Frugality apparently doesn’t end with your heartbeat, folks. There are, in fact, quite a few ways to save money on cremations and funerals.
First, I need to get the big disappointment out of the way: There is no such thing as a cheap funeral. Well, unless the deceased had savings, life insurance or had prepaid for their services. Even then it’s not “cheap” so much as just “covered.”
As to whether cremations can be cheap… Well, it depends on your perspective — by which I mean your/the deceased’s bank balance. For a lot of people, even the lowest cremation costs will stretch the budget.
But hopefully this post will at least give you folks some ideas on how to have a more affordable cremation or funeral.
Unsurprisingly, listing all of the options and details made this post quite long. So I’ll make a clickable list for easier navigation:
- To be clear
- The $0 options
- No-frills cremation
- Some-frills cremation
- Potential financial assistance
- The option not to use
Why you need to know this now
I know this isn’t a fun subject. And for most people, anything involving death — ours or loved ones’ — is uncomfortable. So it’s tempting to put it off and decide to worry about it later.
But here’s the thing: People can die suddenly. And you (or your next of kin) really don’t want to be Googling “how to save money on cremations” or “frugal funeral” in the thick of bereavement.
And you really don’t want to rely on funeral homes’ information. There are, I’m sure, plenty of caring individuals with great respect for your/your loved ones’ loss. But even for those folks, mourning means money.
So even if they genuinely think they’re helping a customer find the best, most fitting way to honor the deceased, they’re likely offering bells and whistles that the dead person may not have cared about — or even wanted. But it’s hard for us to think completely critically in the midst of grief.
All of this means that it behooves you to learn these things now/bookmark this post to make sure you can make the critical choices/have the hard conversations ahead of time to ensure that your or a loved ones’ passing isn’t financially devastating.
To be clear…
I want to make sure no one misunderstands the point of this post.
I am not here to judge anyone who chooses to have a funeral and burial with all the bells and whistles. If that is what you/the deceased want and it’s within your budget, do what you need to do for a final send-off.*
But the fact is that most people won’t leave sufficient money for that, and many loved ones don’t have that the financial means to cover a big to-do. So people need to know what options are available (and within their means) to say goodbye to loved ones with respect — but no debt.
* Even so, see the Funerals section for how to get lower rates.
As it happens
Some years back, a reader asked me to do this post, and I’m sorry that I never found the time for it.
Unfortunately, I learned most of the stuff in this post because I was helping a friend whose brother died unexpectedly. Her mother doesn’t work, and my friend is in an underpaid profession. Neither of them is in a financial position to cover these costs. So I figured I’d do what I do best: comparison shop to find them the best deal.
I’m afraid that, even eliminating all frills, the cost still came to $1,200. NThey started a GoFundMe, which friends and family pitched in for as best they could, but is still $150 short of that goal. (Here’s the link if anyone is feeling generous.) But at least the worst of the burden was taken off them.
The $0 options
Let’s start with the two options within everyone’s budgets (if they qualify). The ways to get a free burial or cremation are: be a veteran (or some family members) or opt for whole-body donation.
If the person was a veteran, they may qualify to be buried in a national cemetery for free. In some cases, this also extends to spouses and dependents. Click this link for more details.
If you agree to donate your body — which you can do even after organ donation, by the way — then the companies or school programs will cremate the remains free of charge and return them to the next of kin.
I think one of the main things that needs clarification for the subject is consent. Whose do you need to donate a body? Well, it depends.
Some whole-body donation programs (as best I can tell, mostly the non-profit programs) require the deceased to have already signed up with the program. They won’t accept just the next-of-kin’s consent.
That said, there are plenty of companies that simply require consent from the next of kin. Buuuut… these tend to be for-profit companies. And those have some practices that may unsettle you.
So okay, the for-profit companies are very much less than ideal. But so is just about everything regarding death. If you can’t afford the other options in this post, they are a valid choice.
That said, even the for-profit companies don’t accept every cadaver offered. There are a number of contagious conditions, such as HIV and some forms of hepatitis, that mean the body cannot be donated.
This means that, even if your plan is to donate your body and relieve your family of any financial burden, you still need a contingency plan in case your body can’t be accepted.
Which brings us to…
The next most affordable option is a basic cremation, which those in the biz call “direct cremation.”
This section covers the absolute lowest-cost ways to get a body cremated. However, your costs will still vary, depending on a number of factors.
The company you choose
There are places here in Phoenix whose base price is $1,500+ while others offering $575 direct cremations.
However, the price you see isn’t always the price you get. Some online quotes I saw failed to include a few necessary expenses, while others really did include everything except sales tax and death certificates.
This means you need to check any package a company offers to make sure it has everything you need.
What a comprehensive quote should include
- Transportation of the body to the mortuary/crematorium
- The crematory box: The body must be placed in a container before going into the cremator. The basic cardboard-and-fiberboard box is the cheapest option. They will deduct money if you can provide your own box, but I searched extensively and failed to find any place that sells the boxes directly to consumers.
