Funerals are the definition of an emotional purchase. Allow me to paint a picture:
You, a walking flesh wound, have just had your heart broken in one of the most profound ways a human will ever experience. But, the clock is ticking, so, ready or not, you sit, vulnerable, lonely, and lost in a nondescript office across from a kind, older person in a suit, who somehow always resembles an authority figure you admired growing up (funny how that works). You don’t know what you want, or how much you want to spend. This person is supposed to be the expert, and you, craving understanding, want them to approve of your choices.
This is a recipe for disaster.
In my experience, overspending on funeral arrangements can be attributed to one source: Guilt. Guilt over big stuff, small stuff, old and new stuff, unresolved stuff, stuff you built up in your head.
Listen, not trying to be melodramatic, but dying is not cheap. In fact, dying can get very expensive, very quickly, and if nothing else resonates from this article, please know that you cannot buy absolution. Take a realistic look at your budget, decide what you can comfortably afford, and be upfront with your funeral director about that number. It is our job to help you plan a dignified service at any price point. Contrary to popular opinion, funerals are part of the service industry, not retail, and we want the families we serve to walk away feeling confident in their arrangements. The funeral industry gets a lot of flack for existing, I’ll even concede that some of it’s marginally justifiable. Maybe. However, it is not my place to judge what someone can or cannot afford, and on that same token, I’ll bet you a good funeral director would recommend the $700 casket over a $7,000 one every time if they thought it might save your Nana from a stiff neck in hell.
We are the experts, but even the magnificent Zumbo couldn’t organize a bun fight in a bakery without a little input. Ja feel?
Know Your Options
A heartfelt memorial should not equal bankruptcy. It is 100% possible to make economical choices without compromising on the overall quality of the experience. Consider these affordable options:
Direct Cremation — A no frills ‘package’ service in which the funeral home produces just the cremation without embalming, visitation, or memorial service. The cremated remains will be provided as is in a ‘temporary container’ (re: rigid, plastic container) from the crematory. Once you have the ashes back, you can scatter, bury, or split them into different keepsakes. In fact, if you bring those keepsakes to the funeral home when you receive the ashes, they’ll inurn the keepsakes at no cost. You can realistically expect to spend $1-2,000 on this option. Any less, and you’ll need to question what corners are being cut in order to lower the overhead.
Direct Burial — Immediate burial without embalming or visitation. The remains of the deceased are placed in a low-end casket or alternative container. Including cemetery charges (about $1-2,000 on their own), you can expect to pay anywhere from $3-5,000. Beware: a direct burial is not the same as a graveside service! If you are arranging a direct burial, you will be discouraged from attending the burial, or, at the very least, inviting more than a handful of additional family members.
Home Funeral — I don’t know about you, but I hate leaving the house now while living. So for a homebody like me, a home funeral sounds pretty sick. All but eight states allow for families to independently complete the funeral process from filing paperwork to caring for and transporting your loved on to their final place of disposition. All states allow families to keep the body at home, if they died there, to prepare the remains and provide vigil before contacting a funeral home. Many folks find this process to be cathartic and a meaningful way to say good-bye. For more information, please visit the National Home Funeral Alliance.
Don’t be afraid to comparison shop! Service prices range dramatically from one funeral home to another. In a bid for transparency, the industry has recently begun trending toward publishing general price lists online. However, this isn’t universal yet. To get the best idea of what you’ll be spending, crack open ye olde phone book and spend an hour making calls, it could save you thousands.
Alternative Sources of Funds
So, what happens when even the most bare-bones service is too expensive? Well, depending on circumstances, you may qualify for programs in unlikely places. Consider the following:
Crowdfunding — Websites like Indiegogo and GoFundMe are the go-to platforms for funeral funding campaigns.
Employer — Some companies build survivor benefits into their benefits packages. Additionally, union memberships generally include a provision for offsetting funeral expenses.
Fraternal Organizations — If the deceased was a member of any trade organization such as FreeMasons, Knights of Columbus, Oddfellows, etc, they may qualify for burial assistance.
PRO TIP: For further savings, ask your funeral home if they offer discounts for various community partnerships. Usually funeral homes will have special discounts for Shuls, first responders, military, and unions as a way of showing support for the community at large.
Government Subsidies — Available in most States, these burial benefits are generally county-specific and afforded to low-income residents, the indigent, or those receiving Medicaid, Supplemental Social Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability (DSS) benefits. The amount is usually minimal, barely covering direct cremation or burial. Additionally, because it is government money, they are going to make you bend over backwards to prove you really need it, so be sure to study the fine print! FuneralWise has a fantastic article on where and how to apply for Government Burial Assistance.
Hospice/Nursing Home Accounts — Folks living in a hospice or nursing home facility generally have a patient account with money for various services offered within the building, haircuts, sundry items, whatever. Once that person passes, any left over money is refunded to the next-of-kin.
Medical Donation — This would need to be arranged before passing, but if you are interested in donating your body to science, it could be a pretty decent deal, since the hospital will end up footing the bill for your eventual cremation. Whether you’re considering donating your organs, tissues, or mysteriously black heart for research purposes, please inquire with your medical facility about their available options.
Religious Affiliation — There are several Christian and Jewish charities that come to mind, including Hebrew Free Burial (specific to New York) and St. Vincent de Paul (multiple locations) that offer financial, counseling, and general assistance to bereaved families in need. Also, if your family is active in The Church™, chances are the parish will have a small allowance for congregant services.
Social Security — It’s not much, but chances are that if your loved one was working before they died, you, the surviving spouse, may qualify for the one-time lump sum death benefit of $255. Wow, so generous.
Social Workers — Hospital, hospice, and palliative care facilities often assign a social worker to help bereaved families navigate next steps. These folks are incredible and have the best connections to charities, subsidy programs, and relationships with funeral homes who specialize in public administrator cases and have flexible payment options.
Veteran’s Benefits — Eligible veterans and their families are entitled to a number of burial benefits including, but not limited to, free burial in a national cemetery with headstone. Unfortunately, these benefits extend only to burial and not cremation. However, you may later choose to inter the ashes in a national cemetery. The VA offers further consideration in cases of death from service-related injuries, in a VA facility, or when the veteran was receiving VA pension or disability.
Victims’ Compensation — Most states offer funeral assistance programs for accident or homicide victims. If this is you, likely the medical examiner’s office, police, or hospital social worker will have spoken with you directly about your options before you get the chance to Google, but, if you’re curious, check the policy in your state for more information.
Borrowing — No, this is not in alphabetical order. Yes, I put this at the bottom on purpose. I firmly believe that you do not need to go into debt for funeral care. However, if you have a good handle on your finances and feel you can handle it, there are a slew of third-party lenders and banks that will secure small personal loans for the purpose of funeral services. Be aware that these usually carry hefty interest.