These 8 Alternatives to Traditional Funerals Will Save Your Family Money
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2017 and has been updated.
Dying is expensive.
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that between 1986 and 2017, the cost of a funeral rose 227%. In the same time frame, all other consumer prices rose just 123%.
Many people would rather not think about this statistic, let alone the choices for planning a funeral service, cremation or burial. But if you’re the loved one left behind to handle funeral planning and expenses, it can help to know what you’re getting into.
And if you’re getting your affairs in order to make it easier for others in the event of your sudden demise, planning for the costs associated with your final wishes can lift some of the burden from your family and friends.
In case you’ve never planned a funeral before, we asked Elizabeth Fournier, owner of Cornerstone Funeral Services in the rural community of Boring, Oregon, to give us the lowdown on what you can expect, whether you’re doing research for your own final wishes or you’re dealing with an unexpected responsibility.
Fournier’s knowledge of and advocacy for sustainable burial practices have earned her the nickname “The Green Reaper.” A traditional funeral, with the services you’re probably accustomed to — visitation, hearse, cemetery procession — can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000, she said.
Why Are Traditional Funerals So Expensive?
While every state has an office that regulates funeral homes, the funeral homes set their own prices. But they must disclose their general price lists to the state board and are required to share that list with you if you ask about services. As long as those prices are documented, they’re legal, Fournier explained.
Some funeral homes may group their prices into packages, while some spell out pricing for individual services.
Fournier advises looking at family-run or independent funeral homes if you’re trying to keep costs down. Corporate funeral homes may offer additional services, but the convenience factor often comes with additional costs.
Another major expense to consider: the casket. (Yes, we’re really talking about this.)
According to Fournier, the markup on caskets can be up to 400% at funeral homes.
A funeral home cannot refuse a casket that the family provides, whether it’s homemade, from Costco or purchased online. There are a few rules — it has to have handles, for example — but otherwise a funeral home must accept and use the requested casket and cannot charge an additional fee.
There’s one big exception to the rule: Caskets cannot be reused. The only caskets that can be used multiple times are rentals.
Fournier explained that these rentals are often sought when a visitation will be followed by cremation. “Rental caskets have a liner that can come out, and that gets cremated,” Fournier said. “Then the funeral home can use the shell again.” These caskets are typically made from wood and have a traditional look.
What if you pay for a one-time-use casket before a cremation? A wood casket can be cremated along with the deceased. If it’s a metal casket, it has to be handed off to a scrap metal company.
Funeral homes often pass this cost to the family in a “casket distribution fee.”
While planning a funeral might be last on your list of things you’d like to do, Fournier has a major reminder for the cost-conscious:
“You have the right to call around. You don’t have to use the church your family went to or the funeral home in your neighborhood,” she said. “Use what’s right for you. There’s something for everybody.”
8 Alternatives to Traditional Burial (and What They Cost)
Here are the costs of a few common alternatives to a traditional burial and a few new ones you may have seen online.
1. Private Land Burial
In many places, especially rural ones, burying a human on your own property is allowed — and it’s absolutely the cheapest burial option. The tricky part is knowing your state and county rules for private land burial, and having a team of friends and family in place to make it happen.
Some states require you to work with a funeral home, while others do not.
2. Immediate or Direct Cremation
This is the least expensive non-DIY method. It skips visitation and funeral services, and your cremated remains will simply be given back to your family in an urn. Fournier said it can cost as little as $400 to as much as a few thousand dollars.
3. Green Cremation
This procedure, which uses an alkaline solution instead of flames, is legal in several states plus Washington, D.C., according to the Cremation Association of North America. Fournier said it costs between $1,000 and $2,000. It’s also called alkaline hydrolysis, water resomation or flameless cremation.
4. Immediate Burial
This option skips a funeral service and embalming, and does a cemetery burial as soon as possible. Immediate burial starts at about $1,500.
5. Donating Your Body to Science
You’ll need to register with the organization prior to death. It typically covers the cost to return the cremated remains to your family once it has conducted its research. But don’t plan for a visitation if you’re considering this route.
“You cannot be embalmed if you donate to science,” Fournier said. “Science wants you right away.”
6. Eternal Reefs
For ocean lovers, there’s a nonprofit company that mixes cremated remains with concrete and puts them underwater in an effort to rejuvenate coral reefs. It can cost between $3,000 and $7,500 on top of cremation costs.
7. Open-Air Cremation
The traditional funeral pyre method of cremation is performed by the Crestone End-of-Life Project in Colorado, but it’s limited to pre-registered residents of a single county so far. The organization suggests a donation of $500 to $800 for the service.
8. Burial Pods
Cremated ashes can be added to a biodegradable urn that you can plant a tree on top of. It costs about $140.
Additional Funeral Costs You May Encounter
Disposing of a body after death isn’t all you’ll have to do. While you’re grieving and poring over paperwork, here are a few more items you might want.
Whether you choose to submit a brief death notice to the local paper or a 70-line obituary with a color photo, remember that those services can get expensive — even if you’re placing them online and skipping the print edition.
One survey revealed an average cost of $113 for an obituary in a small-town newspaper, $263 in a city paper and $326 for an obituary placed in a major metropolitan area.
The Sunday paper usually costs more than a weekday listing.
Religious or Memorial Service
If the deceased is a member of a religious congregation, there may only be nominal fees to host a service there, though it is customary to tip the minister.
If the deceased isn’t a member of the congregation where a funeral service is planned, there could be fees of up to $1,000 for the space and time required.
Use of a common room for a reception can add a few hundred to the tab. A nonreligious service at a park or event space will likely have similar reservation costs.
Lisa Rowan is a former senior writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.