How To Save On Funeral Expenses

Dearly beloved, we gather here today to remember that the funeral industry is a sales-based profession with tips and tricks like any other. Consumers often lower their guard in deference to the pain and reverence that accompanies funeral planning; yet just because you are bereaved, doesn’t mean you should be taken for a sap. Here are a few tips to keep funeral costs manageable:

  • Don’t Embalm: Embalming is a creation of the American funeral industry and serves no purpose whatsoever, preservative or otherwise. Don’t let any funeral director tell you that it is required by law. It isn’t.
  • Buy Direct: Funeral parlor coffins and headstones carry outrageous markups. Use the power of the internet to buy both directly from the manufacturers.
  • Buy Local: Where do you think the funeral parlors get their flowers? Go directly to the source and buy from your local florist.
  • The best way to save on a funeral is to plan ahead and resist the temptation to overspend, which often stems from pain and guilt, rather than any direct need for a lavish funeral.

    If you have a morbid curiosity for more information, check out Jessica Mitford’s comprehensive examination of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death.

    Burial Insurance [The Dollar Stretcher]
    (Photo: ljcybergal)

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    1. polarogak says:

      I worked for a funeral pre-planning company for 8 months this winter. It’s a pretty good idea if you’re really concerned about your funeral. You can even do it for cremation. Basically, you buy an annuity and no matter what the price of the funeral is when you die, you get all of the goods and services at the price you paid back then. You can do it in installments of 10 or 20 payments. They send someone to your house to help you “arrange” it though, and they work on comission, so you gotta be able to deal with relatively high-pressure to add a lot of stuff to your package.

    2. zolielo says:

      If you go with cremation go with a cardboard coffin for cost and to get the most of your loved one’s ashes. Just common sense that a lot of people forget during a sad time.

    3. 12monkeys says:

      COSTCO even has caskets.Flowers too.

    4. Bellor says:

      Cremation is the way to go. You can have a funeral with the urn on presentation with flowers and what not still, but is considerably cheaper. I honestly don’t know why people want to be put in the ground to rot when you can have your ashes thrown into the ocean, or sit on your kids shelf forever. Both options are still better than being thrown into the ground and left. Atleast, in my opinion.

    5. textilesdiva says:

      If you even THINK the deceased might be entitled to burial in a military cemetery, look into it. For my grandmother’s burial, the plot, facilties for the graveside ceremony, stone, “perpetual care” and all that jazz was $300 at a local military cemetery. As I understand it, my grandfather’s second wife is also eligible for burial with him and his first wife. He was in service during a war, but never deployed to a combat zone.

      I doubt the coffin or funeral home services were included in this, but my parent’s surprise at the cemetery costs leads me to think $300 is extraordinarily cheap. This was in 2004, btw.

      Some of us took this time to go ahead and discuss our preferences for disposal with each other, since cost, grief, and logistics were all already at hand.

    6. c26nyc says:

      I understand purchasing a headstone over the net, because it’s something that isn’t immediately needed, but a coffin? How long does the dead have to wait til their coffin arrives?

    7. Landru says:

      Here in Oakland is the Sunset Casket Outlet where you can get “Discount pricing on designer caskets”. I didn’t know they made “designer” caskets. It’s strange to see a shop window on the street showing coffins and tombstones. I’ve heard you can save a boatload of money there though.

    8. k4_pacific says:

      “yet just because you are bereaved, doesn’t mean you should be taken for a sap”

      Well sir, that is our most modestly priced receptacle.

    9. There are usually small independent local funeral homes that, while they still make a tidy profit, are NOT affiliated with the national chains or beholden to their coffin-makers. They will charge you about HALF of what an affiliated place costs.

      Embalming DOES serve a purpose (pretty bodies at open-casket funerals) but usually isn’t necessary in the era of jet travel. Neither are super-fantastic coffins with lead liners to keep you from decomposing unless you expect someone to disinter you in 20 years because of some horrific crime they’ve only just now developed the scientific techniques to use on you to get evidence.

