Cremation: The Cheap And Environmentally Friendly Alternative To Burial

Cremation is catching fire as Americans look for low-cost, low-resource alternatives to burial. Cremation often costs half as much as traditional funerals – $4,000 instead of $8,000 – and does not require wood or land space. This combination is putting the heat on traditional funeral homes.

In theory, death care should be immune from short-term economic swings. Death is one of only two sure things in life, and the U.S. population is aging.

“This is one industry that pretty much holds strong regardless of the economy,” says Mike Nicodemus, funeral director at Hollomon-Brown Funeral Homes, a 10-operation chain in Virginia Beach, Va. But costs for raw materials (wood, flowers) are rising, while the flow of customers has slowed. “There’s been a decrease in the death rate over the last six to eight years,” says Phil Jacobs, chief marketing officer at SCI, who’s too polite to note this is bad for business. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the U.S. death rate fell from 8.8 per 1,000 in 1999 to 8.5 per 1,000 in 2005. In 2005, fewer people died than in 2002, despite an increase in population.

And while Americans don’t necessarily spend more on funerals during boom times, a slowing economy makes people think twice about opening their wallets for wreaths and high-end caskets. “People are definitely questioning us more on what things cost,” says Robert Biggins, past president of the National Funeral Directors Association and operator of a funeral home in Rockland, Mass.

Cremations are especially popular in retirement states where the elderly have little long-term connection to the land. More than half of all funerals in Arizona and Nevada are cremations, rates that are mirrored in coastal states where land is valuable and scarce.

The single best way to reduce the cost and stress of a funeral is to plan ahead. Funerals are often about guilt, which translates into profits for funeral homes. For more tips, read our post on how to save on funeral expenses.

Weep for the Grim Reaper [Slate]
(Photo: Mike9Alive)
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  1. Maude Buttons says:

    I’m pretty sure that I remember reading, in Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, that cremation actually isn’t environmentally friendly. Too many particulates in the air, and it’s a waste of energy because the crematoriums need to be kept on all the time. It’s not like they’re pre-heated before the, you know, baking.

    Mary Roach suggests “green funerals” where the body becomes tree food — like Nate in “Six Feet Under.”

  2. Charles Duffy says:

    As I understand it, crematoriums are a very significant source of environmental mercury, from the fillings in folks’ teeth. (I don’t have any problem with my teeth getting knocked out and disposed of separately, but some folks I suppose might take issue).

  3. Cowboys_fan says:

    Something about creamation just doesn’t sit right with me, nor does the environmentally friendly part. I’m not religious in this sense but it feels wrong, though I can’t ever put my finger on why.

  4. Trai_Dep says:

    The best part? It makes a great dessert topping!

  5. WindowSeat says:

    What about Tibeatan Sky Burial? Getting chopped up and left out for vultures to eat sounds pretty Green to me.

  6. Eilonwynn says:

    Everybody who’s died at all recently in my family has been cremated – we’re not big moaners & wailers, either – It just makes more sense to us. Grandma sat in a closet next to the sewing machine for over 20 years until grandpa went (now they’re both on my uncle’s mantel, despite what they wanted done – and he talks about them “watching over him” which is about the only creepy thing about it.)

    I know where I want my ashes scattered, and have made my wishes very clear to all responsible for making sure it happens. Just because I won’t be in a box in the ground doesn’t mean there won’t be a monument, either – There will be a bench with an inscription placed in a park that I like.

    Personally, I’m all for the idea – putting so many people underground seems really unnatural to me.

  7. faust1200 says:

    Just throw my corpse in the damn dumpster. What do I care? I’m dead. Funerals are a racket that capitalize from the grief of families. Use me as chum in some shark infested waters…Or something creative and crafty- a scarecrow perhaps? Or just keep me in the trunk of your rear wheel drive cars to improve traction. Life is meaningless, a lifeless corpse even more so.

  8. dirtymoney says:

    $4,000!?!?!?!?!!? It costs THAT much to rolla cardboard box (with a dead guy in it) into an oven & then pour the ashes into a folgers can!!!?????

    I thought it costs about $1,500 tops!

    There HAS to be a cheaper alternative than THAT!

    I completely agree with the racket part that faust said!

  9. tozmervo says:

    Compared to embalming, cremation is far more environmentally friendly. But the first poster was correct, green funerals are a far less ego driven and more eco driven way to go out. [en.wikipedia.org]

  10. m.ravian says:

    my parents are donating their bodies to medical research. while it is weird to think of some medical student poring over my dad’s dead body, it’s something that sort of appealing to me as well.

