Over the last few years, the death-care industry has become dominated by a few companies such as Service Corp. (NYSE:SRV), Alderwoods Group (NASDAQ:AWGI), and Stewart Enterprises (NASDAQ:STEI). You may not realize it, but your local funeral home may be owned by one of these giants. As competition has decreased, prices have increased.

To make matters worse, consumers who need death-care services are usually in very vulnerable and distracted states of mind, not wanting to skimp when it comes to honoring their loved ones.

However, you can save a lot of money on funeral arrangements if you do a little research. Here are some smart ways to go about funeral planning:

  • Take the time to get informed about the industry now, when you're not in a state of emotional upheaval. Learn how much various services cost and think about what might be best for you and your loved ones.

  • Make decisions before you need to, if possible. Get down in writing what your loved ones' wishes are, too. Once you know, for example, that grandma prefers cremation and grandpa wants a simple pine casket, you'll have fewer decisions (or guesses) to make later.

  • Consider getting an inexpensive casket. Bodies will decay wherever they are, and the cost difference is great between various caskets. Some cost many thousands of dollars, others cost several hundred dollars. (And many $3,500 caskets may have cost the funeral home just $700 wholesale.) Simple and dignified cardboard caskets are a possibility, too. Don't believe anyone who tries to sell you something that will "preserve a body forever."

  • In most cases, you don't have to buy the casket from the funeral home. You can often buy the same caskets from a discount vendor (at substantial discounts) and have them delivered to the funeral home. Funeral homes are generally required to accept them.

  • In most cases, embalming is not required, unless an open casket is desired. Many funeral homes will try to talk you into paying for it, though -- at an average cost of $400.

  • Beware the recommended rubber gasket (a.k.a. "protective sealer") which, according to some sources, costs just dollars to make but is sold for several hundred dollars. It's pitched as "protecting the body from decay," but nothing can stop a body from decaying.

  • Don't tell a funeral director more than you need to, such as how much the deceased was worth or what insurance benefits may be forthcoming.

  • Take a friend with you when you talk to death-care providers.

  • There are several ways you can save some money and honor a relative in a more personal fashion. You don't have to buy a casket -- you can build and decorate one yourself, or have one built. You don't have to use a funeral home's viewing room, either -- a loved one can "lie in honor" in someone's home, a community hall, or a church.

Get more info in our previous Q&A on how much funerals cost, the Funeral Consumers Alliance, Profits of Death, and the long but informative Funerals and Ripoffs.

Finally, while you're planning for the unthinkable (but inevitable), get the rest of your affairs in order by reading our 10 tips for covering your assets. If you'd like some professional help, consider TMF Money Advisor.