Making funeral arrangements is never easy. In addition to dealing with the death of someone you love, you need to make many practical decisions that take into account your family’s emotional and financial concerns.
Funeral costs can be among the largest expenses you will ever face. It is common for funerals to cost between $7,000 and $10,000—not counting fees for such “extras” as flowers, vaults, or death notices. For financial or other reasons, you may want to consider alternatives to the traditional funeral arrangement, including one of the newer “green,” or “natural,” burials. These alternatives are becoming more common among people seeking simple and lower-cost arrangements. Knowing your options can help you make the right decisions at a difficult time for you and your family.
Funeral arrangements are usually easier to make when you know the wishes of the person who died. The ideal time to talk about your preferences is when you and someone you love are both healthy and able to view the issues objectively. If you find it hard to bring up your concerns, you might ask an attorney or financial adviser to help by raising questions during a discussion of other matters, such as a will or insurance.
Whether or not you’ve talked about the funeral plans in advance, here are some of your options:
A traditional funeral service. A religious service is led by a member of the clergy and can be held at a house of worship, funeral home, or other location. At the end of the service, there can be an optional procession to the cemetery for a short committal service as the casket is put in place.
A memorial service. The most common kind of memorial service takes place in a house of worship or a funeral home (where a formal viewing may also be held). Some families prefer to hold a simple service without the body, often at a place beloved by the person who died, such as a vacation or retirement home. A friend, relative, or clergy member may preside over this kind of gathering. No matter where it is held, a memorial service often includes a selection of the deceased’s favorite music or readings.
A graveside service. Instead of a formal memorial service, some families choose a simple graveside or committal service with a closed casket. This kind of service is sometimes used when the death occurred elsewhere and the casket is brought to the cemetery. A family may also hold a private graveside service before or after a more formal or public memorial service.
Cremation. Cremation is becoming much more common because of the simplicity of arrangements and lower cost (typically, $1,000 to $2,000), and sometimes because of personal preference. The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), an industry group, reports that the rate of cremation surpassed the rate of burial for the first time in 2015 and has continued to rise since then. Cremation does not rule out having a viewing or memorial service. Funeral homes usually offer rental caskets or unfinished wooden boxes to use for viewing before cremation. After cremation, ashes are stored in a modest container and returned to the family. The ashes may be kept in an urn or similar container in a cemetery or memorial garden that the family can visit. Some families choose to scatter the ashes at a favorite spot of the person who died.
A traditional casket burial. Many people choose a casket burial in a cemetery. Cemeteries are run by municipalities, churches, or other religious groups or by private organizations. Veterans can be buried, if space allows, in a government cemetery. If your family does not have a plot or preferred cemetery, you’ll need to research convenient cemeteries. Call the cemetery’s office to ask about prices and available plots. Plots are normally purchased directly from cemeteries, and their costs are not usually included in the fees charged by the funeral home.
A “green,” or “natural,” burial. For this type of burial, the body is prepared in an environmentally friendly way—often without preservatives such as formaldehyde-containing embalming fluid—and may be placed in a biodegradable shroud or coffin. Green burials may take place in some traditional cemeteries or in special nature preserves, often called “green cemeteries,” and they are becoming more popular both for environmental reasons and because they may cost as little as $1,000. In a 2015 survey of green burial cemeteries, 72.4 percent of respondents reported that demand for ecofriendly burials was increasing.
A casket. Burial involves a casket, usually the most expensive item on the bill for the funeral. A casket can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars for a simple box to thousands of dollars for a fancy coffin. Avoid sealed or “protective” coffins that are very expensive and often fail to preserve the body as promised. If the person who died asked for a simple casket, request a pine box. You can save on a casket by buying one at a casket retail store or online or by renting one if cremation is planned. Some cemeteries require a liner under the coffin to prevent the ground from sinking over time.
