My Wonderful Life

Funeral Arrangements: How to Keep Costs Under Control

The following is adapted from “The New York Times Practical Guide to Practically Everything” (St. Martin's Press) and articles from The New York Times.


Every year, Americans arrange funerals for more than two million deceased at an average cost of $7,300 per funeral, not including cemetery costs. Many funerals go for $10,000 and up, ranking in some cases among the most expensive purchases many consumers make. A little research and planning can help keep funeral costs in check. Here are some tips from consumer advocates:

Call or visit at least three funeral homes before choosing one. The Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule, adopted in 1984, requires funeral directors to give you an itemized price list of their goods and services. Some will try to sell a package deal, but keep in mind that you have the right to buy the items separately. For example, funeral providers cannot refuse to handle a casket you bought elsewhere, nor can they charge you a fee for doing so. They can, however, charge you a “basic services fee,” which runs around $1,500 and covers items such as preparing notices, sheltering the remains and coordinating arrangements with the cemetery or crematory.

Check Out a Range of Caskets

At an average price of more than $2,000 for a metal, wood, fiberboard or plastic model, a casket is the single most expensive item in a traditional funeral. Mahogany, bronze or copper models run up to $10,000 or more. Be sure to see a price list and detailed descriptions of all available caskets before you look at actual models. Ask to see lower-priced models, such as those made of pine; chances are they won’t be prominently featured.

Metal caskets are often described as having special sealing or protective features that jack up the price. But no casket, regardless of its materials or cost, can permanently keep out water or other natural elements. In fact, federal law prohibits any claim that a casket’s features can preserve the remains indefinitely.

Clarify Plot Charges Upfront

Cemetery sites are generally higher in urban areas. A plot runs from $500 to several thousand, but that’s just the start. Removing earth and filling it after interment costs from $350 to $1,500, and can double on weekends and holidays. Cemetery operators require a grave liner or vault (average cost, nearly $800) to enclose the casket. A headstone or marker runs from $500 to several thousand, depending on materials and design. Ongoing grave-site care is often included in the price of the site but some cemeteries tack on 10 percent or more for maintaining it. For mausoleum burial, you will need to buy a crypt; costs are comparable to buying a burial plot.

Cremation Can Be Cheaper

Cremation services can be obtained directly from a crematory or cremation society. In some places simple cremation goes for as low as $300, not including an urn, which can run from $85 to $1,500 and up, or a crypt or memorial site. All told, the average cremation costs around $1,500. A casket is not required for a direct cremation; a simple unfinished wood box or alternative container will do. Undertakers are required to make such an alternative available.

Funeral Planning Groups Can Help

Funeral planning groups — or memorial societies as some are still known — are nonprofit organizations run mostly by volunteers. In many cases some go by the name Funeral Consumer Alliances and offer information on funeral and cremation prices locally to help in comparison shopping ahead of time. For a onetime membership fee of around $30, your local society can help plan a funeral and suggest a mortuary or crematorium with a good reputation.

Members spend around $1,000 and up on a funeral, depending on the goods and services chosen. The organizations helps educate consumers so they can make their own decisions. To find a funeral planning group in your area, call the Funeral Consumers Alliance at 800-765-0107 or go to

Plan Yes, Prepay No

Setting aside money for your funeral and making your wishes known to loved ones is wise, but paying for the arrangements in advance, through so-called pre-need plans, is risky. Consumer advocates say there are too many unknowns: What happens if the funeral homes goes under? What if you move out of the area? Or, you decide at the end that you’d rather be cremated? Pre-need plans are often nontransferable, nonrefundable and sometimes carry hidden fees that your survivors may end up having to pay. Further, many states don’t offer full protection for pre-need plans. So, if you change your mind, you could lose a bundle.

One way to protect your funeral money, suggests the Funeral Consumers Alliance is to set up a Totten trust fund, or pay-on-death account, with your bank. Choose your beneficiary, and deposit whatever amount you wish. The trust is portable and accrues interest in your account. When you die, the money goes directly to the beneficiary, who can use it to fulfill your funeral wishes.

Veterans and Their Families

The United States extends to its veterans free burial when they are interred in a national cemetery. The Department of Veterans Affairs provides at no charge a gravesite in any of its 130 national cemeteries, the opening and closing of the grave, maintenance and a headstone or marker at no charge. Spouses and dependents are also eligible for interment at a national cemetery at no cost, even if they precede the veteran in death. The cost of a wake or viewing at home or in a funeral home is paid by the family in most cases.

According to the V.A. Web site, some veterans may also be eligible for burial allowances; cremated remains are buried or inurned in national cemeteries in the same manner and with the same honors as casketed remains.

V. A. benefits also extend to burial in a private cemetery; they include a headstone or marker for the veteran. Spouses and family members, however, are ineligible.

Creative Urns

Many families have increasingly abandoned traditional religious funerals in favor of secular ceremonies they may arrange themselves. Natural burials, which avoid embalming and concrete burial vaults, are more commonly considered than they once were, while a minority of families are bypassing funeral homes altogether to take care of their dead themselves.

Even in death, Americans seek individuality. Artistic urns and other objects reflect shifting demographics of death and philosophies. Art Honors Life, the nation’s first art gallery dedicated to cremation urns and other “personal memorial art,” opened in 2007 in Graton, Calif., about 65 miles northwest of San Francisco. The gallery showcases novelty items like wind chimes with built-in cavities, pencils made from cremated remains (roughly 250 pencils per person), diamonds made from ash carbon and birdfeeders designed to scatter ashes.

