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The price of saying goodbye: Times make it tougher than ever to pay for funeral costs (Part 2 of 3)

FARGO - Families confront many decisions when a loved one dies. Burial or cremation? Service or no service? And how much does a funeral cost, anyway? "That's like asking how much a new car costs.

Funeral prices

FARGO - Families confront many decisions when a loved one dies.

Burial or cremation?

Service or no service?

And how much does a funeral cost, anyway?

"That's like asking how much a new car costs. It means different things to different people," said John Runsvold, of Hanson-Runsvold Funeral Home in Fargo.

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Still, the question is important, said Runsvold, who has been in the business of helping grieving families say farewell to loved ones for 37 years.

Runsvold said he can't remember a time when it was more difficult for people to make ends meet, or to come up with money to pay for funerals.

When families are hurting financially as well as emotionally, Runsvold said staying flexible on how costs get covered is important.

"We know a lot of ways to keep expenses down," he said. Sometimes payment plans can be arranged.

Steve Wright, of Wright Funeral Home in Moorhead, said how funerals get paid for was never an issue in the past, but today funeral homes must have a conversation upfront about how a bill will be covered, or they risk not seeing the money at all.

Years ago, "You could comfortably offer full credit to anybody who walked in the door and pretty much count on getting paid," Wright said.

That changed a few years ago, he said. "I wound up spending more and more of my time collecting bills," Wright said.

Educate yourself

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In the Fargo-Moorhead area, the average price of a funeral is in the $7,000-$12,000 range, with some costing a little less and some a little more, funeral directors say.

The difference in price often comes down to merchandise - things like caskets, vaults and printed materials, said James Boulger, of Boulger Funeral Home in Fargo.

Boulger said he keeps a family's financial picture in mind when he helps them make plans.

"I do not want the funeral to be a big burden financially," he said. "I want people to leave my arrangements understanding everything."

The recent recession hit the mortuary industry and the services it provides in several ways, said George Korsmo, of Korsmo Funeral Service in Moorhead.

"The number of visitations has decreased," he said, adding that funeral homes have also seen a decrease in merchandise sales and an increase in uncollectable bills or difficult collections.

When it comes to funeral costs, Korsmo said the difference between one funeral home and another often comes down to the price of caskets.

"Some funeral homes are afraid to cover the costs of their services, so they just add it to the casket price. It's easier to increase it there," he said.

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Shop around

By law, funeral homes must make available to the public what is known as their general price list.

But while many contain similar information, there is no standard format or wording, making side-by-side cost comparisons difficult if not impossible.

"I tell people they need to educate themselves on prices because not every funeral home charges the same," Boulger said. "Everybody charges different things, everybody offers different things."

People are often surprised when the costs are added up, he said.

"They think funerals are going to be a lot more expensive than they are," Boulger said.

Area funeral directors say most families still opt for a traditional funeral with burial in a cemetery.

But cremation, which can be significantly less expensive, is becoming more common.

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Area funeral directors estimate 30 to 45 percent of arrangements now involve cremation.

"It's a sign of what's going on in our whole country," said Bill West, of West Funeral Homes in West Fargo.

"I think people are more price-conscious because they are uncertain about the future of our country and where it's going economically," West said.

"With some people, if you take care of the body and get the body cremated, that's all they want.

"Most people are not like that. But there are some," West said.

Reputation is everything

Research shows about 20 percent of a community will shop for a funeral home based on price, Wright said. "The rest of the community, I think, is more interested in the whole experience; you know, 'What's your place look like? Who are your employees?'

"Reputation is everything in the funeral business," Wright said.

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In this region, the fact that many funeral homes have been operated by the same families for generations ensures everyone stays at the top of their game, or they don't stay around, he said.

"It's a much higher level of service and a higher level of competition in a town with all independent operators. It's a high bar," Wright said.

Korsmo said competition means he has to maintain an advertising budget even as he strives to reduce expenses in other areas.

"We're in a very competitive market with wonderful funeral homes, and I know I have to keep telling my story because there are four other funeral homes doing an excellent job of telling their story," Korsmo said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com.
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