Funeral homes and grave markers are complimentary in many ways, but many funeral home customers do not realize that they do not have to buy their grave marker or headstone from the funeral home they are patronizing. It is certainly true that, in today’s world, most funeral homes offer a large selection of grave markers to their customers, and still many other funeral homes actually are owned by (or own) cemeteries that sell grave markers to their customers as well. But consumer activists caution all who do business with a funeral home (or cemetery for that matter) to always remember that there are other retail options for buying a grave marker or headstone. And very often, these other options offer better service and lower prices than those offered by the funeral home for the exact same product. This article is about how to make sure you are getting the best bargain for your purchase when you are in need of a grave marker.
Grave markers purchased in the United States are generally made by one or two large manufacturers who supply almost all headstones to the country. Because they generally come from the same source, the wholesale price and quality of nearly every headstone or grave marker will be uniformly the same regardless of the retailer, whether it be a funeral home, a cemetery, or an online outlet. So, for best results, look online before you make any decision to buy a headstone from a cemetery or funeral home you are working with. The chances are strong that you will find the exact same piece you may have seen in a funeral home catalog – and you may even find it offered for a much lower price. (In many cases, online sites are able to offer cemetery headstones for half –or more – the price charged by funeral homes or cemeteries. This is because the so-called “brick-n-mortar” establishments have much higher overhead than the online retail outlets.) It is often the case as well that an online memorial retail outlet will even offer you additional features and services related to your headstone that are not available through your funeral home or cemetery. For a variety of reasons, not all retail outlets are set up to offer the same specialty designs and types of granite, even if they all order their materials from the same two manufacturers.
Since neither of the two largest manufacturers of headstones offer their goods for sale directly to the public, the establishments that sell their products are usually quite willing to provide customers with manufacturing information upon request. (Please keep in mind that they are not legally required to do this, however.) If you have selected a particular headstone piece, but are fairly certain that you have seen the same piece at multiple outlets, it is certainly acceptable for you to inquire from the outlets as to who the manufacturer is, so that you can determine whether the pieces are identical. If one of the outlets is reluctant to tell you who the manufacturer is, then a good consumer would be leery of any claims made by the retailer about the piece. Whatever the case, customers should never expect to deal directly with the manufacturer in placing their order. In almost all cases, the retailer is the only person the customer communicates with during the ordering and manufacturing process. To make sure you get the best price and service on your grave marker purchase, it is important to understand how the headstone ordering process typically works, no matter where you buy the marker from – whether it be a funeral home or an online outlet.
In the beginning a customer selects from a wide variety of choices usually listed in a full color catalog that is either printed or available via the internet. There are typically dozens of different sizes, styles, and colors to choose from, and a customer service representative is usually available to answer your questions politely and clearly as you navigate through your choice. If you explain to the customer service representative your needs from the beginning, he or she can likely steer you to the best choice. (One note from consumer advocates: avoid telling the customer service representative what your budget is for a grave marker. Armed with the knowledge of how much you are willing to spend, a clever sales person will almost always find a way to convince you to spend at or above the upper end of your limit, regardless of whether you really need any frills or not – and there are certainly some frills to be had in the world of grave markers: unique specialty granite, special designs, additional lettering, etc.)
Once the marker is selected, the customer service representative will send the order to the manufacturing plant where workers will create a “proof” showing what the marker will look like. In a few days, the proof will be available for inspection by the customer – usually via email in today’s electronic world, though most retail outlets are still able to send proofs via mail or fax (so long as the customer understands that such methods require more time and are sometimes less reliable than email). Once the customer has signed a document indicating he or she approves the proof, the manufacturer’s workers go to work at creating the headstone. The most important step to the manufacturing of a headstone is the engraving. This is done by sophisticated machinery that is operated by highly trained and skilled artisans who overlook and finish each piece by hand as it makes its way to the customer’s site.
When a grave marker is completed, it is then shipped to the location of the grave. This is usually done by a special freight service that specializes in delivering very heavy, single packages. (Shipping a headstone via traditional package delivery companies such as Federal Express, United Parcel Service or the United States Postal Service is usually cost prohibitive because of the marker’s weight.) These services typically do not offer expedited services (or their services cannot be expedited to any significant extent), so delivery of a grave marker can almost always be expected to require at least 2 weeks (often as many as 4), no matter where the marker is ordered from. Customers should not be fooled into believing that ordering from a funeral home or cemetery will cause the marker to arrive any sooner than ordering from an online source.
