During the downturn in the economy, there’s still one industry with a steady supply of paying customers and business doesn’t look to end anytime soon. That’s because those in the multi-billion dollar funeral industry survive by the simple fact that people keep kicking the can, and their relatives are usually willing to dole out the dough to send Grandma Sue off in high class. But, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a traditional funeral is $7,323, which doesn’t include burial costs. Burial plots and other expenditures can push the total to $10,000 or more. That’s not cheap during thick times and it can be a downright hardship during the lean times.
That’s why some are looking for cutbacks, whether it is for themselves or for recently deceased relatives. Auctioning off burial plots, opting for carnations instead of roses, and toning down the casket from bronze to cardboard are just some of the recession-minded, budget-tightening measures that customers are taking.
I’m Sorry About Your Loss—Now Here’s the Bill
Buying a package funeral deal seems to be the easiest option for grief-stricken family members—and that’s the way it’s intended. Instead of scaling down to the necessities, many people buy an all-inclusive “traditional” funeral—an embalming, an ornate casket, open casket wake, fancy flowers, ceremony, procession, and graveside service. However, according to the Funeral Consumer’s Alliance (FCA), a consumer advocate group, this type of funeral is a fairly recent commercial invention—and not necessarily a good one.
When it comes in a package, it’s easier to be overcharged for unnecessary expenses and there is less transparency for the charges. The FCA recommends looking for these things to ensure the funeral home you are with is honest:
• Early on in your discussions, ask for a general price list, which outlines costs
• Before picking out a casket, ask for a casket price list, which should include caskets around or under $500
• You should receive an outer burial container price list before selecting a grave liner or coffin vault
• If you were told that something was required by law, you should have been given that evidence in writing
• You should get an itemized statement of goods and services selected before the funeral so you know the total cost
Shop Till You Drop
Although last minute arrangements don’t lend themselves to comparison shopping, there is something to be said for looking for the best deal—on flowers, caskets, plots, etc.
Some funeral homes even advertise themselves as cheaper than the rest. For instance, Newcomer Funeral Homes and Crematories, a national chain, claims to undercut its competitors by hundreds to thousands of dollars. Even shopping around among local funeral homes and crematoriums can save money and give you a sense of what the going rate should be.
Another area where you stand to save considerable cash in on the casket. It’s no surprise that sales of the more expensive caskets—bronze, mahogany, and copper, which run from $5,000 to $10,000—are declining. What’s the point of buying the Rolls if it’s just going into the ground? Instead, simpler, inexpensive caskets are growing in popularity. A metal casket is around $1,000 and pressboard or wooden caskets are around $500. In a funeral home, the more expensive caskets might be on display, but more affordable options should be available as well. You can also order your casket online, where you’re likely to find the best deals. If you know a woodworker or artisan, you could also commission him to handcraft a personalized casket.
Ashes to Ashes: Why Cremation Is So Hot
JFK, Jr. did it. Jerry Garcia did it. Hunter S. Thompson did it. And many others, including myself, want to do it too. According to the Cremation Association of North America, in 2005, 46 percent of Americans planned to choose cremation, up from 31 percent in 1990.
There are many reasons to choose cremation over a traditional burial. Cremation is a good way to go if you’re eco-friendly, like the idea of being spread over a memorable or beautiful part of the world, and want to choose one of the most inexpensive options. According to the FCA, cremation usually costs around $1,000, though it can be lower if families choose to deal directly with services. Urns run around $100, although many opt for a sentimental vase or container (free!). Scattering ashes is also usually free. In addition, you don’t have to reserve a plot of land in a cemetery, which can result in major savings.
Don’t Embalm Mom
Another steep charge associated with the funeral process is embalming, which many people think they have to do. In fact, there are no state laws that require embalming; some states do require the body be buried, cremated, or refrigerated within a certain amount of time. If refrigeration is present, embalming doesn’t need to be done before cremation. Embalming also deters the natural process of decomposition with toxic chemicals, like formaldehyde.
Let’s Get—and Save—Green: Biodegradable, Baby
It seems ironic that one of the most natural things in life—death —could somehow be bad for the environment. Of course, it ain’t the dead that are doing it; there are a host of eco-woes tied to the death and burial industry. In his book, Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial, author Mark Harris points out a few of those woes: toxic embalming fluid, tons of precious resources like wood, steel, and concrete buried underground, and destruction of habitat to create cemetery grounds. Going green allows you to save money by scaling down, with biodegradable or sustainably made coffins, burial in a natural cemetery, or cremation. And a green burial doesn’t have to mean a plain burial—think coffins made from bamboo, sea grass, or salt.
Body and Organ Donation—They’re Giving It Away!
It will only cost you a kidney and a heart. Maybe a lung. Or two. But donating your organs or body means you’ll go to a good cause—teaching medical students, contributing to research, or giving someone a lifesaving organ. Many people may balk at their body being cut open and having their organs removed, especially if they plan on having an open casket wake. But, according to the book Grave Expectations, by Sue Bailey and Carmen Flowers, organs are removed surgically, much like an appendix removal. Plus, they remove all your organs during embalming, so it is actually much less invasive. And if you donate your entire body for research, it is cremated—for free.
DIYing: The Cheapest Way to Go
Just like Spot your dog, it is (in some states) possible to bury a loved one in the backyard. This sounds strangely grotesque, but it’s what all of our forefathers did at some point. Of course, now that we have alternatives, most people don’t want to deal with a dead relative’s body. But there are other parts of the process that you can do yourself, which can save money and make it more personal. This includes sending out the invitations yourself instead of having the funeral director do it, having the ceremony or memorial at your home, bringing flowers from a home garden, or scattering ashes in a sentimental site.
Whichever way you choose to go, probably the biggest cost savings is in planning ahead and not leaving it to your bereaved relatives—who certainly aren’t going to be in the state of mind to comparison shop or prowl the Internet for cheap caskets—to make the choices for you. Thinking about your final goodbyes—priceless.
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