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Consumer advice—the downsides of a “free” grave/space

George from Tennessee wrote for advice on whether to prepay for the services associated with two mausoleum spaces given to him and his wife as a gift. We’ve talked to numerous families who were disappointed to find that additional fees came due at the time of burial. What seems like a good deal—a “free” grave or crypt space—can end up costing more than you’d expect.

My parents have gifted a 2 space mausoleum to my wife and I. We will be paying a fee for the transfer soon. The cemetery contact is suggesting that we pay the 2 Opening & Closings $1850.00 X 2 = 3700.00 + Crypt Plate is $1595.00 + taxes and state fees. This seems extremely high to me, but he also says that it typically goes up 10% a year, which also seems high. If we put this money in a savings account it would not increse as quickly as the cost would. So my question is do I have any other options? What about getting the crypt plate done directly by a company that does them? I appreciate your time!

Dear George,

You’re facing a common situation that happens when someone gives us (or we inherit) a grave or mausoleum space. What seems like a good deal for planning ahead often becomes much more expensive, costing us more to use the “free” space than we might otherwise pay for burial. I’ve talked to many families in your situation, and advise thinking carefully about whether you want to go through with this transaction. Though I don’t know the details about this cemetery, this is what I suspect is happening, and what I think the likely outcome would be for you.

1. I suspect the cemetery is owned by a large corporate chain of funeral homes and cemeteries. They’re usually high-priced, and aggressive in their sales pitch to get customers to pay ahead of time. The “our prices go up 10 percent every year” is a common tactic used to close the sale by invoking fear of rising costs.

2. Does this cemetery use the brand name “Dignity Memorial”? That’s one possible corporate owner. If so, that company is the largest chain in the country, it’s traded on Wall Street, and many consumers complain of high prices. They also complain that, despite having paid for cemetery services ahead of time, company reps at the time of death find numerous additional fees for the survivor to pay when the time of death comes.

3. Yes, those prices are quite high. I would think carefully about whether you want to pay them, now or later. Consider:
-What if you and your wife change your mind about mausoleum burial but you’ve already prepaid?
-What if you move away, or die away from home? The expenses to ship your body back can be considerable.
-How will your survivors feel (whoever it is that will carry out your burial after you’re gone) if they face another set of fees “required” to use the mausoleum, despite your paying ahead of time?

4. I strongly suspect the cemetery will refuse to allow you to purchase a more affordable crypt plate from an outside vendor. Or, if they do, that they will dun you or your survivors for a “setting” or “siting” or “inspection” fee that will eat up the savings of buying the less expensive “outside” marker. Yes, they will very likely get away with it, and it’s unlikely that any state agency will pay much attention to any complaint filed.

Most people understandably have an emotional investment in being buried in the same cemetery where other family members are located. Cemeteries know this; it’s a perfect opportunity for them to charge high prices or extra fees because the consumer feels they “have no other choice but to be buried here.” Every person must make their own decision, but if you do choose to go ahead, go in aware of the problems you or your survivors may face.

If you do go ahead with this transaction, I can’t stress this enough: Get detailed paperwork documenting the prepayment, and make sure it’s specifically itemized showing *exactly* what service or merchandise was prepaid. Then, make physical, paper copies of this and give them to your survivors ahead of time.

I hope this is helpful, though I wish I could have told you something different.