      If there is an Orthodox Jewish community in your area, find out who they use. Generally Orthodox Jews use very, very plain coffins which cost very little, for religious reasons. And one of the best ways to stave off the vultures is to say, “It’s my religious/moral belief” about NOT being embalmed or NOT having a super-coffin — which for many of us with concerns about the environment, it is.

      If you don’t pre-plan your funeral (which is an excellent idea if you are elderly or terminally ill, but often not for younger people who will probably move several more times and don’t know where they want to be interred), write a letter that you put with your will with instructions. Your family can then say, “He didn’t want a super-casket, his dying wish was a cardboard box.”

      And never put your funeral instructions in your will. Wills don’t get dealt with until AFTER the funeral, and your instructions will be ignored. Make sure SOMEONE knows where your instructions are, though. They’re not very useful if they’re just in a private folder on your hard drive!

      Your local church/synagogue/mosque/temple/whatever can probably also help you with low-cost planning. They usually have relationships with funeral parlors who want to keep their business more than they want to rip you off. And having a religious funeral service frequently cuts out a big chunk of the cost, since (some) funeral homes make a lot off of families with no religious “home” who have the service at the funeral parlor.

      In lots of places you can still have the visitation in your home. I’m super-curious to know if anyone’s tried that and what it cost for the body preparation if you don’t use the funeral home for the visitation.

      In some states you can still bury bodies on any land you happen to own, up to and including your backyard. But nobody really does that.

      There ARE good funeral homes out there who *are* making a living, but really want to ensure that your deceased loved one is well taken care of and treated with respect, and that your funeral and burial runs as smoothly as possible with as little stress to you as possible. Find one of these guys.

      (Eyebrows’s law practice is primarily estate planning so she deals with lots of funeral pre-planning and so forth.)

    10. Edinboron says:

      This applies to a regular internment in the ground. Don’t waste your money on an expensive vault. The vault is basically a concrete box that goes into the ground, the coffin goes into the vault. A vault is in most states required by law so there is no getting around it. Even if you’ve been to a funeral you have probably never even seen the vault. You may have seen the lid off to the side. The only way to see the vault at a funeral is by looking into the grave.

      Funeral directors will always try to upsell the vault. They will try to guilt trip you into getting the more expensive waterproof vault. The idea being you don’t want your loved one all wet and decomposing. What amazing technology do they employ in making a waterproof vault? It’s nothing more than a coat of waterproof paint you might buy at a hardware store for your basement wall. Does it keep water out? No, if water wants to get in, it will. It all depends on the water table were the burial takes place. In my experience a waterproof vault will keep water IN after it fills up. A standard vault allows the water to seep back out.

      One of the reasons vaults are required is to keep the embalming fluid from getting into the water table. It doesn’t work. The recommendation to skip the embalming is a great idea.

    11. Pastorerik says:

      I’m a pastor, and I officiated well over 100 funerals. There are lots of ways to spend less when someone dies.

      The first area is the casket. Buy it online. When my wife died, I used http://www.trappistcaskets.com. They’re made by monks, and can be shipped anywhere in the country in two days.

      As an aside, a friend of mine bought one of those caskets and is using it as a coffee table until she needs it.

      You can also check with your local church/synagogue/mosque to find out which funeral homes are best to deal with. I’d recommend meeting with your religious leader at the funeral home and letting him or her be with you as you select any options. He or she can provide you with objective support when you may be pressured to spend money you don’t wish to spend. (For example, Endibron is right. It’s completely unnecessary to spend any extra money on a vault. They’re only used to keep the ground from collapsing after the body and casket decay.)

      If someone is creamated, you don’t need an expensive plot to be buried in. Some places offer a columbarium, a wall in which to place creamated remains. I once perfomed a graveside service for a woman who was being buried next to her husband. She hadn’t lived in the area for years and was creamated. The family brought her ashes back and I helped dig a hole with a fence-post digger.

    12. nequam says:

      Growing up, I worked summers at a cemetery. One early observation for anyone who works that job is that whether the coffin is mahogany or cardboard, or whether the vault cover is concrete or bronze, everything goes into the ground the same way.