- The cremation fee
- A container for the cremains: You can provide your own, but some places always put the cremains from the cremator into their own temporary box. So you may be charged regardless.
- Any coroner’s permit: In some places, you need a permit from the coroner. This is a county-level policy, so just do a search for the county name and “coroner’s permit” to see if you’ll need one.
- Any sales tax: This won’t be in the cost of the package, but they can tell you exactly how much it’ll be.
These may be unavoidable, and will definitely inflate the price quickly.
- Rush fee: Some religions require a quick burial. Or perhaps people traveled to say goodbye, and they need to head home soon. You can get priority, but you’ll pay. The lowest fee I saw was $150.
- Weight: Larger bodies (generally categorized as 250 lbs or more, but one company drew the line at 200 lbs) require a larger crematory box, which can result in a surcharge. It can also cause a surcharge for transportation.
- Extra miles: Most companies provide transportation within a 20- to 30-miles radius. Anything more than that is charged at anywhere from $3 to $5 per mile, depending on the company. They will, at least, only charge you for the extra miles driven with the body in the vehicle.
- Death certificate: You’ll need a death certificate to close any accounts and settle any debts. In some places a certificate is only $6, but they can be as high as $25. Given that you’ll need a separate one for each institution, this adds up quickly.
- Death certificate processing fee: Most mortuaries/crematoriums charge $5 per copy. You can skip this by applying for the certificates in person or through the mail. Or you can order them online. There will likely be a fee for online ordering as well, but you can request multiple copies at a time, amortizing the cost a bit.
- Extra refrigeration period: Companies may include as little as two days of refrigeration in their basic pricing. From what I saw, five days is more standard. But if you need to delay the cremation/other services beyond the covered period, you’re looking at $90 to $110 a day.
- Removal of pacemaker: Obviously, the mechanism can’t go into the cremator. So you’re looking at a fee for that. One article said $50 to $200, but I didn’t see anything under $125 when I reviewed various price lists.
I know that was a lot of information to throw at you — and potentially at a very bad time. But it’s important to make sure that when you compare quotes, it’s apples-to-apples.
And the good news is that all the companies I saw took calls 24/7, so you can get a quote whenever you’re ready.
Location, location, location
Depending on where the deceased died, prices can be incredibly disparate. If you’re near a large city — or perhaps even a place with much lower cost of living than where the deceased’s body is — it’s worth calling them to see if they can offer you a better price.
This was highlighted in my friend’s case.
Her brother lived in Flagstaff, which is a high cost-of-living area. It’s also a relatively small city with only about 72,500 people. This meant there were only two mortuaries in town, and their quotes ($1,400 and $1,800) were markedly higher than Phoenix-area companies.
So even though my friend had to pay $4 a mile for the 113 extra miles of transport, a Phoenix company’s cremation price was still about $200 cheaper than the Flagstaff options.
So the last section was for people who needed the absolute bare minimum for dealing with a body.
But some people aren’t comfortable stopping with just the cremation. They may feel like a funeral needs to be held — which is an understandable sentiment — or they may want to place the ashes somewhere other than their house. Others may want keepsakes.
While none of this is wrong, people need to understand how very much this raises the cost.
According to Forbes, the median cost of the service itself (the space and staff assistance) is $515.
If it’s not a closed casket affair, you’ll need to have the body embalmed (median cost: $775) and probably some preparation/cosmetic services (median cost: $275).
And I suggest you task someone with getting the program printed up and finding a guest book, because the median cost for printed materials provided by the funeral home itself is $183.
Another issue that comes with having a service: A crematory box is all well and good if no one will see it, but some people will be uncomfortable having anything besides an actual casket during the funeral itself. Unfortunately, the median cost of a casket is $2,500. You can opt to rent a casket, but even that has a median cost of $995.
So while I know it’s important to celebrate the dead, if money is an issue, I would urge you to consider holding a memorial service anywhere besides the funeral home itself.
Dealing with the ashes
Most of us just sort of assume someone’s ashes will be scattered. And if you kinda just forget to ask permission, that option is free. But there are actually a range of choices. Not shockingly, most aren’t cheap.
If you want to keep the remains with you, you can get an urn pretty cheaply. Well, more correctly: You can get an urn pretty cheaply outside of the funeral industry.
Urns at funeral homes tend to start at $95. There are scads of online listings — even on Amazon or Walmart — for significantly cheaper containers.
Some people want to have the urns buried or kept in a mausoleum.
According to a website called Ever Loved, a public cemetery urn plot starts at $350, and private ones are generally $1,000 or more. But a site called Funeral Companion claims to have determined the average cost in each state, and only four states averaged less than $1,000. Some states’ averages were more than $5,000.
And that’s just for the spot. Don’t forget the opening and closing fees for the burial, the cost of any permits and, of course, a grave marker.
Some people want the ashes added to a loved one’s existing (occupied) grave. On the face of it, this sounds like a great cost-saving option. However, cemeteries will still charge you fees (just smaller ones) for a second occupant. Don’t forget the cost of: opening/closing the grave, any permits required and altering the grave marker.
