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MARKETPLACE: Cost of death killing us

A new Marketplace investigations asks whether the high price of funerals and death is killing our bankbooks. HBO

A new Marketplace investigations asks whether the high price of funerals and death is killing our bankbooks. HBO

When Judy Wood's sister Diana Parent died at age 56, the family knew what she wanted: a simple cremation and a celebration.

But when Wood went to the funeral home to finalize arrangements, she learned Parent had prepaid before her death. Wood was surprised to find her sister's planning didn't cover any funeral services, just the cremation, an urn and a burial spot.

Staff at the funeral home recommended a funeral package they said included everything Wood needed. In the end, Wood says the bill was close to $10,000, on top of the $4,000 Parent had already prepaid.

"We were shocked," Wood says. "[I] didn't want to seem like I was asking a lot of questions about money."

Wood managed to cancel some services and get costs down. But an investigation by Marketplace and the Toronto Star has found that Wood's experience is indicative of a pattern of assertive sales tactics and upselling taking place at some funeral homes, sometimes by staff who earn a commission on sales.

Planning a funeral can be expensive, in part because many products and services can be extensively marked up. Marketplace obtained a wholesale price list for caskets and urns and found that they can be marked up by more than 400%.

And while caskets are often available at substantially lower prices online and from specialist retailers, there are other ways you can get dinged. One large company charges an equipment rental fee if you bring in an outside casket, which can add hundreds of dollars to your bill.

Embalming is another service to watch for.

The procedure is used to give bodies a more life-like appearance for viewing and visitation, but is rarely necessary in closed-casket and cremation funerals. But Marketplace found that some staff strongly recommended it for a variety of reasons, ranging from elimination of infectious diseases to preventing "potential embarrassment" from "odour."

Josh Slocum, executive director of the U.S.-based Funeral Consumer's Alliance, says that often funeral homes are "selling anxiety to get you to pay for embalming."

Slocum says embalming has been shown to have no public health benefit.

He says be wary of what you're being sold. "Very, very little that a funeral home offers is mandatory," said Slocum.

Judy Wood says that her experience only added to her sadness.

"We didn't get better closure for Diane," Wood said. "She didn't get her final wishes the way she wanted it."

Watch the CBC Marketplace investigation on funeral homes starting tonight at 8:00 p.m. on TV and online.