    13. othium says:

      When my mother passed away from cancer in 2001 my Father had everything planned out. The local funeral home tried to charge for everything under the sun, but my Dad was prepared. He told them he would be using a crematory in the next town, transporting the remains himself and the container would be one we provided ourselves. The funeral home didn’t like this plan and tried to sell us embalming before the creamtion, expensive oak coffins, “special” treatments, and super high-priced containers for the ashes. We said no to each and every one. This guy actually tried to stop us from going through with our plans. They went to the court and made up some nonsense about violating state laws or some nonsense. It was a real bitter experience. My Dad contacted the local newspaper and when a reporter started asking questions to the funeral director, he sudenly decided that our plans were “unconventional” but allowed. I guess he was afraid he would get some bad publicity. There are only two funeral service businesses in my home town and he really didn’t want it to get out that he was being such a dildo.

      After all that, we had a ceremony to spread my Mother’s ashes in her garden per her wishes. She wanted the least expensive funeral, with no fanfare or big ceremony. I’m proud of my Dad for following through with her wishes and standing up to that vulture of a funeral director.

    14. superlayne says:

      This reminds me of the episode of Six Feet Under when they get the coffin wall…

      I apologize, this is a serious subject. I can’t think of anything highly constructive to contribute.

    15. formergr says:

      I know death is a very personal thing, but the idea of lead liners and vaults and all that stuff being sold as preserving your body longer have always really grossed me out. I mean, I would want my body to decompose pretty quickly, not molder in a damp, sealed, tube for years on end–yech. To each their own, but for me its cremation all the way…

    16. frogman31680 says:

      My father always said to just stick a ham bone up his rear and let the dogs carry him away.

      BUT on a serious note, I think it is silly to save for years all that money just to put it in the ground. If I saved up say 20,000 on a funeral, I’d hope that someone would have the sense to give 19,000 to my wife.

      Plus, I hate the terminal language that the funeral industry uses when trying to sell you something. They try to jazz it up and make it sound like a great thing.

      Example: “Final expense” – I think that if you died of a heart attack while paying for your funeral then your funeral was your final expense. If not, your cable bill probably was.

    17. Metschick says:

      When my husband was killed in a workplace accident 18 months after we’d gotten married, I panicked – where I was going to pull $15,000 from? I sent my dad and my brother in law (husband’s brother) to take care of everything. They ended up selecting a super casket, and getting all this other extraneous stuff.

      (funeral/burial ended up costing 17 Gs, 4 more than our wedding!)

      Granted, I was “lucky” that his company footed the bill. But know I know that all that other stuff in unnecessary. It sucks to talk about this stuff, but like frogman says

      Talking about this stuff sucks, but it is important to know this stuff.

    18. HannahBethD says:

      My parents, grandmother, brother and his wife have all given me the rundown of what they want when they die; I guess that makes me the family crypt keeper.

      Either way, the Navy will be taking care of Dad and possibly mom, but I’m not sure. My brother’s end will handled by the Marines.

      I personally took out one of those funeral insurance policy things. It’s cheap enough. I also have a plan written up for every contingency I could think of. Believe me, my parents were thrilled to be having that conversation with their 23 year old daughter. Especially since some of the scenarios included fiery car crash, brutal murder in which no body is ever found, brutal murder in which only pieces are found, etc.

    19. TNT says:

      I’ve only had two experiences with planning funerals.

      The first was my father. He was going to be cremated, and yet the funeral director talked the family into buying an expensive casket. It was the old, “You want the best for your father, don’t you?”

      The second was with my mother, who was also going to be cremated. When it came time to pick a casket, the funeral director said, “Please do not get insulted when I say this. I know you loved your mother and I know you have money. But honestly, for a cremation without a viewing, a $28 cardboard box is the best solution. You may not think it’s good enough or that it’s the right thing to do, but it really is.”

    20. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

      Put me in a cardboard box and bury me in the woods. Putting me in a fancy mahogany casket with satin lining and brass trim isn’t going to make me less dead.

    21. HawkWolf says:

      my parents don’t really want a funeral. I don’t either. Closure’s important, but why would you spend thousands of dollars to BURY someone?