And now we get to the last, and most traditional of options: burying a body and holding a full-on funeral. I’m sure plenty of people are hoping I have some brilliant ideas, but… As I said at the start, there’s really just no such thing as a cheap funeral.
However, there are ways to lower the cost of a funeral.
Funeral Consumer Alliance
Clark Howard suggests checking out this organization. The FCA has affiliates in most states, and those groups have negotiated with some companies in the area to get their members lower prices. Think of it like AAA, but for mortuary services.
Despite what the post I linked to said, it looks like most membership fees are yearly rather than lifetime. However, they seemed pretty low — around $30 — so it’s not a huge outlay and may be worth it.
The keyword here is “may.”
You don’t need to pay a membership fee to see which companies your local FCA group works with. So I called the company they contracted with, and the price was still higher than the lowest one I found on my own. But that may not be true in every case. And that was a cremation, not a burial.
Skip the viewing
When we think of funerals, most of us envision the dead person lying in the coffin for people to approach and say goodbye to. But that comes at a cost, literally and metaphorically.
In the literal sense, a viewing is separate from the funeral itself, meaning you’re renting more time from the funeral home. And you may need additional consultation to plan it, which may come at an hourly rate.
Also, generally you can’t get a viewing unless you agree to embalm the deceased. As mentioned earlier, that plus some cosmetic preparation adds about $1,000 to your bill.
And in a more metaphorical sense, viewings may do more harm than good. While those in the mortuary business tell people that it helps bring closure and acceptance, 32% of consumers surveyed felt the viewing was a negative experience.
Skip the service
You could opt to simply gather at the gravesite to say goodbye and hold the memorial service somewhere else.
Given all of the costs I mentioned in the Some-frills cremation section, that could trim the price extensively. Including making a very basic box or casket an option again.
Buy the plot privately
If you are planning your funeral in advance, you can save quite a bit with what’s called a “pre-owned plot.”
While there must be a less creepy name than that, the term just refers to a plot someone has purchased. And there are more of them than you might think.
Around 57% of people are opting for cremation, meaning they don’t need a full-sized grave plot. But some folks decide this after they already purchased the spot. And of course, remarriages can lead to an empty spot in a double plot. Or people who’ve already bought their spot end up meeting someone and buying a double plot with them, leaving them with a singleton grave that will go unused.
And cemeteries don’t do refunds.
So these people decide to sell their plots, which means they generally offer a lower price than what they paid. They can list in classifieds and Craigslist, but there are also websites devoted to the… secondhand grave market, I guess you’d call it? The two mentioned in articles I read were Grave Solutions and Plot Brokers. (This is not an endorsement of either. I have no experience with them.)
Just note that some plots come with a broker’s fee. You can ready more about the whole process in this post, which has basically a step-by-step guide.
Potential financial assistance
There are programs that may help cover part or all of the expenses of a cremation or burial, but most of them are very specific.
A lot of folks have at least heard of the Social Security lump-sum death benefit. But don’t hold your breath on that one.
First of all, only surviving spouses, dependents under 18 or disabled dependents (whose disability began before age 22) qualify. Second, it’s $255. Certainly better than nothing, but a drop in the bucket for even a no-frills cremation.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency helps with death expenses if the deceased died as a result of a national disaster or national emergency. Check out the FEMA site’s assistance page for more information.
Crime victim funds
If the deceased died as the result of a violent crime, their county and/or state likely has a victims’ fund. The amount of financial assistance will vary, of course, but anything is better than nothing.
Some states or counties have funds to help low-income folks with funeral costs. Here’s a breakdown of programs by state.
It’s not fun, but crowdfunding can help. And it’s how a lot of people have to do things these days. If you’re hesitant because you’re worried about being charged fees, know that people contributing to a GoFundMe campaign are the only ones paying fees (and those are optional). So you get 100% of the donations, even if you don’t reach the stated goal.
The option not to use
A lot of folks have heard about funeral insurance (or it may be called burial insurance). Usually the payouts are $5,000 to $25,000, but they do go lower. I know because my ex-mother-in-law had a policy for $2,000.
These are touted as an affordable way to assist your loved ones with burial expenses. But what they actually are is very small whole life insurance policies.
If you really want to go with insurance, look into smaller term life insurance policies. You’ll get a much better per-dollar value.
You can consider a personal loan too, of course, but ask yourself whether that’s really what the deceased would’ve wanted — for their death to make you take on financial stress.
All in all
I know this isn’t a pleasant subject — and that there is a bevy of information to slog through in this post — but this is information you should try to absorb before it’s necessary.
But also just a quick reminder to have a will! You can state your final wishes and indicate any arrangements you’ve already made. And any cash from your estate won’t be tied up in probate while your loved ones are scrambling to cover expenses.
There are plenty of sites with legal forms to fill out. I personally used eForms.com, which held my hand through the whole process and made it easy. Still longish, but pretty easy.
Honestly, I just chose it because you can get a seven-day trial. So I signed up, completed my will and then cancelled before I was charged. But go with the site that makes you feel the most comfortable.
Does anyone else have any money-saving tips for these situations?