A response to prolific funeral blogger Caleb Wilde. Here is a boring post about funeral costs and how to cut expenses…if you want.


There is no limit to what you can spend on your funeral. The most expensive casket you will see in a funeral home showroom might run as high as $10,000 depending on what state you live in. I have never seen one above $5000. But I guarantee if that’s not good enough for you, you can always upgrade. One of my catalogs has a bronze model lined with dark velvet for $25,000. If that’s still too plain for you, we can help. You don’t have to slum it in death.

The most expensive part of your funeral will probably be the cemetery costs. Modest charges are in the neighborhood of $2000, but that’s to go in a hole in the ground. You might want to look into private crypts which start at around a million.

Beyond that, you can incur expenses in the form of flowers, musicians, and elaborate receptions. Like a wedding, only meaningful. (You’ll learn I think very little of expensive weddings…more later.)

Blog posts about expensive funeral choices generally lead to a barrage of comments about how evil it is to waste money, which are generally written by people who would totally waste money if they had it.

I don’t care what someone does with HIS OWN MONEY. Why do you? Why do you ruminate over what some rich stranger’s money could have bought if he had not chose to spend it in the way he saw fit? I don’t give a damn what some unknown person does with his money, whether he spends it all on a solid gold casket or spends it on peanut butter. As long as he’s not taking YOUR money to buy this stuff, shut up about it.

“But it’s just GOING IN THE GROUND!!!” Yes, and that $10,000 wedding dress is going to be worn ONCE and then burned in a trash can eight months later when things don’t work out. At least a funeral is forever. And guess what – it’s not YOUR money going in the ground. This is a decision that does not affect you.

I got married in a $40 prom dress. It looked great.

People spend money on stupid stuff when they’re alive too. Who cares that some people dress their pets (who probably hate clothes) better than you can afford to dress your kids? Who cares that some guy spent $300 to save the life of his goldfish when you don’t have health insurance? “Fair” doesn’t even come into it. If you are over the age of ten you probably have figured out that some people have more money than other people and the people with more money have more choices on how they get to spend it. I agree that no one should be without basic needs in the land of plenty, but those problems go far beyond that goldfish lover.

I think a $10,000 funeral is a very nice send-off. It’s sure to be a beautiful event that will be remembered as a fitting tribute. I think a $10,000 wedding is wasteful (unless maybe that also includes a honeymoon and you travel somewhere expensive). I think a $25,000 wedding is obscene.  If you spend $100,000 on your wedding I hope I don’t know you. I hate the thought of being personally acquainted with some kind of highly abnormal mental defective, and have thoughts of personally pouring embalming fluid on your wedding dress.

So…what if you want a cheap funeral?

Obviously, cost is going to depend on where you live, and whether you want burial or cremation. Cremation is not automatically cheaper, either.

One high cost is that of the facility. Just the fact that the funeral home and staff are in existence is something you will pay for. Your funeral bill will have an item known as the “Basic Service Fee” which will be in the neighborhood of $1000-3000 and is also specified as non-declinable, meaning you can’t opt out of it the way you might opt out of a floral arrangement or having custom lettering on an urn. The description of the Basic Service Fee is that it covers “overhead” and “staff availability” and basically keeps the building open forever.

Unless they go out of business, in which case you don’t get a pro-rated refund on all the utilities and stuff you were supposedly buying.

So how to beat that cost? Don’t have a facility. If you know the right people (me) you can find a friendly local funeral director to come to your home and fulfill the legal requirements and your wishes for a hugely discounted cost. If you don’t know anyone, look for storefront operations which usually have words like “Affordable” or “Alternative” in the name. You will meet a licensed funeral director who will perform the exact same functions as one who charges you $3000 to walk in the door. Odds are, he works at one of the more expensive funeral homes in his spare time, so you are getting literally the exact same services.

One caveat is these operations do not provide viewing, since the body is not there. The body will be in storage either at a traditional funeral home or at a “holding facility” which is a warehouse-sized refrigeration unit designed to help out funeral homes who do not have refrigeration. Your loved one might be 100 miles away from your funeral director. If you want a private viewing for immediate family only, that funeral home can rent you a viewing room on an hourly basis, or you can have the viewing at your own home, and they will charge you for bringing the body, unless you want to pick up the body yourself. In your own car. It’s legal.
Do you see what I’m getting at here?

You can build your own casket. If you don’t know how, you probably know someone who does. You can make your own urn, or you can buy a nice ceramic or glass container at a hobby store which will be much less expensive because it won’t be sold as an “urn.” You can arrange your own flowers and make your own memorial programs and register book. A lot of funeral homes have very limited stationery selections anyway, and whatever the family does up on their own always looks better.

Your bill will often have a flat rate for “embalming, dressing, cosmetizing, hair and casketing.” But what if all they do is the embalming, and you do everything else? You can’t be charged for a service they did not provide. Obviously not everyone can do this; dressing and casketing a large body or an extensive tissue donation case is more of a three-person job and there may be exposure to hazardous chemicals that you were not prepared for. But for many bodies, it’s an option. Some religious communities have their own washing and dressing ceremonies, but you can do it too. You can just say that you prefer to dress your own mother and we’ll give you the space to do so, and remain present in case you need help.

