Funeral Costs: How to Keep it Inexpensive, Without Being Cheap

MIAMI - JANUARY 24:  A pallbearer for Poitier ...

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The average funeral costs $6500.    Many people die with absolutely no savings.   Even if there is life insurance, it takes weeks to get the money, while a funeral is completed within a week.

Funeral homes have an easy sales pitch.  Nobody wants to sully the memory of their loved ones.   The tiniest hint of a guilt trip will have most families upgrading to the silk pillow in a second.   Here’s a secret: Your loved one doesn’t care.  I’m not recommending using garbage bags and a dumpster.   By all means, treat your loved ones with care, but don’t go overboard.

Not everyone is comfortable with cremation, and some religions don’t permit it, but it is probably the least expensive way to process a body.   It costs approximately $1400 to cremate a body and you can get very attractive urns for under $100.  Compare that to a $3500 casket and storage & transportation fees, and–from a strictly monetary standpoint–the choice is clear.

Don’t worry too much about decorating.   Flowers aren’t cheap and florists don’t tend to offer discounts to people who aren’t emotionally prepared to negotiate and who are in a time crunch to find the flowers they need.   Get a few bouquets for a small display around the casket or urn, and let the rest take care of itself.   Many of the guests will bring flowers, so the entrance will soon be decorated for free, and that’s the part that makes the first impression.

Shopping online can save you a lot of money on an urn.  Funeral homes will try to sell you a $500 urn, which may include a 1000% markup.    If you buy online, you will have to pay for overnight shipping, but that’s a small cost compared to the standard markup.  You can also find a huge discount on attractive caskets by shopping outside of the funeral home.   Federal law prohibits funeral homes from requiring that you buy a casket from them or charging you a fee for getting one elsewhere.
This may be the most ghoulish part of this article, but you can dig the grave yourself.   It’s probably not worth it for a full-size casket, but for an urn, you can save hundreds of dollars.   An urn generally only needs to be buried 18 inches deep, as opposed to the 6 feet required for caskets.  Just be sure to check with the cemetery and get the burial location right.  If you think it’s ghoulish to dig the grave, just picture digging it up.  Not fun.
Planning a funeral is never enjoyable, and it’s often expensive.  Nothing you do will make it fun, but it is possible to make it affordable.
Have you had to coordinate a funeral?  Did you take the funeral director’s recommendations, or did you cut some costs?

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    1. Here’s another funeral expense that doesn’t fall under the funeral director’s billing: obituaries.

      I work at a newspaper and help out on the obituary desk. We have a very generous policy in that a $50 fee will allow for an obituary of up to 400 words plus one photo.

      Most newspapers charge for obituary space by word or by line. Therefore, a comparable obituary at the other newspapers our customers are often working with typically costs $100 to $300 (sometimes more).

      To keep that cost down: if you are close to a word limit, then ask someone to help you edit the text so you have the same facts but not as many words. I’ve edited a 440-word obituary down to the 400 word guideline so a customer did not have to pay so much (with permission, of course).

      The other tip is to focus the obituary on the most important details: who died, when, enough details about family or work history to remind friends who this is, and when and where the services will be held.

      Then you prepare a more extensive biography or statement from the family to be handed out at the funeral home; or select additional photos to display at the funeral home. I’ve seen both of those details at funeral homes, they work out very well.

    2. They bury urns? I somehow thought they were returned to the family with the ashes inside. Perhaps this is optional.

      Some families spread the ashes of their loved ones at sea (during a cruise, for example). The cruise lines are very familiar with this, and most (if not all) have standard procedures for how this is done in a respectful and private way. Other cruise passengers are never aware of the procedure unless the family wants them to know.

      My mother wrote her own obituary, as many people do. I think it’s an excellent idea, though, to include this in a memorial program rather than publishing in the newspaper, considering the costs.

      • From my limited experience, the urn is usually buried. Some people keep it, but I don’t know anyone who has. Every cremation I’ve seen has had a burial.

    3. I have had the great good fortune to have had few people die in my family. My parents were both buried in the conventional method, so I didn’t realize that most urns were buried.

      Thanks for the info.

      Oh, and there are Memorial Societies around the country (Google it) that exist for the purpose of disseminating reliable information and keeping funeral expenses from being too high. It is certainly true that the death of a loved one is a highly emotional (and often unexpected) experience that is hard to prepare for. A membership in a memorial society can provide assistance when it is most needed.

    4. You can buy a shelf at a Chinese temple to keep the urn. 🙂
      I guess only Chinese families do that. Personally, I would love to be buried at sea. Just toss me in around Hawaii. I don’t know the logistic though. Do I need to notify the coast guard?

    5. My father in law died when my husband and I were both grad students. We owed $1,500 toward funeral expenses. It was a hit…lesson learned from that…we have life insurance.

      • My Grandpa didn’t have anything to cover his funeral. After that was over, my Grandma took out an insurance policy just to cover her funeral.

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