Embalming. Embalming is an expensive procedure that preserves the body for an open-casket viewing. No state requires embalming as a matter of course, though some states require it in certain circumstances, such as in the case of a communicable disease, a delay in disposal, or the need to transport the body across state lines. An alternative to embalming is refrigeration or a prompt viewing. If no viewing is planned, embalming is not necessary. Another option is cosmetic restoration, which creates a lifelike look for viewing.
Body donation. Many people want to leave their bodies to hospitals or medical schools for research or teaching purposes. If this is a possibility, check first with the institution about its requirements for age, embalming, transportation, and physical requirements. Your friend or relative will need to make an agreement with the medical institution and file it with his or her papers. The body may not be accepted at the time of death because of age, disease, or lack of need by the institution, so the person will need to make a backup arrangement.
Organ donation. A growing number of people are making arrangements to bequeath parts of their bodies for transplant. They usually fill out an organ donor card and keep it in their wallet, or their preference may be noted on their driver’s license. Organs must be removed promptly after death, and the donor must meet age and health requirements that vary depending on the organ. Be sure other family members know about and agree with a relative’s decisions about organ donation to ensure that the donor’s wishes will be honored.
When you pay for funeral services, you have certain rights and responsibilities. It’s a good idea to:
Talk with your family members about their concerns. You and your siblings or children may have very different ideas about the kind of funeral you want. If that’s the case, you may be able to work out a compromise. For example, if you want a very simple service for a parent but your siblings would prefer something more elaborate, you might have a private graveside service just for the family and close friends, followed by a large memorial service open to everybody.
Compare prices. Many people select a funeral home based on location, convenience, or family tradition. This approach often makes sense, especially if you have an unlimited budget. But if you’re worried about costs, it pays to shop around for the best prices and service. Funeral homes (though not cemeteries) must disclose prices over the phone and offer you detailed price lists when you visit. Many funeral homes will also mail you price lists.
When purchasing funeral services, you are protected by the Funeral Rule, or Funeral Law, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Try to visit more than one funeral home. Speak with the staff, get a tour of the facilities, and ask for printed price lists of items such as caskets and liners. You have a right to expect clear, helpful, and courteous answers to your questions. If you have concerns, call your local Better Business Bureau or consumer protection agency to find out if it has received complaints about the funeral homes you visit.
Know your rights. When purchasing funeral services, you are protected by the Funeral Rule, or Funeral Law, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This rule requires funeral homes to publish price lists, to allow you to refuse to buy items that you don’t want (with certain exceptions), and to take other steps that protect people at a vulnerable time. To learn more about your rights, visit the FTC website or call 202-326-2222.
Funeral arrangements are most frequently made through a funeral home. Funeral directors, also called morticians or undertakers, oversee all aspects of the funeral and burial. A funeral director can be a calming presence during an emotional event, but it’s important to choose carefully. Look for someone who will take the time to explain your options to you without using high-pressure sales tactics.
A funeral home typically can provide you with or arrange for such things as a casket, vault, flowers, music, death notices, embalming, transportation of the body, information about death benefits, rooms for the visitation, and a guest book and thank-you cards. If the deceased or family members belong to a church or other religious institution, the funeral director can contact the clergy there to see what options are available for a service. Even if there is no religious membership or affiliation, the funeral director can recommend and contact area clergy who can provide a religious funeral, memorial, or graveside service.
Some families make arrangements for a luncheon following the funeral service for all in attendance. Often, a religious group, V.F.W., or other organization can provide this at a low price. The funeral director generally does not make these arrangements but can give you contact information. A luncheon after the funeral or service can provide an opportunity for socializing, healing, and sharing memories of the deceased.
The casket is usually the largest single expense for a funeral. Most traditional caskets cost about $2,500 to $4,500, and elaborate coffins can cost much more than that. Here are some things to know before you make a decision:
You can choose from many styles and prices. Although wood is the most traditional material, caskets also come in metal, plastic, and fiberglass.
You can buy caskets at other places besides a funeral home. Caskets are available from many cemeteries and online. By law, a funeral home cannot refuse to handle a casket that you bought elsewhere or charge you an extra fee for the service.
