Photo: Anze Furlan (Shutterstock)
Whatever you think is waiting for us all at the end of our lives, there’s one undeniable universal truth: After you die, someone is going to be left with a large bill. The average cost of a burial is close to $8,000, and the average cost of a cremation is close to $7,000—in a country where the majority of folks would be wiped out by a $1,000 emergency expense. It’s complicated by the fact that we’re asked to plan funerals when we’re emotionally vulnerable, and the most you can hope for from the government is a $255 death benefit.
However, depending on your beliefs and wishes for their final rest, you and your loved one have some options that can help you not go completely broke when someone you love passes on.
How to plan ahead for funeral expenses
The first thing to do is to admit that we’re all going to die someday, and that means someone is going to have to pay for what happens next. If your beliefs or your loved one’s wishes for their death include a viewing and a funeral, that means you’re going to have to come up with that cash. Instead of hoping for the best, do a little planning ahead:
Burial insurance. You can buy burial insurance just like any other insurance policy in values ranging from $1,000 to $50,000 if you’re planning a seriously over-the-top sendoff. While this is an extra expense to worry over while you’re alive, it means that an unexpected death won’t impact anyone financially.Payable on Death (POD) account. A POD is simply an arrangement with your bank or financial institution that names a direct beneficiary in the event of your death. Setting this up allows someone to access your accounts immediately after your death (PODs trump wills, so you don’t have to wait for a will to be read and executed). If you die with some money in your bank accounts, it can be used right away to pay for a funeral. Pre-paid funerals. Many funeral homes will let you pre-pay for a viewing and burial or cremation. This has the advantage of locking in current rates and the disadvantage of assuming you die in the local area—if you die while traveling and the cost of transporting your body isn’t part of your pre-paid service, this could backfire. Savings. You can, of course, simply save up money for a funeral and set it aside. But if this was easy to do, you wouldn’t be reading this article in the first place. Still, if you have the ability to save money, consider setting up a specific account for death expenses and giving the appropriate people access to it.
How to reduce funeral or burial costs
Aside from making plans to pay for everything associated with a loved one’s death, you can also—depending on your spiritual and philosophical beliefs—reduce the overall cost of someone’s death. If you’re set on having a burial or cremation, you can save some money in a variety of ways:
Shop around. While there isn’t a ton of competition in the funeral business, don’t forget it is a business. It might seem morbid or unfeeling, but you can shop around for the best price on a viewing and burial. If you have the energy and peace of mind to do so, making a few calls can save you a lot of money. Caskets and urns. You don’t have to buy your casket from the funeral home, which is typically the most expensive way to buy one. You can buy your own casket, though you should check the shipping costs, which can be so high it negates any savings. And you can rent a fancy casket for a viewing and then have the person buried in a much cheaper casket. Similarly, supplying your own urn for a cremation can cut hundreds of dollars from the overall cost. Natural burial. A funeral home or a cemetery is a private business, so they can require things like embalming or concrete liners for a viewing and a burial. But there are actually no laws requiring either of these expensive aspects of a traditional modern burial, so you do have the option of exploring a “natural” or “green” burial that dispenses with these added expenses. Private land burial. In 47 states in the U.S. it’s perfectly legal to bury someone on your own property, as long as you follow local ordinances. For some, being buried at a beloved location might be appealing. You should consider the implications of having a grave located on your property—this could have an impact on resale value, for example, and if you sell or otherwise lose control of the property, you may have to make sudden and disruptive arrangements. But if you have land, this can dramatically reduce the cost of a burial. Direct burial or cremation. Also known as “immediate” burial or cremation, this is almost always the cheapest option that involves a funeral director. A direct burial or cremation omits embalming and usually skips the viewing, with the funeral home simply preparing the body, transporting it to the cemetery, and burying it (or handling the cremation), often with an inexpensive, basic casket or other container. This is usually drastically less expensive than a full burial—sometimes costing less than $1,000.
Finally, if your beliefs allow it and you’re comfortable with it, you can arrange to have your body donated for medical and scientific research upon your death. While you cannot be paid for this, by law, it removes all costs associated with burials and cremations—most programs that accept body donations will cover the cost of transporting the remains. There are a few considerations if you think this might be a good way to spare your family the trouble and expense of burying you:
Health. Most research programs that accept body donations have specific requirements about the condition of remains. Memorials. You can’t really delay if you’re going to donate your body to science, so you’ll either need to arrange for a memorial of some sort immediately, or hold one without the body. Organs. If you want to be an organ donor, this will likely disqualify you from donating your body in its entirety. Most programs want all of you. Control. You won’t be able to specify how your body is used. Once donated, the program will be in full control of that.
If you or your loved one think this sounds like a great way to help humanity while saving your family the cost of a traditional funeral, it’s best to plan ahead so everything is in place. You can contact private organizations like BioGift to make these arrangements, or look through this list of programs seeking donations and contact one that seems like a good fit.
Dying is an expensive business in this country. If you want to spare your loved ones that expense, you have some options—but you have to start planning now.