Embalming is rarely required by law and you have the option to leave your loved one unembalmed if you are having a private service. I fully believe in the importance of viewing and embalming will be necessary to restore an unviewable appearance or to preserve a body for an extended viewing, but if you are opposed to the practice or just cannot afford it, it is possible to have a meaningful service without it.

For the service, you can use your own home, even if you live in a walk-up apartment on the third floor. We can bring the body and the casket separately if we have to. Or you can have the body laid out in a bed or on a table. If you are a member of a church, your minister may not charge you to come to your home and conduct a service, but if you are not affiliated with a church, a religious or secular celebrant can be found for a very low fee. If the deceased was a veteran, the military honors can be held wherever the service is held. (Those are free.)

Something else you can try…ask. Ask what you have to do to fit the kind of service you are looking for into a predetermined price. Ask if you can purchase the casket at cost, or if the funeral home has a spare register book around they would be willing to give you. Many places update their inventory regularly and will occasionally give away or heavily discount urns and other items.

If you are shown a floral arrangement that you love, but it’s $500, ask the flower shop to size it down to $400 or whatever you can afford. It will be the same flowers and the same type of arrangement, and most likely you will not notice the slightly smaller size.

Buy an ugly casket (usually made of heavy cardboard covered with flannel) and cover the whole thing with your loved one’s favorite blankets, wall hangings, clothing items, photographs, stuffed animals, books and artwork. No one has to see the casket. What many families do is cover the casket in a plain white sheet and have everyone write messages on it. This can also be done with an unfinished wood casket; people can draw or write directly on the wood. Hint: ask for a “Jewish” or “kosher” casket. If you ask for a “pine” casket you will get a fancy thing polished to a shine and inlaid with satin. The pine caskets constructed for Jewish funeral rites are extremely plain and come with no frills that would increase the cost.

If you are having a graveside service, you can have the casket delivered in a van instead of a hearse (that is, if you don’t want to drive it there yourself). The hearse usually costs twice what the van does. If the funeral home owns both vehicles (many will rent them from outside vendors) you might try asking if you can have the hearse for the price of the van. Gas costs the same and they will prefer to drive the hearse anyway.

Another option that is taking off rapidly is the green burial, in which no casket at all is used. The shrouded body is placed directly into the ground. This is an option that is not yet readily available due to the shortage of designated “green” cemeteries. But when there is no embalming, casket, vault or headstone to purchase, of course it will cost much less.

You can join a memorial society such as Neptune or People’s Memorial, which contracts with certain funeral homes in the area to provide discounted funerals. I have no personal experience serving Neptune clients, but I have dealt with People’s a lot and it’s like going to a storefront funeral home: you get a licensed funeral director providing funeral goods and services in a licensed funeral establishment, for at least 50% less than what you would spend otherwise. Some things to be aware of:

1. You are limited somewhat in your choice of funeral homes.
2. You are expected to select a pre-packaged funeral (i.e. “Cremation with Memorial” or “Burial with Graveside Service” without much room for customization.
3. The casket selection is limited. It’s generally a steel casket in your choice of five colors.

However, most families find the offerings very adequate and affordable, and they can continue to purchase goods from the funeral home at a discount even after the service has taken place, such as if you decide you later want a separate urn so you can divide cremated remains among other family members.

I’m not saying that a traditional funeral is not money well spent, or is not ever desirable.  If you are so shattered from a sudden loss that you cannot think at all, it’s nice to have someone else take over every little detail so that all you have to do is show up at the service (or have us pick you up).

Fortunately, I can also say that the old stereotype of the funeral director trying to financially gouge vulnerable people at a time of need is extremely rare. There are many who are expected to meet sales quotas and these individuals may be more likely to push expensive products, but they are still upheld to their professional ethics and Federal Trade Commission rules. Just in case, here are some things you should watch out for.

Basically, flat-out lying. Embalming does not preserve a body forever, caskets with a rubber seal do not “protect” or “preserve” the body longer, and burial vaults offer no similar guarantees. Any funeral director who claims your mother will look picture-perfect in fifty years if you would just spend an extra $5000 is a liar and should be reported.

A casket selection room is required to display some “less expensive models” but that doesn’t mean they are the cheapest offered. Ask. If the funeral director says these caskets are “out of stock” or “in the garage” he’s probably lying.

The funeral director is required to physically give you a written list of all prices, and is not allowed to charge you a higher price for any item or service on the list, nor is he allowed to add items to your contract that are not on the price list. Some exceptions can be made for what are known as “Cash Advance Items,” which are services performed by outside vendors for which the funeral home does not receive any money. For example, if you want a bagpiper at your graveside service, the funeral director can arrange one for you and then add the bagpiper’s fee to your contract, and will pay the bagpiper that amount directly.

If your funeral director tries to sell you cemetery items such as a burial vault or grave marker, hold off on purchasing until you have spoken with the cemetery. Often they are much less expensive there.

It’s your funeral. Go out like a boss or spend $500 to burn up in cardboard. No one should care.