Spend it while you are alive: Manitobans find ways to save on funeral costs

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Spend it while you are alive: Manitobans find ways to save on funeral costs

Lucille Corbel said she would rather spend her money while she was alive than on her funeral, so that's exactly what she did.

Lucille died in Sainte Rose du Lac, Man., in 2014, but not before she and her husband, Marcel, figured out how to plan her funeral and keep costs down.

"She was a very strong lady. She had cancer and when we found out that she wasn't going to make it we went to the funeral home together," Marcel said on CBC's Information Radio on Monday.

"And one of the things is that we discussed this before, that's where a lot of people fail. Talk about this before something happens."

Funerals can cost families thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.

- MARKETPLACE Undercover investigation finds big markups, confusing charges and pushy tactics at major funeral home chain

- MARKETPLACE: Funeral home investigation

Last week, an investigation by CBC's Marketplace and the Toronto Star showed that there is a pattern of assertive sales tactics and upselling taking place at some funeral homes run by Arbor Memorial, the largest Canadian provider of funeral and cemetery services.

The Corbels, who are from Laurier, Man., had arranged funerals for a few other family members before Lucille was diagnosed with lymphoma, so they already knew what they didn't want — a giant price tag.

'Do it when you are alive'

The couple decided to go on a holiday to Sioux Falls, S.D., and to Dawson City, Yukon, to pan for gold instead of spending the money on a funeral.

"My wife was sitting there and she says, 'I'm not going to spend all this money when I'm dead. If you want to spend money, do it when you are alive,'" Marcel said.

"We travelled for three weeks and, you know, she was just wide open to this," he added.

The travelling plan didn't sit well with the funeral home they went to, Marcel said. The couple was pressured to buy multiple items but refused.

"They wanted to sell me an urn for $1,000 and I said, 'No. My brother-in-law is a carpenter and he will build one.' But I looked at my bill and they put the ashes in a plastic bag and they charged me — they called it a Belmont Cremation container — $445," Marcel said.

Marcel ended up spending about $4,800 on cremation and the only other costs were cards and a fee to rent a hall himself.

He figured if he went with the funeral home's suggestions he would have ended spending at least $10,000.

One of the big costs when it comes to a funeral can be a casket. The Marketplace investigation showed that some funeral homes say a $1,195 plain wooden casket isn't appropriate and is "simply an identification container." Staff at those locations told undercover reporters to rent a traditional hardwood casket at a cost of more than $2,200 a day.

Caskets are often available at substantially lower prices from specialist retailers like Rick Zerbe Cornelsen in Winnipeg.

'We have a very human exchange here'

Cornelsen has been running The Village Casketmaker out the back of his South Osborne home for about 13 years.

"I enjoy it when families come in here. There is a kind of authenticity to that moment," Cornelsen said on CBC's Information Radio on Tuesday.

"People, when they are dealing with a death in the family, some of their defences are down, some of the pretences are set aside and quite often we have a very human exchange here, even if I don't know the people ahead of time."

Cornelsen grew up in a woodworking family and started thinking of the casket business when he was quite young.

"A family friend had just gone into the funeral home business and he would tell us stories about the significant markup on products like caskets and urns," he said.

The idea of offering something simpler and selling directly to families so they could avoid the markup at funeral homes sat in the back of his mind for years but didn't become a reality until his mother's death in 2001. She was buried in a casket built by his father.

"I decided very consciously to do it on a very small scale. So I had very little overhead," he said.

"I bought just enough tools to do the work adequately and had a shop behind my home that didn't cost me a lot. So I built a couple of caskets and started spreading the word."

Caskets range between $800 and $1,250 and urns are around $150 at the Village Casketmaker. The products can look like a conventional casket or can be a bit more rugged. A local dress-making shop makes the pillows for inside, Cornelsen added.

Funeral homes aren't always happy when Cornelsen's caskets are chosen, but they will follow the family's wishes, he said.

However, Cornelsen said a lot of his customers are people who plan ahead and are "thinking at a time when they are not in crisis." He said there's often a palpable sense of relief from his customers when they see there's a different option.

"Often you hear of families or situations where the funeral is so extravagant and so lavish looking and yet everyone knows that the loved one who is being celebrated didn't live a lifestyle that matched that," he said.

"So the opportunity to have something that suits the person seems to be a value to a lot of people."