As the recent loss of several celebrities (Natalie Cole, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Abe Vigoda, and others) reminds us, none of us lives forever. When it hits closer to home and we lose a family member, we may be called upon to make the final arrangements. Never an easy task, it becomes more complicated by mixing in intense emotions, family issues, and finances.
Funerals have become increasingly expensive. Costs are up 28% over the past decade, with the national median topping $6,000 for a funeral with cremation and over $7,000 for a funeral with burial as of 2014 according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Yet Social Security death benefit payments are only $255. But there are ways to pay final tribute to your loved one without spending a fortune…by planning an affordable funeral.
Make Decisions with Your Head
First, it’s important to remember that the amount of money spent has no relationship to the amount you loved the deceased. Do not let guilt or other emotions sway you into making unnecessary expenditures. It is difficult to keep your head in such circumstances, so you may want to ask a family member or friend to help you.
Next, you’ll want to consider the wishes of the deceased. If they left explicit instructions (something you may want to do for your next of kin) or if their religious beliefs dictate certain customs, you can work with those. Otherwise the decisions will be left to you and your family. The biggest one of these is whether to have a burial or a cremation. Cremations can be less costly, particularly if you don’t need a cemetery plot, headstone, and interment. But this remains a very personal decision.
If cost is the primary concern, consider immediate burial with a graveside service or direct cremation with a memorial service.
Know Your Rights and Get Assistance
One of the big ways you can save is to join the Funeral Consumers Alliance. This non-profit organization is dedicated to protecting consumers’ rights in the funeral industry and can provide lots of advice on planning a funeral. When my father-in-law passed two years ago, the local chapter was able to provide us with a comparison price list of funeral homes in the area, and even discounted rates at some of those homes.
The FCA is very helpful in understanding the Funeral Rule, regulation enforced by the Federal Trade Commission to protect the consumer in planning funerals. One of the most important aspects is that while funeral homes may “package” together various services and their costs, you have the right to buy separate services and goods, and should only buy what you choose.
While it may seem completely normal to comparison shop when you’re buying something, people tend not to do it when shopping for funeral services. But it can make a huge difference, with some funeral homes costing twice as much as those in the same geographical area.
Because most funeral homes do not include pricing on their websites, it can be a time-consuming and frustrating experience. Check out Parting.com where they list prices for different services at funeral homes across the country.
Save on the Casket
If you are having a traditional full-service funeral, the most expensive item tends to be the casket. Caskets are made from a variety of materials and vary widely in price. While the funeral home will likely focus on the higher-end models, be sure to ask about value-priced models or look into a third-party seller.
If you choose to have the visitation/viewing and funeral prior to a cremation, you can typically rent a casket from the funeral home.
Embalming isn’t required medically or legally. If the funeral home offers refrigeration and the funeral will be held within a day or two, this can save you from the cost of embalming.
Plan the Service
Keep in mind while you may need a funeral home to properly handle the remains, there’s no reason you’re required to have the service with them. Services can be held in a church or temple, at home, at the cemetery, or at another meaningful spot.
If you do hold the funeral there, consider whether you need public visitation/viewing and whether it can be held directly before the funeral rather than on a separate day/time.
If you need to contract with a clergy member to lead the service, there will be an honorarium to pay. You may want to contact several officiants to compare costs.
If you do have the service at the funeral home, another way to keep things affordable is to bring your own accessories. If you look online, you will find plenty of resources to purchase prayer cards, guest or memorial books, and religious items such as yarmulkes.
Publish Obituaries Online
The funeral home will often send the obituary to local newspapers, but you can send these directly to avoid any upcharges. Newspaper obituaries are expensive though, so you may opt for only one newspaper supplemented by an online announcement. Sites like iLasting.com allow you to easily create a memorial site, and the basic package is free. Also many funeral homes will post the obituary on their own website.
Make It Personal
Flowers, which are common in some traditions, are by no means required. Make the space more personal by including photographs of the deceased with family and friends. For my father-in-law’s memorial service, my wife scanned photos, arranged them on a poster, had it printed at Walgreens and attached it to some foam board. You can also create CD’s of music that was dear to the deceased and play that during the gathering time at the service.
In addition to photos and music, you can display personal items from hobbies or their profession. See this NFDA article for more ideas on how to make a special tribute.
Accept Help from Family and Friends
In many traditions, it is customary to have a repast or meal for the mourners. While this can be held at a restaurant or hotel, it can also be done at a church or at home. Family and friends may offer to bring food, and that will allow you to avoid or reduce catering costs.
Consider All Alternatives
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most economical option of all: whole body donation for medical research. Depending on the organization, there may be no transportation costs and cremation is included. Services can be held prior to donation or without the body present and the cremains are typically returned to the family upon request. This isn’t the right option for everyone, but is certainly a choice that lowers final costs while serving a greater purpose.
Dealing with the death of a loved one is never easy, but spending a fortune on their final arrangements benefits only the funeral home. When the time comes, do your best to comparison shop as it’s the best way to hold an affordable funeral. Spending less on the funeral arrangements means more of your loved one’s money goes to what’s really important: helping the family.
How will you handle the passing of a loved one? Are you prepared for the financial aspect of it?
Image courtesy of dan at freedigitalphotos.net (with changes)