Funerals are expensive. There’s no denying that simple fact. The average cost of a funeral with burial is around $8,500 (not including a burial plot and marker) and the average cost of a funeral with viewing and cremation is around $6,000. In fact, funeral expenses have outpaced inflation since the mid-1980s. That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to pay the average price.
While you may not have the luxury of choice in the matter, the best way to reduce your costs is to plan ahead by visiting different funeral homes, asking questions, knowing that you do have choices and understanding that in most instances, the prices and plans being offered are completely negotiable.
1. Understand that it’s all just a business
While 86% of funeral homes are family owned, part of the community and look at their business as a valued service to their neighbors, there are others who are simply in it for the money. In fact, the median prices at Service Corporation International, the country’s largest funeral home chain, are as much as 72% higher than their independent rivals.
Remember, you are meeting with a commissioned sales person—not a licensed counselor or social worker. They have to pay for overhead and if things are slow (the average NFDA-member funeral home only handles 113 calls per year), they may be trying to earn a full-time profit from a part-time business.
The fact of the matter is, the more they sell you, the more they make—which may be of particular consideration if the home is part of a national chain with established sales goals. The funeral director is not your friend, you will probably never interact with him or her ever again, and they will not offer you less expensive alternatives unless you specifically ask for them.
2. Eliminate the embalming
Understand from the start that embalming is rarely required by law, is not necessary at all for cremation, doesn’t preserve the body for a long time, offers no sanitary health benefit and can unnecessarily add thousands of dollars to the cost of a funeral.
What’s more, if it’s already been performed “as a necessity” before you approve of it, you shouldn’t have to pay for a service that ranges from $495 to $1290, at prices that can vary by as much as 160% and may have been marked up as much as 900%.
In fact, the Federal Trade Commission and many state regulators require that funeral directors inform consumers that embalming is not required except in certain cases—such as if you’re delaying burial, planning on public viewing when refrigeration is not available and/or the body is being transported across state lines. And, if they don’t tell you that from the start, you have to wonder what else they aren’t telling you.
3. Choose immediate burial or direct cremation
Selecting an immediate burial in the least expensive coffin or casket doesn’t mean there’s any less love for the individual being buried.
The same is true of direct cremation—which only requires a rigid combustible container that could be made of cardboard.
It just means that you’ll be foregoing the expense of everything associated with a viewing and visitation at the funeral home. You can still have a dignified, meaningful memorial service anywhere you like at any time for free.
4. Ask to see all the options in your budget
A funeral home may display inexpensive caskets in unflattering ways and colors while storing less expensive models off the display floor. If you’re working with a budget and/or determine what you’re interested in from their general price list, ask to see all styles and color combinations available for that price. You may be surprised at the choices that suddenly become available once you ask.
5. Cut the cost of the coffin
The main reason funerals are expensive has much to do with the cost of the coffin or casket (the terms are often used interchangeably as they perform the same function, but they are constructed differently).
One source notes a 70% mark-up, another 300 to 500% and a third a whopping 900%. In fact, the most expensive caskets can go for as much as $65,000. But you don’t have to pay these rates—even if you’re looking at the least expensive options to begin with.
It’s perfectly legal for you to purchase a casket (or a cremation urn) from a third-party retailer at 30-70% less than that being offered by the funeral home and have it shipped directly to the funeral home. Funeral homes are required by law to use the coffin you provide and can’t charge any additional fees to handle them.
Even if you don’t plan on using this option, simply mentioning that you are considering it could allow you to negotiate a substantially lower price. Remember, the funeral director will still make a reasonable profit from simply placing a phone call to the warehouse.
Remember, the sole purpose of a casket is to carry the remains. Even the least expensive one will do the job as equally well as the most expensive. No funeral home would open themselves to liability damages by selling anything less.
A funeral home may charge you an $800 premium for a sealed casket when that just means adding an $8 rubber seal to the lid. This, when cemeteries may often break any seal to allow for proper venting anyway.
And don’t be swayed by any mention of a warranty. Who’s going to check on the casket once it’s in the ground? No matter what you’re told about the quality of the casket or how long it will last, it cannot protect a body from decomposition.
