"They might say something like, 'This is our traditional package,' " Slocum said. "Every time you see that word 'traditional,' cross it out and replace it with 'most profitable.' "

He suggests making your choices a la carte so you can forgo items often included in packages.

For example, no federal or state laws require embalming of a body before burial, although many funeral homes won't allow a viewing without it. Skipping embalming and viewing can save about $800, according to average prices determined in a 2005 National Funeral Directors survey.

But you have to act quickly. If you don't embalm, California law says a funeral home must refrigerate the body after 24 hours, and that can cost about $50 a day.

That's money in your afterlife pocket, or you can put it toward other items. Hollywood Forever Funeral Home, located on the grounds of the cemetery of the same name, has some of the most flamboyant offerings.

On the high end of items in its 32-page price list is the production of a documentary film on a customer's life, complete with red carpet premiere. The price for the film starts at $30,000.

On the other end of the cost scale: printed funeral programs at $3.50 each.

Die now, pay later?

The funeral industry pushes prepaid plans that take care of major costs in advance.

Consumer advocates loathe them.

"Planning ahead is wonderful," Slocum said. "Paying for it is usually a mistake."

About a third of the complaint calls that come into the Funeral Consumers Alliance concern prepaid plans, mostly having to do with unexpected aspects of the deals. Examples include consumers who couldn't transfer a plan when moving or couldn't convert it from burial to cremation.

Meyers says the best prepaid plans are funded through insurance policies because they're generally flexible. And they often guarantee, after a couple of years of installment payments, that all the services in the contract will be delivered even if all the payments haven't been made at the time of death.

"With this plan," he said, "fewer decisions have to be made by loved ones when the time comes."

But insurance-based plans are usually the most expensive.

Instead, Slocum recommends that consumers set up a payable-upon-death bank account, also known as a Totten trust. It's a fund paid upon death to a designated beneficiary, outside of probate, to cover funeral expenses.

It's highly flexible in that it can travel and even be drawn upon if you suddenly need some money while alive.

The box

California law doesn't require a casket for burial, although most cemeteries do (plus, in many cases, a vault to keep the box from sinking).

If you ask to see the caskets for sale at a funeral home, the business is required to give you a price list of all they have to offer. That way, you can ask about caskets that might not be on display.