July 30, 2015 10:39 am
Updated: July 30, 2015 10:40 am

Death ain’t cheap: a look at funeral costs and alternative options

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CALGARY — As if losing a loved one wasn’t hard enough. The final tab for the funeral can come as yet another shock, especially if the death is unexpected.

Often, there’s too little time — not to mention emotional energy — to negotiate, research or shop around.

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“I think often what throws families is being bombarded with so many decisions to make. You’re grieving. You’re very upset,” said Sara Marsden, who, along with her husband, runs DFS Memorials Network.

DFS Memorials aims to connect the recently bereaved with family-run, low-cost funeral and cremation providers in the U.S. and Canada. The guidance is free, while businesses pay to become members and advertise on the site.

Marsden, who could be described as a funeral consultant of sorts, also offers advice over the phone and makes inquiries on behalf of people too overwhelmed to make arrangements.

Many mourners will pay more than they need to out of guilt, as though opting for the cheaper casket somehow means they loved grandpa less, she said.

During a meeting at the funeral home, it’s also tough to say no to add-ons like memorial books and DVD tributes.

“I think it’s always really good advice, if possible, to take somebody along to any kind of meeting with a funeral home who’s maybe not as emotionally tied to the situation,” she said.

There are options to prepay or at least preplan for a funeral, so that relatives aren’t on the hook for thousands in funeral expenses when the time comes.

“But for many, talking frankly about death is still seen as a “taboo,” said Marsden.

Diann Rowat, with Alternatives Funeral and Cremation Services, said the toughest cases are when there’s a sudden death and the family has no idea what the departed would have wanted.

Alternatives, which has locations across western Canada, works differently than traditional funeral homes.

In order to make the process less intimidating, funeral directors go to clients’ homes, where caskets or urns are picked from a catalogue. Alternatives doesn’t have its own chapels, but instead organizes services in venues like churches and community halls. Rowat and her team often work with local florists and caterers familiar to the family.

“If you give a family good choices, they’ll make good decisions and at the end of the day that family will return to you the next time they have a death,” said Rowat, who was a nurse before getting into the funeral business.

Cremation is a more economical option than a burial — four figures versus five figures, generally speaking.

At Alternatives, customers aren’t obliged to buy an urn if they opt for cremation.

“I’ve placed ashes in everything from antique cigar boxes to fishing tackle boxes to cowboy boots to grandma’s cookie jar,” said Rowat.

The cost of burials can range widely. Plots can run into the thousands, and some cemeteries require caskets be placed in cement liners rather than directly into the earth, further adding to the pricetag. The caskets themselves can range from hundreds of dollars to thousands. And then there are the grave markers.

Rowat said it’s important to follow your instincts and not give in to pressure during a vulnerable time.

“If you enter into a facility and you are not comfortable, you don’t have to stay.

“You have every right to be able to say, ‘You know what? We as a family need to go home and talk about this a little bit more.‘”

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