Finally, know that a vault, which simply holds the casket in the ground, is going to be much more expensive (adding as much as $10,000 to the price tag) than a concrete ‘grave liner’—which performs the same function. Either way, it may not be necessary.
There are no state laws requiring this purchase. However, the cemetery itself may require one to prevent the grave from caving in from the weight of the dirt above it. If a vault or grave liner is suggested, ask why it is required.
6. Consider your options
The Cost of the coffin is just one consideration. The website HowStuffWorks points out that, “Other funeral products and services also carry a healthy markup. The charge for placing an obituary in a local paper alone can be three times the actual cost.”
If you wish to have an obituary in the local paper, contact then directly to eliminate the mark-up incurred when the funeral director makes another phone call. But don’t think you’re getting off free.
The newspaper will still likely want to charge several hundred dollars to run the notice even if you call it in. No, they don’t do it for free—and the longer the obituary, the higher the cost. If there are only a few people that you think might take notice of the obituary, consider calling them directly instead.
7. Choose a closed casket ceremony
If you plan on needing a casket, that doesn’t mean that it has to be open for a service. If you opt for a closed casket, this eliminates the need to further prepare the body for viewing—as well as the costs of burial clothing (which the funeral home may suggest you purchase through them), hair care, cosmetology services or reconstruction.
8. Move the memorial service
Even if you’re hiring a funeral home to handle your burial, you don’t have to use their visitation and memorial services. Memorials can instead be held at for a much lower cost at your home or a place that holds special significance—whether it’s a church, your own home or the local VFW hall.
More than likely, that will be a much more pleasant, memorable and meaningful place for the family and kids to visit. After all, if the funeral home was never a meaningful part of one’s life, why would it ever be a meaningful part of one’s death?
9. Use your own personal car
While the funeral home may offer to drive your family to the graveside services, realize that this isn’t being done out of generosity. They’ll then become responsible for the limo charges.
And forego the option of a “lead car”—a task at which the hearse serves admirably.
If you want something nicer or larger in which to transport the family, make a few phone calls and arrange it yourself through an auto rental or limousine service.
You can probably get a limousine all day for the price you’re paying for the short hop to the cemetery and back—which also gives you the option of transportation to a nice restaurant or the family home for the memorial gathering.
10. Take advantage of any military benefits for burial
There’s no reason for you pay for something that the government is willing to provide for free—particularly if you or a loved one has already earned it. Although you may incur charges for storage and transportation costs, all military veterans, as well as spouses and dependent children, are entitled to a free burial in a national cemetery and a grave marker. This eligibility also extends to some civilians who have provided military-related service and some Public Health Service personnel.
Burial at sea
The United States Navy offers burial at sea free of charge for the following individuals:
- Members of the uniformed services
- Retirees and veterans who were honorably discharged from any branch of the service.
- Dependent family members of active duty personnel, retirees, and uniformed services veterans
- U.S. civilian marine personnel of the Military Sealift Command
- Full details available through the U.S. Navy or Military.com
Burial at a VA cemetery
Although you would incur charges for funeral services, this entitlement for military veterans would include a number of free items, including:
- Burial flag
- Government headstone or marker
- Grave liner for casketed remains
- Gravesite or niche
- Opening/closing fee
- Perpetual care
- Presidential memorial certificate
Please be aware that not all national cemeteries have remaining space and some only accept cremains. As a result, a burial may not occur at the nearest national cemetery and/or the remains may not be eligible for actual burial in the ground.
For more information, you can visit the National Cemetery Administration or call the regional VA office in your area by dialing 1-800-827-1000.
You can also learn more about benefits in state cemeteries by visiting Military.com.
Also be aware that some commercial cemeteries may offer free gravesites for veterans, as well. However, also know that they may be charging higher fees to open and close the grave to cover that cost and/or an exorbitant rate for an adjoining plot for the spouse.
After you’ve decided what you want and how much you’re going to pay, ask for a completely itemized statement before you pay. The statement should provide a detailed overview, the exact cost of each service and the total. By law, it must also inform you of any legal, cemetery or crematory requirements that may cost you additional money as you make your final arrangements for your journey along the gray mile.