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The high cost of dying on Long Island

Michael J. Grant, president and owner of the

It’s expensive to live — and die — on Long Island.

Long Island is the costliest place in the nation to have a full-service funeral, according to Funeralocity.com, a funeral planning information provider.  

The average cost here of a full-service funeral with burial is $9,744, excluding cemetery fees, according to New Orleans-based Funeralocity. That’s 31% higher than the national average of $7,422.

Funeralocity staffers called or visited 17,000 funeral and cremation providers across the country and obtained their general price lists, said Ed Michael Reggie, chief executive officer.

Additional fees that do not go to the funeral home are not counted in Funeralocity’s tally:

  • A Catholic Mass can run from $475 to $1,000, said Kerry Maher, a licensed funeral director at St. James Funeral Home. Having a rabbi say prayers at a gravesite can range from $500 to $1,000, she said.
  • The cost for a cemetery to open and close a grave ranges from $1,000 to $4,000, depending on the location, Maher said.
  • Cemetery plot prices vary. Prices per grave at Memorial Park in Port Washington, owned by Nassau Knolls, range from $400 in a baby section to $8,300, while a single grave at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Center Moriches is $1,700.

Long Island’s high costs can be attributed to several factors, Reggie said.

“Long Island is the perfect storm of factors: Families don’t shop around for funerals, prices aren’t posted online, religious traditions in Long Island create a very strong demand for burials (rather than cremations), funeral directors feel they can keep increasing their fees,” he said.

Several funeral home directors said aside from the high cost of doing business on Long Island, the biggest factor in the expense of Long Island funerals is tradition — families prefer full-service funerals with traditional features, including visiting hours over multiple days, a cemetery burial, a wake and embalming.

No states require embalming for every death, but many funeral homes require embalming if the body is to be publicly viewed, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

“We provide a very, very high level of service that leads to return business. . . . the more the family selects, the more expensive that funeral is going to be,” said Peter D’Arienzo of I.J. Morris Funeral Home in Dix Hills, a member of the nationwide Dignity Memorial Network of more than 2,000 funeral homes that is owned by Service Corporation International in Houston.

Long Islanders are also paying for experience and professionalism, since in New York State, funerals can only be arranged by licensed funeral directors, which is a benefit for grieving families, D’Arienzo said.

Only Colorado and Hawaii do not require funeral directors to be licensed, said Robert C. Smith III, executive director of the American Board of Funeral Service Education in Woodbury Heights, New Jersey.

Families know that the arrangements are “being handled by someone that was trained, that’s an expert in their field. To me, that’s important,” D’Arienzo said.

Funeral directors said they also face elevated operating costs on Long Island.

They pay high costs for electricity, malpractice insurance, automobile insurance, property taxes, building upkeep, health insurance for employees and state-mandated continuing education for funeral directors’ licenses every two years, said Paul Papa, co-owner and manager of Brueggemann Funeral Home, an East Northport operation founded in 1961.

“We just paid over $100,000 for our new hearse,” he said.

Hearses are pricey because “they are specialty vehicles with limited manufacturers and sellers,” said Michael Lanotte, executive director of the New York State Funeral Directors Association in Albany.

Everything on Long Island is more expensive than in other places, so it shouldn’t come as a shock that funerals cost more here, said Diane Gutierrez, 61, of Northport, whose husband died in November.

But she was somewhat surprised by the cost when she was planning for the funeral.

Gutierrez knew that Brueggemann Funeral Home, which oversaw the funeral for her father in 1975 and several other family members since then, would handle her husband’s arrangements and they worked out a payment plan for her.

“Every single interaction I had with them from the first call until now has been nothing but professional and caring and very sympathetic and helpful,” she said.

She declined to disclose the price of her husband’s services.

Cremations up

Funeral homes’ revenue growth has been modest over the past five years, according to IBISWorld Inc., a market research firm in Los Angeles. The industry has benefited from an aging Baby Boomer population in recent years but the revenue growth has been stymied by the growing popularity of cremations, IBISWorld said.

In most cases, funeral homes must contract with third-party companies to perform cremations.

Cremations are cheaper than full-service funerals. The cheapest disposition of a body is a direct cremation, in which the body is cremated shortly after death without a memorial service beforehand or embalming.

The average price for a direct cremation is $2,124 nationwide and $2,635 on Long Island, according to Funeralocity. Reggie attributes the difference to customers failing to comparison shop for cremation services.

Cremations are growing in popularity as Americans become more transient.

“Interment within a cemetery holds more appeal for those with deep ties to their local communities, as a network of nearby friends and family enhances the value of a permanent resting place to be visited in the future,” according to IBISWorld.

Today, it’s more common for families to be spread out across the country, making it more difficult to visit gravesites of their loved ones.