      That’s ridiculous. I’m not going to have people flying in from out of state. My extended family doesn’t really like my immediate family. I’m not gonna make them come all the way out here just to pretend to care.

      The fact that there’s an ‘industry’ for funeral services means that someone makes money off the fact that you’re dead, and when someone makes money off something, it’s awful tempting for them to try to make more, and then more, and then more.

    22. pyramus says:

      My brother’s end will handled by the Marines.

      If you take this out of context, it’s one of the funniest sentences I’ve ever read.

      On a more serious note, yeah, the funeral industry, despite its rhetoric, is mostly if not entirely predicated on taking advantage of people who are pretty much by definition in the worst possible condition to be making intelligent decidions. It seems crazy to waste so much money, time, and real estate on a corpse. After I die, I want to be burned up in a cardboard box; the survivors can do what they want with the ashes, since I won’t be around to know about it anyway.

    23. Nytmare says:

      My Dad pre-paid for cremation services as he got into retirement, for around $1000. It was slightly deceptive in that he went with a “society” which turned out to be nothing more than a secondary name used by a particular funeral home for marketing purposes. But when he died they didn’t try to up-sell us on extras; they simply did what he paid them to do. Which means they’ll get my referral business.

    24. bmwloco says:

      I read about enterprising folks in Europe, Sweden I think, that were working on freeze drying a corpse, then pulverizing it.

      Once done the biological remains can used as fertilizer. Great for trees.

      I can’t think of any other way I’d like my rotting husk to be treated once dead.

    25. synergy says:

      @Carey: I thought Mitford was the author of a book I read about 5 years ago, but it doesn’t sound familiar. The one I read was written by an American woman who realized what a scam the funeral industry could be when her husband died and she started looking into how to bury him. She was criticized by family members for deciding to transport him herself, building his coffin, and getting him cremated before any family members could say goodbye to the body. I wish I could remember the title because that was a really good book. It gave details on the various laws based on which state you’re in. Perfect information for the consumerist.

      @bmwloco: You’re thinking of “promession” and they’re going to start doing it in Sweden, Great Britain, Germany, South Korea, and South Africa starting next year. Here’s the website for the company, Promessa, who started it: [www.promessa.se]

    26. Lee2706 says:

      I am all about getting wrapped in a natural fiber blanket and tossed into a hole. Not sure if/where there are natural burial cemeteries where I live but I don’t need all that extra stuff to keep my body around longer than necessary.

    27. RebekahSue says:

      About, oh, a dozen years ago (?) 20/20 did a thing on the funeral companies that cheat the bereaved. One comment from a funeral director was, “don’t donate the body to science; they have too many. in fact, last week, they turned away” i don’t remember how many. Stossel found out that medical schools DO need bodies for students.
      Assuming I don’t die on a flight due to TSA error, my family has been told to donate my body to UConn medical school. My friend’s dad was donated. After a year, Dan’s dad’s cremains were returned (no cost) to the family. I think that THAT is the most practical route.

    28. Japheaux says:

      Awesome posts. A couple of years ago I was planning the funeral of my father. Despite my grief, my geek-oriented and ripoff-averse character told the gold miner, er, I mean funeral director to hold off a couple of hours on the casket selection. On a whim, I punched caskets.com into a browser and was redirected to a wholesaler who offered the same casket I was about to purchase for $1300 instead of the $2850 I was about to sink (pun intended). They guarnateed FREE overnight delivery. I am sure there are other sites that offer the same, but what a savings! Of course, if it’s the same casket, the savings will be better served going to the surviving members that the mortician’s Porsche payments.

      Jeff, Canyon, Texas

    29. @HawkWolf: “my parents don’t really want a funeral. I don’t either. Closure’s important, but why would you spend thousands of dollars to BURY someone?”

      Just a note, funeral and burial are two entirely separate things. The BURIAL costs a lot of money. The FUNERAL typically is free or involves a small honorarium to the religious figure performing it.

      You can’t avoid body disposal costs by skipping a funeral.

    30. Joe_Bagadonuts says:

      @k4_pacific:
      “Is there a Ralph’s around here?”

