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How to Negotiate With a Cemetery

Dealing with Aggressive Sales Tactics during Grief

An unfortunate number of people today have never given much thought to the cemetery plot where they will be laid to rest. Or, often, there is confusion about the plot, and misunderstandings are not uncovered until after their death. (As happened in one recent case, a 72 year old mentally ill man had assumed for decades that his burial plot had been purchased by his father, as part of a family plot, years before his death. Upon the man's death, his family discovered that the family plot was already full. It was quickly realized that an unfortunate misunderstanding had occurred over just how many spaces were in the family's allocation.)

These all-too-common situations can put a grieving family in a financially precarious – perhaps even disastrous – situation. Cemeteries often follow dramatic policies that put plenty of extra stress on families that are already pushed to their emotional limits by the death of a loved one. Just one example: cemetery sales people commonly find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of having to tell a family that their personal check must clear the bank for the entire amount of the plot at least 48 hours before a burial can take place. The thought of leaving a loved-one's remains unattended in a funeral home – that will likely begin charging large storage fees after just a few days – is about as stressful a situation as one can imagine – especially when a family is in the midst of grief.

For best results, consumer advocates advise from a variety of perspectives that everyone be sure to make absolutely sure the issue of his or her grave site is properly settled well before it is needed. (Even having burial insurance is not as helpful as it could be if a grave site has not been picked out before a person's death. At-need buying of a grave plot is often twice as expensive as a pre-need purchase.) But, since getting everyone on board with that advice is practically impossible, we offer this article with tips on how families can get the most of our their at-need cemetery plot buying dollar.

What to expect from a cemetery sales person

It is not uncommon for families to be unprepared for the loss of a loved one.The first thing to remember about buying a cemetery plot from a sales person who is selling to a family at-need is that the employee is, indeed, a sales person. It is important to remember that, even if he or she claims to not be paid on commission, many cemetery sales people receive substantial bonuses if they hit certain goals for sales. Technically, this is not a commission, but it is, indeed, a financial incentive to sell as much as possible. It is very important that any family member who has lost a loved one remember that, though a friend may be just the thing that he or she needs during a time of grief and loss, the cemetery sales person should never be considered a friend. Any attempt by a cemetery sales person to bring anything beyond professional courtesy to an initial conversation should be met with suspicion. Surprisingly, some cemetery sales training materials – not intended to be seen by the public, of course – actually offer some rather cynical tips for playing off a grieving customer's emotions in order to convince a family to spend more than it might otherwise would.

Please know that we do not intend to classify all cemetery sales people as uncouth and as being motivated by greed and money. But a grieving family would do well to assume anyone they meet on a cemetery staff in the hours and days immediately following a death could very well be such a person. Further, any truly compassionate and kind-hearted sales person would not be offended at such an assumption and would work diligently to earn the customer's professional trust.

In general a good rule of thumb when buying a cemetery plot at-need, is to delegate the negotiations to a family member or friend who is not as emotionally attached to the deceased as others might be. This person can likely be counted upon to keep emotion out of the equation of any sale and to assure that a family gets just the plot that it needs at the best price it can.

What Products and Services Do You Really Need

No matter whether a family delegates its negotiating to an unemotional friend, the main consideration should be to simply remember not to buy products and services that are not absolutely needed. Before diving in to pay extra for a “special” plot located on a part of the cemetery that has a “perfect view” or rests under a beautiful tree, make sure the value is worth the extra money. Cemetery sales people are skilled at capitalizing on the emotion of the moment to sell plots for often thousands of dollars more than they might sell for in a time of calmness in a family. A good thing to remember is that a cemetery plot is just another piece of real estate. The price a family pays for the land – no matter the view or the surroundings-- does not have to be significantly more than the square-footage price typically paid for any other real estate in the city the cemetery calls home. (If you are concerned that the permanent nature of a cemetery plot's means that the cemetery should be compensated extra due to the fact that the plot's value will likely go down over time, it is important to remember that a “perpetual care” fee of about 15 percent of the negotiated sales price is automatically added on to nearly every cemetery plot sale. That money, when invested properly, should be more than enough to care for the grave – and make it profitable for the cemetery owners – well into perpetuity. Since that fee will be part of the transaction, it is very much a negotiating mistake to think of a cemetery plot as being anything but a standard piece of real estate.)

Aside from fighting hard to pay only the traditional real-estate market value for your grave plot, you should also be careful to buy only the products and services you really need. Burial vaults, for example, are rarely every required by law, but cemetery policies often require their use on every plot. If you object to the use of a burial vault, you should consider trying to find another local cemetery that does not require them. If you cannot find such a cemetery – often in coastal areas, that will be the case – then you should consider buying only the least expensive version. Cemeteries will often have many quite elaborate burial vaults available on display, often for prices that are more than the most expensive caskets. It is important to remember that the only people who will likely ever see a burial vault in use are archeologists who may uncover a grave many decades or centuries in the future. Even the least expensive burial vaults will hold up through the ages quite well to offer sufficient greeting for those strangers.

One way to avoid funeral and cemetery scams is to pre-plan funeral and burial arrangementsAnd, finally, you should be wary of any deals a cemetery may offer you surrounding the posted “setting fee,” that is, the amount it charges customers to handle and install a grave marker. Cemeteries are usually in the business of selling grave markers, and that is a competitive market in which many other companies will often offer similar markers for substantially lower prices. Consumers should be aware that it is in violation of Federal Anti-Trust rules for a cemetery to waive a posted setting fee for those who purchase their grave markers from other sources. The setting fee must be universally charged of all customers who have a marker installed on cemetery property, regardless of where it was purchased.

A Word on Pre-Need Buying

A final word is necessary in this article on the topic of pre-need burial planning. While, as we discuss in some detail above, a cemetery's sales staff with its aggressive tactics can be of particular threat to grieving families buying at-need, it is also important to realize that aggressive sales approaches are also often in play on pre-need buying. Customers should be wary of making any quick decisions on pre-need cemetery buying. Door-to-door and telephone sales pitches are often best ignored – as are offers of financing that require a person to pay low sums like $20/month for a family's plot. (The fine print of these offers often require that the entire balance, including interest, be paid up-front upon a death, if a family member dies before the plot is paid in full. In such cases, families learn too late that they would likely have been better off simply buying a life insurance policy that would have actually paid cash for a plot at need.) So, while this article was devoted mostly to at-need buying, it is very important that all customers of a cemetery remember that a sales staff, whether the customer is buying at-need or pre-need, is wired to bring in money. A customer's best interest are not always a top priority.

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