When you buy a car, you know you're at a disadvantage dealing with the salesman, right? Think about it -- after all, he sells many cars per week, while you probably only buy one every few years, at most. Now imagine yourself at that same disadvantage, just after someone very close to you has died. You're despondent, you're not thinking all that well, and you're supposed to make smart decisions. Yikes!

That's the position many people are in when they have to arrange a funeral and burial. Don't let that be you, though. Here are some tips to help prepare you for that dark day, largely culled from the Federal Trade Commission's advice on the topic.

  • Plan ahead. You can actually arrange a funeral (even your own!) ahead of time, dealing with the funeral director long before anyone has passed away. This is "pre-need" planning, and you can even make the purchase at this time, thus locking in some perhaps lower-than-later prices. Be careful, though. If you or the loved one moves far away or changes their mind regarding a piece of the plan, you may be stuck. It can make some sense to go through the planning process fully, writing down exactly what you want, possibly with the help of a funeral director -- but stopping short of payment.
  • If you do choose to prepay, ask lots of questions before doing so. Ask, for example, about your right to change your mind on various items, or to get a refund, if necessary. And what happens if the person in question moves or dies far away.
  • Make copies of your wishes (or your loved one's wishes) and distribute a copy or two to appropriate family members or friends. Don't park them only in a safe deposit box, because if you need them on a weekend you may be out of luck.
  • Know what kind of expenses to expect. The typical funeral costs around $6,000 these days, but can vary widely. That includes professional services, embalming (which isn't always necessary, and can cost several hundred dollars), viewing(s), a hearse, a casket (on average, around $2,000, though much less expensive options are available), and a vault (around $800, typically). It doesn't include the grave plot (from $500 to several thousand dollars), flowers (as much as several hundred dollars), opening and closing the grave (about $1,000, give or take a few hundred), and a headstone ($500 to several thousand). Your total tab can easily hit $10,000 if you're not careful.
  • Consider cremation; it can cost much, much less.
  • The FTC has instituted a "Funeral Rule" that includes stringent requirements for funeral directors. They need to give you itemized price lists (so that you can cross out services or products you don't need). (For example, buying a "protective gasket" for the casket is silly. It can't prevent the body from decaying.) They need to accept any casket you may buy elsewhere (Costco (NASDAQ:COST), for example, is a good source for inexpensive caskets) -- and not charge you any extra fees to handle it.
  • You can save a lot by opting for a "direct" burial or cremation, bypassing the traditional "full-service" funeral. With the direct option, the body is buried or cremated shortly after death in a simple container, with no viewing or service. No embalming is needed, either. A memorial service can be held at the burial, or any time afterward (such as several weeks later).
  • When you choose a funeral home, consider comparison shopping first. You can collect itemized price lists from them over the phone or in person (and some might mail them to you). Note that these days, many funeral homes are owned by some big corporations, even if they've kept their original locally-known names. The big firms in this "deathcare" business include Service Corp. (NYSE:SCI) and Stewart Enterprises (NASDAQ:STEI).

Learn more in these articles:

For many more details on these and related topics, check out this info from our friends at the Federal Trade Commission.

And to help you handle your financial life better, including advice on how to save hundreds of dollars in yearly expenses, try our Motley Fool Green Light newsletter service, where you'll find lots of personal-finance guidance and practical advice in each issue. A free 30-day trial will give you full access to all past issues.

Left-handed longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Costco. She was recently surprised to learn that, allegedly, more than 2,500 lefties die each year while using products made for right-handed people. Costco is a Stock Advisor recommendation. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.