15 Ways to Have a Memorable Funeral on the Cheap

Funeral planning. Not on the top of your fun things list, I’m guessing.

OK. Let’s put it another way: How would you like to save $8,000 — particularly on something you’ll never get to enjoy?

Now, we’re talking.

Why do we have them?

While funerals are something no one looks forward to, they do have some surprising upsides:

  • You get the chance to express your love and care for someone one more time.
  • If you plan your own, your family members will probably thank you for not dropping the job in their laps.
  • Making your own arrangements is a way to express yourself and your values. Your values may not include spending thousands on a box that’s lowered into a hole, although that might be what you’ll get if you don’t make your wishes known.

The casket: $2,395

So, there are benefits. But a full-blown funeral can be very pricey.

According to the most recent data from the National Funeral Directors Association, the median price (half cost more, half less) of a funeral was $7,045 in 2012. That’s without a vault. Throw in the vault and the price went to $8,343.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Metal casket — $2,395.
  • Basic services (required fee) — $1,975.
  • Embalming — $695.
  • Use of facilities and staff assistance with the ceremony — $495.
  • Use of facilities and staff assistance for viewing — $400.
  • Hearse — $295.
  • Moving remains to and from the funeral home — $285.
  • Preparation of the body besides embalming — $225.
  • Basic package of printed materials — $150.
  • Use of the car or van — $130.

Wait, there’s more: cemetery charges, floral arrangements and paid obituaries. Oh, and a headstone, which start at $200 and run to $3,000 and up, according to the Neptune Society, which performs cremations.

With prices like these, shopping for funeral services and a casket while a loved one is in the throes of grief is a recipe for overspending. So including big-ticket items, if any, should be a part of the plans you make for yourself.

But keep this in mind: These days, the social pressure for lavish, expensive funerals is off. Here are ways to save radically on the costs of a funeral, whether you’re planning your own or someone else’s:

1. Shop around

Call funeral homes and ask for their “general price list,” which, by law, must itemize their charges. This lets you compare costs accurately. Also ask for the prices of packaged services.

Kiplinger says:

If you want a simple burial or cremation, choose the home with a low up-front fee. That way you won’t subsidize services you don’t use. If you want a more elaborate funeral, you’ll have to look at the cost of the whole package before judging the up-front fee.

2. Choose direct burial

A funeral home’s least expensive option is a direct burial, in which the body is buried soon after death, with no embalming or visitation.

A Federal Trade Commission pamphlet says:

Costs include the funeral home’s basic services fee, as well as transportation and care of the body, the purchase of a casket or burial container and a cemetery plot or crypt. If the family chooses to be at the cemetery for the burial, the funeral home often charges an additional fee for a graveside service.

3. Simplify the casket

A casket showroom “is where a lot of your money will be spent or saved,” says Kiplinger, adding that it’s not uncommon for caskets to be marked up 300 percent over the wholesale price.

“If you’re low on funds, funeral directors get it, and the best of them will steer you to inexpensive alternatives,” writes MSN Money. Two low-cost options: a 20-gauge steel casket costs about $1,000, and a cloth-covered casket runs about $500.

Watch out for up-selling, where a salesperson pushes higher-priced or unnecessary items. Don’t let anyone sell you a “sealed” casket, for example. “It’s often just a cheap rubber gasket,” Bankrate.com says.

“I advise people to stop, sit down and rethink whether it makes sense to ‘protect’ a dead body,” Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, told Bankrate.

4. Choose cremation

Cremation costs on average $3,200, Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America, told Bankrate.

Americans’ preference for cremation is growing. In 1960, a funeral cost just $708 and just 3.56 percent of those who died were cremated, the Funeral Directors Association says. These days, 42 percent of us are cremated.

5. Provide your own urn

Funeral homes and crematoriums usually give you the cremation ashes (called cremains) in a plastic bag inside a plastic box. An urn isn’t needed if you intend to scatter the ashes.

To keep cremains at home you’ll want an urn or container. These are sold by crematoriums and funeral homes. You can skip this purchase by providing a nice box or container from home. If you decide to buy a container, shop around. At Walmart.com, for example, urns range in price from to $32 to $555.

Here’s lots more about buying urns, from Everplans, a funeral information site.

6. Opt for a “green” burial

A “green” or “natural” burial is cheaper and avoids using toxic embalming chemicals and steel caskets, which don’t biodegrade. Bankrate said:

Instead of a steel casket, a biodegradable shroud (basically a sheet wrapped around the body) costs as little as $40. If you prefer the shape of a coffin, a biodegradable wool “casket” will run about $350, [Joe Sehee of the Green Burial Council] says.

Only a couple dozen “natural burial grounds” around the country accept shrouded bodies. But the green burial trend is growing. The Natural Burial Co., which distributes green burial products, has more information.

7. Hold the funeral at home

Home funerals can include a variety of activities, from holding a memorial service to preparing the body for burial, holding visiting hours or a wake, or building the coffin.