Coffins: Rent or Buy Online

Coffins may still be part of a funeral service. But expensive caskets have made way for the hardwood or metal rental coffins. Such coffins can be rented for a fraction of the cost, allowing a daylong viewing. The body is placed in a combustible container of cardboard or soft wood, and inserted into the rental coffin lined with fabric.

For the budget-minded who want to buy a casket outright, Costco offers a selection of coffins ranging in price from $924.99 to $2,999.99. Walmart also offers funeral goods. They are part of a growing number of companies competing with the funeral industry to cater to the cost-saving or environmental concerns of a new generation.

These merchants are among companies that are pursuing consumers interested in shopping online. And it can be cheaper, given that some funeral directors mark up their coffins as much as 300 percent over wholesale, knowing that most consumers are reluctant to haggle or shop around. For example, Funeral Depot, which sells funeral supplies both online and offline from its Hallandale Beach, Fla., store, earns a profit of about 40 percent by charging double the wholesale price of its coffins — and still significantly beating funeral homes' prices. The average price of Funeral Depot coffins sold online is about $1,500.

Handmade Options

And then there is handmade. Paul Firnstein, a retired advertising executive, moved to Ashland, Ore., from upstate New York in the early 1990s and learned that members of his small synagogue lacked access to the simple coffins required by Jewish law. A carpenter, Mr. Firnstein, set about making them himself in kits that families could assemble themselves. Word spread about his business, Ark Wood Caskets, first locally and then, with Internet advertising, nationwide. His coffin kits sell for $599, and fit into a slender cardboard box, which he says can be stored in the garage or under a pool table.

Mr. Firnstein also said he has been fielding calls from families interested in natural burials. Adherents of the movement wrap bodies in simple shrouds or in biodegradable coffins and bury them in woodland cemeteries.

Home Funerals

Advocates say the number of home funerals, where everything from caring for the dead to the visiting hours to the building of the coffin is done at home, has soared since 2004, putting the funerals “where home births were 30 years ago,” according to Chuck Lakin, a home funeral proponent and coffin builder in Waterville, Me.

While only a tiny portion of the nation’s dead are cared for at home, the number is growing. There are at least 45 organizations or individuals nationwide that help families with the process, compared with only two in 2002.

The cost savings can be substantial. A home funeral can be as inexpensive as the cost of pine for a coffin (for a backyard burial) or a few hundred dollars for cremation or several hundred dollars for cemetery costs. One family spent only $250 on a home burial.

The cost of a death midwife, as some of the coaches call themselves, varies from about $200 for an initial consultation to $3,000 if the midwife needs to travel.

In Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska and New York, laws require that a funeral director handle human remains at some point in the process. In the 44 other states and the District of Columbia, loved ones can be responsible for the body themselves.

Families are typically required to obtain the death certificate and a burial transit permit so the body can be moved from a hospital to a cemetery, or, more typically, a crematory.

But even in states where a funeral director is required, home funerals are far less expensive.

Such simple burials are traditional in many faiths, and were long the standard practice in the United States until the Civil War, when the development of modern embalming and the expansion of the train system altered the landscape of death and gave rise to the modern mortuary practice.

No one keeps statistics on natural burials, but interest is growing, says Mark Harris, author of a 2007 book, ''Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial.'' ''It's not just this chic eco-trend for greenies,'' he says. ''It's based on simplicity and thrift, and has broad appeal.''

Since 2005, the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization in Santa Fe, N.M., has certified cemeteries and funeral providers that follow certain environmental guidelines. It has a list of 220 funeral homes that identify themselves as willing to handle unembalmed bodies, 17 cemeteries that, among other practices, avoid chemicals, and 14 coffin companies that use nontoxic, biodegradable materials.

Laws vary by state, but it is legal in most states to care for the dead at home. New York is among the few states that require a licensed funeral director or undertaker to handle most death care needs. The online Home Funeral Directory, based in Austin, Tex., shows a list of 41 organizations that help arrange home funerals. Many of these charge fees for conducting home death-care seminars and workshops.

Victims of Crime

Most states help cover the cost of the burial of crime victims.

For information, go to the Web site of the National Association of Crime Victims Compensation Board ( The site lists the states involved and their services. The crime victims compensation group suggests that people contact the state program directly (or county programs in Arizona, and district programs in Colorado) to seek financial assistance. It also provides a fact sheet on compensation and a separate contact list on individual state programs.

The Truth About Embalming

Preparing the body for public viewing nearly always involved embalming and cosmetic restoration, processes that can add $600 or more to a funeral bill. Is embalming otherwise necessary or required? Not really.

Embalming generally is not necessary if the body is buried or cremated within a reasonable time after death.

Embalming is not required by law except in certain cases when a body is transported across state lines.

Embalming does not preserve the deceased’s body indefinitely; it merely masks the appearance of death and temporarily postpones decomposition.

Embalming chemicals are highly toxic. Embalmers must wear a respirator and full-body covering while performing the procedure.

Refrigeration is an alternative to embalming for maintaining a body intact while awaiting a funeral service. Although not all funeral homes have refrigeration facilities, most hospitals do.

Embalming is common only in the United States and Canada. Orthodox Jews and Muslims consider the procedure a desecration of the body. — From the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

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