  11. MensaWhiteTrash says:

    Question – I have always heard that the funeral home lobby in the state of TN requires that you be embalmed first, even if you’re being cremated. Please tell me this is a bunch of crap!

  12. dirtymoney says:

    What I want to know is… what is the cheapest possible way to legally dispose of my body that doesnt involve a bunch of medical students hovering over me cracking jokes while using my scrotum as a sock-puppet?

    Seriously! I dont want to be a financial burden to my relatives when I die. SO I just want the cheapest possible way to literally dispose of my body.

  13. Takkun says:

    Does Nevada also have drive-thru cremation services?

    Wow, that sounds a lot creepier the more I think about it.

  14. formergr says:

    I thought this article ran last month on Consumerist, and at the time the consensus among posters was that the $4,000 figure listed for cremation was way too high??

  15. hoo_foot says:

    Where are these numbers coming from?!? We cremated my mother last year and scattered her ashes at her favorite beach. The cremation plus travel expenses to the beach did NOT even come close to $4000!

  16. Trai_Dep says:

    Can DIY types simply chop grandma into managable bits and use the microwave oven, set to “11”?

    I’d test it on our cats, but their claws are sharp and their glares intimidating.

  17. sporks says:

    $4000?!?!?!!!?? Where is this coming from? My mother and I are quite adamant about not having a funeral, she wanting to be cremated, and I want a ‘green’ burial or to be given to science for them do do something cool with my body. She’s pre-planned and it’s less than $1,000 for a cremation.

    Cremation is certainly not the most ‘environmentally friendly’ method, but it is better than embalming and burial and all that jazz.

    I’ve gone to two funerals over the past two months for family members, and it is incredibly wasteful. We’re talking about several thousand dollars just for a few days of memories. If you’re really interested in reading more and educating yourself about the funeral industry, I highly recommend Jessica Mitford’s book The American Way of Death. It talks about how we in America treat death and funerals and how the industry basically guilt trips us into spending $5,000 on a casket that uncle Bob can’t even feel.

  18. Womblebug says:

    I think part of the discrepancy in cremation figures is the difference between having the body embalmed, having a memorial service with casket, and then cremation, with an urn purchased from the funeral home at top dollar; versus no embalming, no casket, no service and no overpriced urn. When my first husband died, I had him cremated without being embalmed. When I went to see him before it happened, he was in a cardboard box. We had a memorial service without the body. I bought a very nice marble urn on the internet at a fraction of the cost of the funeral home’s, and he stayed in that until I scattered him in the Atlantic.

    The best way to go is prepay through your state’s cremation society; once you’re paid they take care of everything, and it’s inflation proof. If you’re sentimental, though, you’re going to be out more cash – the embalming and service adds a ton to the cost. I don’t know if you have to buy a casket or if you can rent one, but they are unbelievably expensive.

    I’d like to be cremated and have a tree planted over me.

  19. EtherealStrife says:

    $4k is bs. Neptune Society folks. Their rates seem to have doubled since I last checked, but $1500 is still the cheapest method I’m aware of.

    I personally like the idea of a green funeral, but those can get pricey. Cremation is the financially viable alternative.

  20. harshmellow says:

    @womblebug: That’s exactly what I want done with my body too! I wonder if I will haunt the tree?!

  21. EtherealStrife says:

    @EtherealStrife: Erm $1600 is for state-wide coverage, I’m seeing stuff for a fraction of that if you’re willing to bet you’ll die within 50 miles or so of the crematorium.

  22. MaliBoo Radley says:

    Eh, to hell with all of this shit. I’m giving my body to science. A med student somewhere we’ll be able to be totally creeped out by me. Perhaps they’ll use one of my arms for some sort of pratical joke ..

    But seriously, funerals etc. are for the LIVING. The dead don’t give a toss. Donate what organs you can and leave the rest of your body to science. At least that way you might do some good.

    All the superstition and such that people attach to dead bodies is plain oddball.

  23. BigNutty says:

    My family has been told to just put be out with the trash. Bio-degradable in the landfill.

  24. snowmentality says:

    I definitely want to be planted with a tree. Donate all my organs to people who need them, then plant the rest of me under a tree, no coffin, no nothing. I won’t be using my body anymore — don’t know what, if anything, comes next, but clearly I won’t need this body, so it might as well do some good. I really need to put together some paperwork to this effect, so that my next of kin knows this when the time comes.

    I knew one guy who said, “When I die, bury me un-embalmed in a plain pine box. If I find out you embalmed me and bought a stainless steel coffin, I’m gonna haunt your ass.”

    I think the cute kitten next to the fire is a strange, but awesome choice of pictures for this post.