Threshold Care Circle offers workshops and education in home funerals and green burial. Another resource is the Home Funeral Alliance. Reclaiming once common death practices is done not only to save money but also to renew the meaning and intimacy of the rituals.

A simple memorial service also can be held in a park, the mountains, the beach or another lovely place that’s free of charge or perhaps was meaningful to the deceased.

“Print memorial cards on your computer, decorate the room with your loved one’s pictures or favorite items, and ask everyone to share memories,” suggests Bankrate.

8. Choose home burial

A small number of Americans are reviving the practice of burying their dead at home on their own land, says MSN Real Estate. If you go this route, you’ll only need to buy a plain pine box for about $300.

Home burials are surprisingly legal outside cities. But that doesn’t mean you’ll find it easy to get permission. The MSN article has links to state laws and consumer groups.

One downside to consider: A grave may diminish the value of the property.

9. Bring your own flowers

You may be surprised to learn you don’t have to use a florist. A spokesperson for Aurora Casket Co. in Aurora, Ind., told MSN Money it’s perfectly acceptable to bring flowers from home. (Or ask friends to bring flowers from their gardens during growing season.)

10. Have the funeral at church

A service at a church, mosque, temple or synagogue can be less expensive than at a funeral home. Costs vary, so phone around for prices.

Although clergy members typically officiate for free, it’s customary — and thoughtful — to tactfully give an honorarium. The amount is up to you.

Also, expect to pay to cover costs for the service and reception. Houses of worship may be prohibited by health authorities from serving food not prepared in their kitchens, which could add to your cost.

11. Keep the service small

After a small private burial service, hold a public reception at a church, a rented hall, at home or at a friend’s. Rent or borrow coffee and tea urns. Ask people to contribute homemade baked goods. Keep the reception short — two hours at most. Make sure to provide a few folding chairs for elderly or disabled guests.

12. Learn about veterans benefits

The Department of Veterans Affairs pays certain burial and funeral allowances. Click here for eligibility and rules.

  • For a non-service-related death of an eligible veteran in a VA hospital, the VA pays up to $700. A free grave marker and free burial in a national cemetery or a $700 “plot-interment allowance” are also provided.
  • For the non-service-related death of an eligible veteran outside a VA hospital, the VA pays a $300 lump sum toward burial and funeral expenses.
  • Service-related deaths trigger a $2,000 allowance for burial costs. Some transportation costs may be covered for a burial in a national cemetery.

For other benefits (explained here by the American Legion), including the presentation of an American flag and playing of taps at a veteran’s funeral, ask your funeral director or call the VA at (800) 827-1000.

13. Check into Social Security help

Social Security pays a lump-sum $255 death payment to a surviving child or spouse who meets certain requirements. The Social Security Administration has details online. Or you can call (800) 772-1213 or visit a local Social Security office.

14. Investigate other benefits

FuneralWise lists 10 other potential sources of funeral or death benefits, including pensions and retirement funds, workers’ compensation (if the death is work-related), benefits from railroad and teachers’ retirement funds, help from trade unions and public assistance and others.

15. Donate your body to science

Making a “whole body” donation for use in scientific research and education brings funeral costs to zero.

Afterward, cremation is done free of charge. Cremains are returned to the family in three to five weeks, says ScienceCare, a company that connects donors with researchers and educators.

The nonprofit Anatomy Gifts Registry does similar work.

Organ donation can be done separately, in addition.

Would you donate your body to be used for scientific research? Or prepare a loved one’s body for burial? Tell us by leaving a comment below or going to the Money Talks News Facebook page.

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Comments & discussion

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  • GolfKen

    Great article! I have been teaching this in my financial seminars for years. Along the line of ‘provide your own urn’, you can provide a casket you purchase elsewhere, often times for much less. Here is what the Federal Trade Commission says on the subject:
    According to the Federal Trade Commission:
    You have the right to choose only the funeral goods and services you want.
    The funeral provider may not refuse, or charge a fee, to handle a casket you bought elsewhere.
    The funeral provider must provide you with a general price list.
    If state or local law requires you to buy any particular item, the funeral provider must disclose it on the price list, with a reference to the specific law.
    A funeral provider that offers cremations must make alternative containers available

    (search ‘best priced caskets’ and see your options) Thanks MoneyTalksNews…great job!

  • 1WeDeserveBetter1

    Well, as long as my family doesn’t tell them, they ain’t gonna know. What a stupid excuse for a law – “you can’t spread ashes here”. Guess our government doesn’t have anything more important to worry about.

    • S. Ogden

      I’m not an ecologist, however there must be some reason for these particular environmental laws. I cannot imagine that the Gov’t has the manpower to enforce the illegal dispersement of human ashes… and they ain’t gonna know unless someone tells them. Enjoy your fish dinner and don’t give it another thought. : )