Once a grave marker arrives at a cemetery, workers at the cemetery will typically sign for its delivery and inspect the marker for damage. They will then typically instal the marker at the grave site. Customers should always make sure that installation arrangements have been made, in writing, before making payment for a the marker. Most reputable online sites will work with the relevant funeral home or cemetery to assure this is done before the manufacturing begins on the grave marker. In some cases, if suitable arrangements cannot be made, the customer’s money will need to be refunded. Making sure to work out these arrangements before the manufacturing starts assures that the refund can always be made without any loss to the customer or the manufacturer.
It can occasionally happen that a internet retail outlet can lose a sale to a cemetery or funeral home over the issue of installation, and customers should be aware that this can cost them more money than is necessary. (It is also a sign that the funeral home or cemetery may be in violation of United States Anti-Trust law enforced by the Federal Trade Commission.) Funeral homes or cemeteries may sometimes tell a customer that they will not install memorial grave markers not purchased from them. Or they may charge the customer more than they would their own customers to install a grave marker. Both of these policies have the illegal effect of giving the funeral home or cemetery an unfair advantage in the market place and, accordingly, lead to higher prices for all consumers because they squelch competition from online outlets.
If they know they are about to lose a sale to a funeral home or cemetery over this sort of practice, most online outlets can gently remind the funeral home or cemetery of its responsibilities under the law. Calm conversations usually do result in the customer getting the best price that he or she can get in the market. But, unfortunately, many times customers do not realize that these practices are illegal and therefore simply contract to buy the marker from the funeral home or cemetery, despite a higher price. For comparison’s sake, it’s important for customers to know that prices for grave marker installations charged by cemeteries and funeral homes can vary widely – even in the same city. In many cases, the price is as low as $40, but in others it could be as high as $1,000 – for the exact same grave marker.
Customers would do well to be sure to include the price of grave marker installation as a key to making their decision about which funeral home or cemetery to use, and, further, they should be well aware that United State law requires that this price be listed clearly on the establishment’s “General Price List” that is required by law to be given to all prospective customers immediately upon their first visit. As noted above, the installation price may not legally vary according to whether the grave marker is purchased from an outside source or the funeral home itself. The most important thing for customers to remember when buying a grave marker, whether it be from a funeral home or from any other source is to not be afraid to look for the best bargain. As one retailer used to say, “overpaying is not dignified.” Unfortunate as this is, many funeral establishments in the memorial business take steps behind the scenes to take advantage of the fact that most of their customers are in an emotionally vulnerable state. People who are in a fresh state of grief over the loss of a loved one are more likely to be willing to spend more in honor of that family member than they would if their were more time between the purchase date and the loss.
This is why several non-profit groups exist to help consumers evaluate offers they receive from funeral homes and to make the choices that best suit their needs and budget. Grieving family members should not hesitate to find one of these groups and consult with them quite thoroughly. Family members in search of a grave marker at a funeral home should also simply not be afraid to be as businesslike with the funeral director as they would with, say, a used car salesman. There is certainly no shame in driving for the best deal – especially when a grave marker purchased from a funeral home is likely the same marker they could purchase elsewhere. Many consumer advocates suggest that families who are shopping for a grave marker leave the negotiating to a trusted friend or family member who is several steps detached from the deceased. This is a good way to keep emotions from costing a family a great deal of money. (One consumer group’s recent study showed that a funeral home customer who is not overly emotionally involved in the ordering of a grave marker can save more than $2,000 on average off the price of a marker – and this is just the start. The same concept applies to other memorial purchases as well, but this article is only focused on grave markers and funeral homes.)
In a nutshell, the purchase of a headstone is almost entirely the same as that of any other major, high-ticket item that a family will buy. So, it’s important to make sure that one gets the best deal possible. Further, by shopping for the best prices, one family can do its part of make sure that prices stay low for all who are in the market for a grave marker at a funeral home.