  25. jodles says:

    cremation has both positives and negatives for the environment. it’s good because with burial, groundwater can be contaminated by embalming fluids which are poisonous. it’s bad because it emits some toxins into the air.

    i also think the best choice is to donate your body to science. there’s really no downside, unless you are religious and don’t want to.

  26. cmhbob says:

    @Maude Buttons: Not sure what you read in a book, but no, the retort does not run all the time. It burns at 1200 – 1600 degrees Fahrenheit, and opening the door at that temp is pretty stinking dangerous. In fact, most units won’t let you do that through safety interlocks.

    Retorts are loaded and unloaded cold. I know this from experience. :)

  27. HrPingui says:

    @trai_dep:

    +2 for the TL reference

  28. fishing-ace says:

    As a soon-to-be graduate of medical school, i am so thankful for those who have donated their bodies for the purpose of medical education. I agree that cremation is more environmentally friendly than burial, but my guess is that the amount of trash you generate in a few days/weeks is greater than the difference between burial vs cremation. Donating your body to science/medicine will make a *lifelong* difference to anywhere between 5 and 12 medical students/residents; who knows? what they learn during their training from your grandpa’s body may help them to better treat you in this lifetime.

    Oh yeah, and I bet donation is even cheaper than cremation.

  29. BobbyMike says:

    How does it compare to taxidermy, or burial at sea?

  30. @Cowboys_fan: Everybody has very personal feelings about death, and they’re often not particularly connected to your religious beliefs or moral beliefs. It is, after all, your body, and everybody has pretty strong beliefs about their bodies. :)

    @sporks: “I’ve gone to two funerals over the past two months for family members, and it is incredibly wasteful. We’re talking about several thousand dollars just for a few days of memories.”

    I think you’re slightly conflating terms. Typically the funeral is the religious service, and it doesn’t require embalming, or a body, or a casket, or really anything whatsoever except the religious service. You could have a full-on funeral with your ashes in a cardboard box if it pleased you. Contarlywise, you can spend an arm and a leg on burial and whatnot with no funeral to speak of.

    The funeral itself is typically free or quite inexpensive (honorariums vary by area and religious group). It’s typically all the costs associated with the funeral home — remains preparation, storage, and transport; visitation; etc. — that is what makes the “funeral” costly.

    That said, the funeral or memorial service shouldn’t be some socially-obligatory death party complete with competitive spending. If your religion has death rites, you do them for that reason. If your family needs a chance to grieve and say goodbye in a ritualized fashion (often very important; rituals help humans cope), you do the memorial service for that reason. You don’t do it because Jane Smith down the street had a $12,000 funeral with yellow-silk-lined mahogany casket at St. Wealthier-Than-Thou with 200 guests and, BY GOD, Grandma’s getting just as good!

  31. Womblebug says:

    Oh, and to those who are arguing donating your body is more environmentally friendly than cremation – once they are done with the body, it’s cremated and the ashes are returned to the family. It’s still the cheapest option out there, and a noble one, but don’t think it’s any environmentally different than a straight cremation.

  32. PatrickPortland says:

    @EtherealStrife: Yup, 4k is total bs. I just got a quote from Trident, the Californian version of Neptune, for $1,336.13.

  33. asscore says:

    I want to be cremated. I also want a pyre built in the traditional greek fashion (with cedar branches, stacked to a specific height), to be lit in the presence of all of my loved ones. Not put in a cardboard box and rolled into an oven.

    State regulations be damned – I dont care if they have to steal my corpse from the funeral home.

  34. HOP says:

    my family is for cremation too…..saves the survivors a bundle of money…..

  35. zibby says:

    I buried my father recently and I wouldn’t put that on anybody I purport to care about – they can dump me in the damn river for all I care.

  36. Nemesis_Enforcer says:

    My wife buried her dad last year here in Cali. I was shocked at not only the cost but the hoops you have to jum thru for a simple buriel. He died of an anureism (sp?) so he had a autopsy. The funeral home wanted him embalmed afterward, she said no. Then he was put into a coffin and then put in a concrete vault then lowered into a huge hole. Maybe 8 feet long by 5 feet wide and 8 ft deep. I didn’t know that all bodies out here are buried in vaults like that to protect the ground water.

    I remember when my parents died when I was a kid they were literally buried in 1 pine box especially made for 2. We checked on cremation for her dad but his family freaked. They are really strong Catholics, my wife and I are Agnostic her dad was not a strict Catholic. We told them if they wanted a full burial then they had to pay any costs over the cremation. We paid for that and it was about 2,000 total. They paid an additonal 8,000 for the burial, so his funeral and all associated costs were about 10k.