. Also find out what distance from the funeral home will cost extra. Obviously if you die while traveling to another state, the pre-paid arrangement cannot cover the charges to bring you home, but if you live 75 miles from the funeral home and don’t plan on leaving home much, find out if the charges will include the 75-mile drive. Basically, if you are told the transfer is “included,” ask “Is there anything related to how or where I die, or the condition of my body at the time of death, that would make this cost extra?”

3. Crematory fee. Usually just a few hundred dollars, and often the most misleading part. The crematory fee might be $300, so the funeral home will advertise “$300 cremation” for a cremation that ends up costing $1600. The crematory fee will probably also be higher for weekend cremations, rushed cremations (within 48 hours of death), oversize cremations (over 300 lbs) or witness cremations – family present during the process.

4. Disinfecting or “handling” charge. This is bullshit. If you are not having a viewing you do not need to be disinfected or handled. If you have a pacemaker they will need to cut that out of your body, because pacemakers damage the crematory equipment, but that is a very quick procedure that requires no more than rubber gloves. But you will go straight from the cooler to the cardboard box and will not even need to come out of the bodybag. They will unzip to briefly check you for presence of a pacemaker and any jewelry.

5. Viewing and/or dressing. If your family wants a last look, or if they want you dressed before the cremation (or if you want this done) that will cost about a few hundred extra. If you want to be sure it’s included, ask for it.

6. Merchandise. Most crematories require that the body be placed “in a rigid, combustible container” AKA cardboard box or wooden tray. Ask if this is included in the charges because many funeral homes list that price separately. The family also has the option of providing their own wood or cardboard box and the crematory is required to accept this, and the funeral home must remove the charge from the final bill, as well as associated state taxes. The crematory also uses cardboard rollers to roll the box into the chamber, and some places will charge a few dollars for each roller used. Ask if your funeral home is one of them. A plastic box for the cremated remains will run you about $10-50, so ask if the cremation package price includes this. And, you are allowed to bring your own container to be used as an urn and avoid this charge as well.

7. Refrigeration. Cremation takes a few days to arrange, due to the required signatures that must be gathered, so your body will need to be refrigerated during that time. Often this charge is not included, so ask to see the price list if the salesperson tells you it’s included. Some funeral homes include 72 hours of refrigeration in their prices, so ask what happens if your doctor doesn’t sign the death certificate in time and you end up being refrigerated for a week.

8. Infectious body. If you die of a communicable disease, extra charges are bullshit because the mortician or crematory operator is supposed to treat ALL bodies as though they are equally infectious. Find another funeral home if they tell you any differently. I’ve worked on a few who died of AIDS and the precautions for that kind of work consist of…rubber gloves and a face mask. Plus you have to scrub the instruments with germicidal soap. You know, like you do for every single other body.

9. Paperwork. Some counties charge extra for the cremation permit that is required by all crematories. The funeral home has no control over this, so ask what counties have this charge in case you happen to die there.

10. Death certificates. This is another charge set by the state and not the funeral home. Some funeral homes include one certified death certificate in their service packages, but most families need more than one. The more property you own (car, house, boat) or the more financial assets you have (bank account, credit card, life insurance policy) the more death certificates your family will need to purchase. These can be pre-funded, but if the state should happen to raise the prices before you die, your family will have to make up that cost.

11. Ceremonies. If your religion practices a ceremonial washing of or praying over the body, the funeral home usually charges an hourly rate for the use of the space. If you die at home, these rituals can be completed at home and should not cost anything.

12. Taxes. Merchandise (the cremation container and urn) and services (body pickup and the cremation process) are taxed at different rates and are not usually included in the pre-paid plan.

13. Autopsy. If you are autopsied there will be an extra charge if your family would like to dress you or have a viewing before the cremation. No viewing or ceremony should equal no extra charge for you being autopsied.

I hope this helps. Your funeral home should never have anything to hide, and if you are met with discomfort or hostility after asking these questions, you need to find a different one.