    31. aka Cat says:

      On plots, it doesn’t hurt to see if Great-Grandpa purchased a block of plots and a few are still unoccupied.

      Because of the odd way a few of the neighboring headstones were oriented, my mom was the first person in fifty or more years to realize that g’g’great-grandpa’s block of eight wasn’t actually full. Since a few of us plan to share one plot (cremation ftw), five of his descendants won’t be buying plots when it’s time to be planted.

    32. markwm says:

      Most of the cemeteries where I’m from are family owned, so it’s a matter of picking your plot before someone else does, or paying a little bit of cash to the cemetery fund for upkeep.
      My parents have already bought their plots in the cemetery across the road from the house they’ve always lived in. They said they’ve always been there, the neighbors were great, so why move?
      Me, I plan to be bronzed and placed in the foyer as a coat rack.

    33. kentuckienne says:

      When my father died, we were able to rent a “display” coffin for the memorial service. It was basically a nice shell around a plywood box. Only the body and the plywood coffin get cremated, and the shell gets reused. I don’t know how common this is, but it seemed both cost-effective and more environmentally sound to me than buying a “nice” coffin that would end up ashes anyway. It also let me meet the demands of relatives for a “real” funeral, when my dad just wanted his ashes scattered in Ireland.

    34. gticlutchburn says:

      dammit, all you urban achievers beat me to the lebowski jokes

    35. cmhbob says:

      I’m a service vendor to the funeral industry.

      Consider either the cemetery that services the Jewish population (all-wood caskets, with no metal, and typically no vault, I think), or the one that handles Muslim population (no casket; no vault). There are cemeteries that don’t require vaults.

      Rental caskets, especially where there’s going to be a cremation, are very common.

      Another idea to look into is where cemeteries are managed more as nature preserves than body farms. Typical burial density in an average cemetery is something like 40 bodies per acre. The “natural” cemeteries get something like 10 or 12. They don’t use vaults, and in some cases don’t even allow headstones. You get a GPS lat/long position for the location.

      Caskets are a huge profit item for funeral homes. Think 75% markup at a minimum. Look into a local cabinet maker, or Amish craftsman. In some (most?) states, funeral homes are required to let you use your own stuff.

      Work with your funeral director to make it a service of memory for your loved one, not just a few prayers and some songs. The viewing should be as comfortable as you can make it. Casket can be open or closed. Ask about display boards for photos (and run away, don’t walk, if they want to charge you extra for those). I’ve seen viewings and services where the deceased’s motorcycle was brought into the chapel, if that’s what they were really all about. Personalize it.

      A few other observations:
      -If you are having a procession, spring for the limo(s). It actually makes it safer for you, in that typically, you’re getting a professional driver, and you don’t have to worry about paying attention to the road on the way.
      -You probably don’t need a “flower car.” Use your family & friends to carry flowers to the cemetery. If you’ve got more than you could possibly want, consider sending the extras to a nursing home. Your FD can help you do that, and shouldn’t charge for it.
      -Make sure the service is recorded in some way. Lots of places are doing audio, and some are starting to do video. I guarantee you won’t remember the eulogy by the end of the day, and you’ll want to.
      -There should be no issues involved with using your own music for the service, whether via CD, tape, or MP3. If they can’t help you do that, go to another funeral home.

    36. handyr says:

      The secret is to die on or right before trash day.

    37. GuinevereRucker says:

      I totally feel the same way (but the reply button doesn’t work).

      Just do it like the settlers did it, bury in the woods with a homemade wooden cross!

    38. VenitaKaploofah says:

      the best advice I ever got on arranging funerals is take a friend with you who is good with money and just does not care about the deceased. They are not blinded by grief and will help look out for the financial bottom line. There are some pretty slimy things done when people are trying to sell you a funeral.

      I know in some large cities there are funeral clubs where the members help each other when a death occurs. If you are grieving never go to plan a funeral alone.

    39. reznicek111 says:

      Eyebrows: thank you so much for sharing this useful advice. It’s far better to know what to look for and what to avoid “pre-need.”