Local and State News

The Volatile Price of Dying

Costs for Services Vary Sharply Among Columbia Funeral Homes

By Rodney Welch
Wednesday, July 9, 2014 |
If there’s one purchase where people avoid comparison shopping, it might well be the one we can all expect to deal with: a funeral service.

Anyone planning ahead may want to take a look at the recent Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Carolina’s 2014 Survey of Funeral Pricing in the Greater Columbia Area. The report reveals sharp variances in prices, even for relatively similar services.

Take basic services, a “non-declinable charge” for the funeral director and staff.

At Caughman-Harman Funeral Home, the charge is $3,545, with similar costs at Dunbar ($3,305) and Blizzard ($2,965). At McClary’s, though, the price is just $945.

Caughman-Harman manager Todd Caughman says the cost depends a lot on the type of funeral home.

“Look at their facilities versus our facilities,” he says. “Because some of these firms operate out of a little two-bedroom house.”

Caskets, which for many will be the real big-ticket item, are classed on the high and low end, and funeral homes offer a variety of models. The pricier caskets can range as high as $30,000 (Palmer Funeral Home) to $3,400 at Blizzard. More affordable caskets can range from a high of $1,850 at Good Shepherd to a low of $395 at Jones.

Embalming is another feature where the prices jump crazily from one funeral home to the next. Caughman says the embalming process is basically the same at every funeral home, but you wouldn’t know it from the prices. The cost is $1,595 at Dunbar’s main branch and $600 at the company’s Hardscrabble location. At Good Shepherd, the cost is $475. The national average is $695.

“The only thing I can state on that,” Caughman says, “is that everybody’s overhead is different than the others.”

Similarly, the cost of transporting the body is $595 at Dunbar’s main location and $295 at its Hardscrabble location. At Good Shepherd, it’s $150.

Plan on taking the cheaper, greener route of cremation? Thompson Funeral Home charges $3,300, well in excess of the national average of $2,071. As many as six other local funeral homes are also in excess of the national average. At the low end, McCollum-Myers charges $850.

Columbia is far from unique compared to the rest of the country, says Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

The reason? The funeral market cannot increase demand.

“There’s a limited number of funerals that can be done in any county or city, and that’s the number of people who die every year,” he says. “We get a situation where there are a lot of funeral homes per capita. Each of them is doing a smaller and smaller number and smaller and smaller volume, and the only way these guys can stay in business is to raise their prices.”

Gere Fulton, board president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Carolina, says one benefit to advance planning for funerals is to be aware not just of price differences, but of different options.

Besides cremation, people can choose a closed-casket funeral and scrap the cost of embalming altogether. Bodies can be buried in biodegradable containers that would then be buried in a conservation tract.

Economical caskets can also be purchased online rather than directly from a funeral home.

Fulton mentions a close friend who died days earlier — and whose body will be cremated, with a memorial service to follow weeks later.

“There are an awful lot of millennials and younger people who say this is a much better way of paying tribute to the person who is now no longer among us, than by putting them on display in a casket.”

The full price survey is available at scfunerals.org.

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