I will make this a feature on the blog, rather than personally responding to questions by email (unless the one who asked the question prefers I do not).

“What if spouse wants to be cremated, but adult children want burial and refuse to sign off? If burial is not within financial means, are there other options?”

For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume Mom has passed away a few years after Dad (since if Dad were still here, his wishes would automatically nullify those of the children) and there are two adult children, neither of whom will be persuaded to allow the cremation.

As far as other options for body disposition, the only accepted options are burial; cremation; mausoleum entombment; shipping; donation; and whatever weird new thing they’re trying with human remains in certain states nowadays. I think most recently it was alkaline hydrolysis, meaning dissolving the body in a vat of some chemical and dumping it down the drain. (Said with complete bias; it should be no secret how I feel about a member of my family being dissolved and flushed.)

Economically, there is no option less expensive than cremation. A very cheap cremation can be arranged for around $500. A very cheap burial can be arranged for around $900, but that figure does not include the cemetery plot, and often does not include the casket. The cheapest retail price I’ve seen on a casket was around $800, and plots are anywhere from $1000 to $5000; opening and closing (digging and shoveling) not included. That’s around $1000 extra. An outer burial container is required by most cemeteries and their minimum, a concrete grave liner, retails for $400 to $1200. (Funeral homes who sell outer burial containers are required to provide you with an Outer Burial Container Price List, separately from their General Price List and Casket Price List.)

National Cemeteries also provide free plots, burials, and outer burial containers (as well as urn burial or above-ground niches for urns) for honorably discharged veterans, and often their spouses. If Mom or Dad was a veteran, look into this option. (I still think it’s funny that, when setting up one of these services, I am required to ask if the deceased had ever been convicted of a capital crime. Wouldn’t it have been national news if that were the case?)

First, I would ask if there is any chance Mom had purchased cemetery property somewhere. This is something a lot of people do, and maybe even forget to mention. I bought myself a plot ten years ago, and there may be people in my family who are unaware of that. Luckily my Right of Interment certificate is within easy reach.

If Mom has a plot, perhaps even prepaid the opening and closing, and the package price for Direct Burial (also called Immediate Burial) includes a casket, it may be only a few hundred more to bury than to cremate. The consumer should be aware this almost never includes embalming (or even washing and dressing), viewing, or an actual graveside service. Basically, I put Mom in the casket and drive her to the cemetery, and they bury her on their own time (as long as it’s the same day). If she has absolutely no clothes, don’t worry, I’ll at least put a hospital gown on her.

If Mom had not previously purchased property and does not qualify for anything free, it will cost far less to cremate her. Once a funeral home has taken possession of the body, we are required to fulfill the disposition wishes of the legal next-of-kin or the deceased’s own previously written instructions. We MUST bury, cremate, entomb or ship the body. We don’t have the option of taking her back to the hospital or giving her to the medical examiner or just keeping her in refrigeration forever.

At some point, it is going to cost a funeral home more to keep the body hanging around than it is to just cremate for free. I am aware of funeral homes holding bodies for months, even over a year in one case, because of families who cannot or will not pay $500 for a cremation. I believe the only time to hold a body for such a long time is if you are trying to locate relatives, or if the body cannot be identified. Not only is it pointless and not all that economical, it feels like resentment and punishment of the family by the funeral director. Were he to simply cremate the body, he’d be out perhaps several dollars of gas. Who cares? Better than having human remains literally rotting on your property.

So for this family, who is adamant on burial, I would also ask if Mom belonged to a church who could possibly donate some money. Some religions are anti-cremation. If Mom was, say, Jewish and belonged to a synagogue, they would possibly pitch in so that a member of their temple could be buried according to their faith.

If the family wasn’t even religious and just didn’t have the money, the choice basically comes down to either we cremate the body or you come up with the money as soon as you can. I don’t have the authority to provide free burials to people. I don’t own the cemetery. And if I did, the people who dig the grave aren’t going to work for free. I collect a deposit up front – somewhere in the neighborhood of 25% – so that even if the family later flakes, at least a good portion of the overhead costs will be covered.

The state does give us the authority to cremate unclaimed bodies or bodies of those who cannot afford anything else, but some states’ bylaws also specify “as long as the decedent’s religion or apparent religion permits cremation.” If faith is not a factor, what usually happens is after 90 days, sometimes less, the funeral home cremates the body and is then required to either store the cremated remains indefinitely, or may be allowed to scatter them em masse with other unclaimed cremated remains, provided they send a certified letter informing the family when and where they were scattered.

I am allowed to request – even demand – that a family use another funeral home if for some reason I feel I cannot serve them. However, I can only verbally tell or ask them to please look for another funeral home. I cannot simply dump off the body at one.

If you could possibly foresee this ever happening in your family, your best bet would be to pay a small deposit and then come up with some kind of agreement wherein you will pay the rest within a certain time frame. However, many funeral homes (I’d say a large majority) will not accept these types of arrangements or anything less than payment in full on the day the arrangements are made, and if you call around asking if any will accept a payment plan, most likely they will simply refuse to serve you. They will not pick up the body from the hospital or from another funeral home because they are already anticipating a hassle. Funeral directors sometimes have to worry about being sued too, and we are likely to refuse a body from a highly dysfunctional or extremely poor family because this increases the chances of us getting sued. If we don’t physically have the body, we don’t have to do anything.

I have been doing this long enough to get a fairly decent read on who is broke and who is simply being cheap. The cheap families immediately walk in and start asking if Social Security or the VA or Medicare will be paying for this; they wander around the room during the arrangement and announce their plans to buy every single piece of memorial jewelry and mini-urn; they have questions about all the stuff no one ever buys, like those lamps made of old pressed funeral flowers. No one buys those. If you ask about it, I’ll know you’re broke. They will never tell you they don’t have any money; rather it’s “I thought _____ would pay for all this. Can’t you call them?”

The truly broke families tend to be a little embarrassed about it. (Not saying they should be; just saying what I often see.) They will nod politely when shown expensive merchandise and then ask to see something else. Some of them are very straightforward and will say “I need something for around $2000” or “I only get paid monthly but I could definitely give you a little bit of that today.” They aren’t expecting anything for free; they’re just asking if I will wait a bit longer on the payment.

It’s always worth it to ask if or how you can get something a little less expensively. Again, we can’t give away a cemetery plot that we don’t own just because you’re a nice family and we want to help, but we can show you how to cut corners in other ways. Maybe a few hundred off here and one less hour at the service and you dress the body yourself, and then you can afford it after all, or much sooner. If you want a small viewing, displaying the body on a table with blankets means you don’t have to purchase or rent a casket, so no big deal if you’ll be burying in one of those really ugly caskets that aren’t really meant to be viewed. Instead of having a graveside service, come back to the cemetery on your own time after she is buried and have your own memorial. Ask about variance on casket prices; if you like a certain casket you might be able to find it for thousands less just by going with a different type of handle, or 20ga steel vs 18ga steel.

Another option: In many states, home burial is legal if you own your property. There are a lot of permits needed and I don’t know the cost of obtaining them – basically your property needs to be listed as a private cemetery – but this is another option, one I’d like to see return.