The percentage of deceased people in the United States who were cremated rose from 46.1% in 2014 to 54.5% in 2019, according to IBISWorld.

The only crematories on Long Island are in Suffolk County. The number of cremations performed at these facilities rose 22.3% to 8,325 between 2014 and 2019, according to the New York State Department of State’s Division of Cemeteries.

Long Island’s large percentage of Jewish and Catholic populations are part of the reason that the rates of cremation are not higher, experts said.

“We live in a society where we still believe in traditional burials . . . because Long Island has very many ethnic groups,” Maher said.

The Roman Catholic Church lifted its ban on cremation in 1963, but cremation had to come after the funeral and burial was still preferred. In 2016, the Vatican said Catholics may be cremated but should not have their ashes scattered at sea or kept in urns at home. Cremains are to be buried in cemeteries or other sacred locations that encourage Catholics to pray for and remember the dead.

The Jewish and Islamic faiths prohibit cremation.

But as Americans’ religious ties have declined, cremations have become more socially acceptable.

The U.S. population’s share of religiously unaffiliated people — those who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” rose from 17% in 2009 to 26% in 2019, according to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank based in Washington, D.C.

On Long Island, 35% of residents identify as Catholic, compared with 20% of all Americans, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C.

Also, 4% of Long Island residents identify as Jewish, compared with 1% of all Americans.

The percentage of Muslims on Long Island and nationwide is the same, 1%, according to the institute.

For Michael Grant, the funeral business has been a family affair for more than 60 years.

A licensed funeral director for 40 years, he is the president of Michael J. Grant Funeral Homes, which was founded by his parents, Michael and Georgia Grant, in 1956 and has two locations — in Brentwood and Coram.

At Michael J. Grant Funeral Homes, the average full-service funeral with a wake and burial, excluding cemetery costs, ranges from $5,500 to $6,500, Michael Grant said. The cemetery costs to open and close a grave can range from $500 to $2,200, he said.

In his career, Grant said the biggest change is the increase in cremations. Fifteen years ago, requests for burials were far more common than those for cremations. Now, they are split about 50/50, he said.

Grant attributes the change to a decline in consumers pre-planning and paying for services in advance, and fewer people having life insurance now. So, after the loved one dies, the family chooses the cheaper disposition option because that’s what it can afford.

Money paid for a pre-planned funeral goes into a trust account and the cost of that funeral can be locked in years in advance, he said.

“We encourage families to plan here . . . and when the time comes, everything is taken care of,” Grant said.

‘Shop around’

Even though Long Island’s average full-service funeral prices exceed national averages, there hasn’t been a big spike in costs nationwide, Lanotte said. Nationally, prices have increased about 2% per year, he said. Local figures weren’t available.

Consumers should plan ahead for funerals, including comparing prices of several funeral homes and researching pre-paid funeral plans to see if that is the right choice for them, experts said.

It’s important to know if a pre-paid funeral contract can be canceled, what happens to the money paid if the funeral home goes out of business, and whether the plan can be transferred to another city or state if the customer relocates, the Federal Trade Commission advises.

The FTC requires funeral homes to give consumers prices if they call or visit to request them, but there is no requirement that the prices be posted on the business’ websites — and 90% of funeral homes nationwide do not post prices online, Reggie said.

Statistics show that 83.2% of the time, people call one funeral home instead of comparison shopping, he said.

“People are in a grief-stricken state and they just call one funeral home. . . . The message that we have is that people can shop around,” Reggie said.

Consumers should call five or six funeral homes ahead of time to do comparisons, said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance in South Burlington, Vermont, which is working to push the FTC to require that funeral homes post their price lists on their websites.

“Every death isn’t unexpected and yet we still resist doing this. . . . Most people simply go to the same funeral home that they remember when grandpa died,” he said.

How to save

Buy only the services and goods you want. You have the right to separately buy caskets and other products and services instead of purchasing items as a package.

  • Funeral homes are required to give you their prices on the phone or in person, and you are not required to provide your name, address or phone number first.
  • See a written statement of what you plan to purchase before you pay. It should show the price of each item and the total cost.
  • You are allowed to use a casket or urn that you bought online or somewhere else instead of from the funeral provider. The provider cannot refuse to handle those products and cannot require you to be at the funeral home when the item is delivered to them.
  • Many funeral homes require embalming if the body is to be publicly viewed, but no state law requires embalming for every death. If some form of preservation is needed, ask the funeral home if refrigeration is available.
  • Call or visit several funeral homes to make price comparisons.
  • Consider donating the decedent’s body to science. Some medical schools cover all costs except for transporting the body.
  • Consider becoming a member of a memorial society, which is a nonprofit that offers price surveys of funeral homes and guidance in funeral planning. Some negotiate funeral home discounts for members.

Source: Federal Trade Commission, Funeral Consumers Alliance, AARP

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