Dying can be an expensive proposition, and when the death of a loved one occurs, nobody is in the mood to go comparison shopping or start hunting down deals. The median cost of a funeral home’s services is $7,180, according to 2015 data from the National Funeral Directors Association. But that’s just the funeral home. Add to that cemetery costs, grave-digging and grave markers, and Parting.com says the average funeral in the U.S. can cost more like $10,000. And the Federal Trade Commission says even that may be underestimating things. Sometimes, $10,000 barely covers the cost of a casket alone ― especially if you were thinking mahogany or copper.
But there are ways to save money on your death. And remember, the amount of money someone spends on a funeral bears no correlation to how much the deceased was loved. Practical people die too.
Donate your body to science
This may be the least expensive way to go. It costs nothing and the donation will help educate a new generation of doctors and researchers. Who knows? Maybe they’ll even find a cure for what caused the death. Federal law prohibits buying dead bodies, but every large university-affiliated medical school will greatly appreciate your donation.
The facility to which you donate your body will handle filing the death certificate, and most will transport the body from the place of death. It will also cremate your remains when their work with you is done, and in some but not all cases, return your ashes to the family. Some bodies are used to study multiple diseases and are kept for years. A few research facilities even mark the one-year anniversary of your death by planting a tree in your name.
Not only does donating your body to science not cost anything, but making a donation like this also can save future lives. (Very few of the major world religions prohibit body donation to science.)
It’s best to make arrangements in advance, although your family can do it upon your death ― it just makes the paperwork a bit more cumbersome at a difficult time. Here’s a good place to start.
Prepay your funeral
Most people enter a nursing home as a private-pay patient until they spend down their assets to qualify for Medicaid. As long as a person has money available, he or she is expected to use it to pay for his or her medical care and/or nursing home care. But certain assets are exempt from what’s counted ― paying for a burial spot and irrevocable burial contracts are among them.
While prepaying for your funeral may not be an uplifting thought for those who are ill, it’s a very practical one. Once you spend down your assets paying for a nursing home, it will be up to family and friends to pay for your funeral arrangements. So it makes sense to get a burial plan that includes everything. Otherwise that money is just going to go to nursing home care, and your loved ones will get socked with a funeral bill when you die.
Consider direct cremation
Cremation is less expensive than in-ground burial, saves land space and allows family members to dispose of the cremains, as the ashes are called. Cremation advocates say it replicates the same process that a buried body eventually undergoes ― decomposition. Either way, we end up as ashes.
It is less expensive because there are no funeral home visitations and services to arrange and pay for, the body is not embalmed and it does not need to be made ready for viewing with hair care and makeup. Additionally, no casket needs to be purchased.
Cremation arrangements can be made directly with a crematory or at a funeral home. Some funeral homes do the cremation themselves, while others contract the actual cremation out to a separate crematory.
Families take the cremains home in a cardboard box or urn. Some may scatter them at a favorite location, bury them in a cemetery plot or store them in an urn at home.
The rate of cremation in the United States is at an all-time high and surpassed the rate of burial for the second year in a row, according to the NFDA 2017 Cremation and Burial Report. The report found that 50.2 percent of Americans chose cremation in 2016, up from 48.5 percent in 2015, while 43.5 percent of Americans opted for burial, down from 45.4 percent in 2015.
Embalming, the process of preserving the body from rapid decay, can cost up to almost $1,300, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance. The Funeral Directors Association puts the national median embalming cost at about $700. To be clear, embalming pumps a chemical cocktail of formaldehyde ― a known human carcinogen ― into the body through an artery. While it delays decay, the body will still decay eventually.
Not a single state actually requires embalming by law. Funeral directors are now bound by the Federal Trade Commission to tell consumers that embalming is not required, and they are not allowed to embalm and bill the family without express permission. Refrigeration is an option that can result in significant savings. The body needs to be kept at a temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which will sufficiently delay decomposition; this is generally done prior to cremation, as some states require a 48-hour waiting period. Not all funeral homes have refrigeration capabilities, so it’s good to call around and check.
Embalming provides no public health benefit, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United States and Canada are the only countries that routinely embalm their dead. Some religious faiths maintain the traditional private care of the body by nonprofessionals and do not embalm.
There is also a case to be made that embalming actually harms the environment. Toxic chemicals from the process can leach into the air and soil.
Skimp on the coffin or casket
While the two words are used interchangeably, coffins and caskets use different designs to serve the same purpose ― to provide a final resting place. A coffin has six sides plus a top and bottom; a casket has four sides plus a top and bottom.
Both will take a big bite out of your wallet.
Let’s just be candid here: The first hours and days after a loved one dies are an extremely emotional time, and not always the best time to be making big decisions. It doesn’t take much to feel pressured and encouraged to indulge your desire to “want the best” for the deceased.
But there are a few easier and less expensive ways to accomplish that. Funeral directors are required to show you a price list for all the caskets they sell before taking you into the actual selection room, where you likely will be shown three of the popular models that the funeral home sells. The selection room can be emotionally unnerving for grieving family members, and many just don’t have the presence of mind to ask about other, less costly, selections. They should, using the price list as a reference point.
Some funeral homes use Aurora software that allows clients to make arrangements at a keyboard instead of at the funeral home — think a virtual selection room.
A casket’s purpose is to provide a dignified way to move the body before burial or cremation. No casket, regardless of its qualities or cost, will preserve a body forever. You can also buy your own casket. The FTC forbids a funeral home from charging you a fee if you bring your own.
Nothing says “individual” more than a service that was planned by the deceased and carried out by his estate. Whether it be a round of toasts and story-telling at the local pub, or a celebration of life held in his home, what’s important is to remember that memorials and funerals aren’t one-size-fits-all.
While funeral homes charge hundreds of dollars to use their facilities for a ceremony, maybe your chapel won’t.
Special note for veterans
All veterans are entitled to a grave marker and free burial in one of the 135 national cemeteries. Burial benefits available for spouses and dependents buried in a national cemetery include burial with the veteran at no cost to the family. The family generally is responsible for other expenses, including transportation to the cemetery. For more information, visit the Department of Veterans Affairs. Some veterans are also entitled to burial benefits outside national cemeteries.
It should be noted that commercial cemeteries sometimes offer a free plot for the veteran but charge exorbitant rates for an adjoining plot for the spouse.