You may not need a casket. You will not have to buy a casket if the person who died has chosen cremation or immediate burial or is donating his or her body to science.
If you want a simple service that avoids many of the usual funeral home costs, you may want to look into a memorial society or a direct-burial firm.
Memorial societies. These are groups that negotiate contracts with local mortuaries for low-cost services. A small fee provides lifetime membership and access to the legal and other information needed to have a no-frills burial or cremation. Society members prefer to avoid embalming, make-up, open-casket viewing, and expensive coffins. Many members have memorial services in a religious setting. To find a society, search the Internet for “Memorial Society” or “Memorial Association.”
Direct burial. Also called “direct disposal,” direct burial is a one-price service for the removal of the body and burial or cremation. Firms that specialize in direct disposal collect the body from the place of death and transport it to the chosen cemetery or crematorium. This way, they eliminate many of the services provided by a funeral home. This low-cost alternative is often used by families that prefer a memorial service without a viewing or casket. If you can’t find a firm that offers direct burial, you can request that your funeral home provide direct burial or minimal service.
If you use one of these alternatives, be sure to plan a memorial service that will meet the emotional needs of your family, including younger members. Seeing a casket or attending a visitation may help children or teenagers accept the finality of death, so if you dispense with these traditions, plan an appropriate way for young mourners to say goodbye to someone they loved. They might light candles, share their reminiscences, or pay special tribute at a memorial service.
There are many ways to pay for a funeral. You may decide to put money in a special account, pay the costs out of the estate, or buy a prepaid package. Here are some of the pros and cons:
Paying at the time of the funeral. If you choose to do this, costs can be taken out of the estate or paid directly by you or other relatives. You may want to set up a savings or investment account earmarked for the expense. Setting up an irrevocable, or non-revocable, account or trust will protect the money if someone enters a nursing home. In this way, you earn all the interest, you can’t lose the money by cancellation of a plan, and the funds will be available when needed.
Paying through a commercial prepayment plan. Many funeral homes offer prepaid funeral plans that cover the cost of a casket, transportation of the body, the services of a funeral director, and other related expenses. If you are prepaying, be sure your agreement clearly states the cost of each item and a description of each item or service you will receive. The agreement should also list any restrictions, including geographic limitations. Some prepaid funerals are guaranteed, meaning that your family will not have to pay additional money to the provider at the time of death. Avoid plans that are nonrefundable, which can leave you without coverage if unforeseen circumstances occur. It’s also a good idea to have an attorney or accountant read the prepayment contract, which should answer these questions:
If you haven’t made advance payment arrangements and the estate cannot pay for the funeral, you may want to consider signing any Social Security or death benefits over to the funeral director.
Cremation Association of North America
This industry group provides information about cremation.
Green Burial Council (GBC)
This industry group website provides information about natural burials. The website also has a search tool to help you find a GBC-certified funeral home or cemetery.
Funeral Consumers Alliance
The Funeral Consumers Alliance is a nonprofit education and advocacy group. Its website has many free articles about the legal and other rights of consumers and ways to avoid funeral scams.
Monument Builders of North America
Monument Builders of North America is an international association of stone carvers and others who create gravestones and other memorials that honor the deceased. You can find a member by searching by city and state or Zip code.
National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA)
The NFDA is an advocacy and resource group for the funeral industry. Click “For Consumers” on the NFDA website to find extensive information on how to plan a funeral.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
This government agency maintains veterans cemeteries through the VA National Cemetery Administration. Select “Burials and Memorials” on their website to find out about cemetery services provided by the agency.
Careful planning can eliminate misunderstandings with funeral homes or service providers. If unexpected problems still arise, you may want to get in touch with the agency that licenses funeral homes in your state or with a consumer protection agency. You can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission by using the online complaint form on the agency’s website. Although the FTC does not resolve individual complaints, it can act against a company that has a pattern of violating the law.