By NATASHA LINDSTROM for TribLive
About 50 polished caskets line the showroom at Duster Funeral Home in Tarentum.
Their price tags range from $1,100 to more than $15,000.
"Solid bronze is really the top, then below that copper, stainless steel and, of course, expensive woods: cherry, mahogany," supervisor J. Rodney Duster said.
Those on a tight budget can opt for a simple, lightweight box for close to $300, but caskets at some funeral homes in Allegheny County can cost up to $36,000 — a range that illustrates how widely funeral costs can vary, particularly for those too grief-stricken to shop around. Some choose a funeral home simply because it's where other family members have gone.
"That sense of loss tends to cause them to overspend," said Frank Ashbaugh, president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Western Pennsylvania.
"You really need to look deeper to see what you're getting out of that $995 versus what you're getting for the $3,395 package," said Kathleen Ryan, executive director of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association.
Duster, 73, of Harrison said he tries to reassure customers that "everything is going to be done properly regardless of the casket you select."
A simple burial with a one-hour viewing can start as low as $750 but climb as high as $5,000; and cremation with no viewing ranges from $595 to more than $2,200, the Tribune-Review found through a survey of 36 price lists from funeral homes and crematories in Allegheny, Butler and Westmoreland counties.
The Trib survey showed that the variance for seemingly standard services — hearses ($50 to $300), refrigeration ($50 to $400-plus a day), transferring remains (no charge to $2,000) and embalming ($400 to $965) — is vast even within municipalities.
Some offer extras such as a webcast of the funeral service from their chapel for $225, or burial clothing for $100 to $250.
"Within the same town, there's usually a low-end funeral home and a high-end one, and if there's four or five in town, they'll be all over the board," Ashbaugh said.
In Cranberry, for instance, a burial with no viewing is $900 at one funeral home but $4,295 at another.
Some Greensburg funeral homes add charges for weekend or holiday services and transporting bodies more than 10 or 15 miles. Others charge no such fees.
Embalming — which is not mandated by law — can ring up $450 or less at several places, including funeral homes in Arnold, Carnegie and Sharpsburg, but will cost more than $800 elsewhere, including funeral homes in Greensburg, Oakmont and Pittsburgh's North Side.
Some funeral homes reported charging an extra $50 to $600 in fees for hairdressing and cosmetology work and extra charges for cremation permits and unclaimed cremains.
Ashbaugh said some funeral homes have tried to charge a fee to use a casket purchased elsewhere.
Most U.S. funerals range between $7,000 and $10,000 in total cost, data show from the National Funeral Directors Association and Funeral Consumers Alliance. Cemetery plots, openings, closing and grave markers — which also vary widely — tend to cost an additional $3,000.
Charging higher prices doesn't necessarily mean funeral home staffers are pocketing larger salaries. Sometimes higher prices correlate to funeral homes grappling with business challenges and higher overhead and facilities costs, said Ryan, of the state Funeral Directors Association.
Pennsylvania has about 1,600 funeral homes — making the industry more concentrated here than in many states. There are about 165 homes in Allegheny County alone. Allegheny County has one of the oldest populations in the U.S. People in the county die at a rate of 10.97 deaths per 1,000 people in 2014, compared to a national average of about 8.3, county and federal health and census data show.
The funeral industry has become more competitive as consumer preferences change.
For instance, cremation — which tends to be about one-third the cost of burial — is becoming more common. The trend has spurred some funeral homes to merge with or start crematories, said LeAnn Sherman, funeral director at Stephen M. Brady Funeral Home in Pittsburgh's North Side, which uses a crematory in Ross.
Demand also is on the rise for so-called "green burials," in which no embalming is done and biodegradable burial materials are used.
In the Trib's survey, packages for green burials in the region started at $995 and went up to $5,000.
Nationwide, privately owned, locally based funeral homes tend to charge almost 40 percent less than large, multi-state operations — but the local homes have the highest variance in prices, according to research by Everest Funeral Reports.
Some consumers start planning their own funerals long before they anticipate the need for one. Experts urge those who choose to set aside money for funeral expenses to be sure they do so through an irrevocable trust, which can be transferred to other states and stays with the person's estate upon death.
By federal law, every funeral home must make a general price list available.
Ashbaugh of the Funeral Consumers Alliance recommends pricing four to five funeral homes before signing a contract.
"You should shop early, well before you're in a situation where you need the service," he said.