How a Memorial Society Helped Ease This Family’s Worst Nightmare

funeral costs
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Death isn’t cheap.

The average funeral — with a viewing and burial — cost $7,181 in 2014, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). If you want a burial vault, the price leaps to $8,508.

However, there is a way around expensive funeral fees without sacrificing the dignity of your loved one.

You can save hundreds and even thousands of dollars in funeral costs through a memorial society.

How do I know? Unfortunately, through experience.

My Son’s Story

In 1988 at age 12, my son Jason died at home. He had Marfan’s Syndrome, a life-threatening genetic disorder.

With Marfan’s, a person can have the disease in varying degrees. It’s not always fatal at a young age, and someone afflicted with the condition could live a relatively long life with few or no obvious disease symptoms.

When Jason’s pediatrician told us he would soon pass, I started researching final arrangements. During this research, I found a book on estate planning that contained a section on memorial societies.

What’s a Memorial Society?

A memorial society is a nonprofit, non-religious organization that helps consumers obtain reasonably priced end-of-life, funeral arrangements.

It’s typically run by volunteers and provides funeral-planning information.

The Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) is the parent organization of national memorial societies, with dozens of chapters throughout the U.S.

When your loved one dies, volunteers provide services approved by each state, like driving the hearse. The memorial society has a contract with a local funeral director for embalming or cremation services required by law.

What Does Membership Typically Cost?

Rates vary from chapter to chapter. You can check out local memorial society rates in your state.

In 1988, we paid a one-time, lifetime fee of $7 when we joined in Washington state. In 2016, lifetime membership in Washington is $35 per person; still an amazing value.

When we moved to Ohio, because of the reciprocity between chapters, we didn’t have to pay again. Each chapter sets up their own dues and sometimes the chapter dues are free under certain conditions.

How Does a Memorial Society Member Get Such Low Rates?

The FCA negotiates contracted rates with local funeral homes that are hundreds and, often, thousands of dollars lower than the funeral parlor’s publicly advertised rate.

As mentioned earlier, volunteers do certain tasks instead of a funeral director, which is how the survivors save so much money. You don’t have to pay for a funeral director to drive a hearse or an ambulance to pick up the body when a volunteer fills in.

Note, the membership fee is different from any funeral home fees you pay. Chapters typically do not have burial or cremation plans — though some do — so you’ll still pay the funeral home directly for those costs. Or, in the case of burial instead of cremation, you pay for the burial plot.

Who Are the Volunteers?

Volunteerism works differently across chapters.

For instance, when I called the People’s Memorial Society in Washington state, a representative explained anyone can volunteer for a memorial society. Volunteers don’t have to be — but usually become — members.

It works differently in Cleveland. The People’s Memorial Society was founded by Quakers and has 250,000 members, explained Bill McCullam, president of its Board.

The Quaker church believes strongly in the society, and in this area, church members volunteer to do tasks, like pick up the body after death, out of love and respect for the end-of-life event.

How Being Memorial Society Members Helped Us With Our Son’s Passing

My husband and I became members while Jason was still alive, so we had time to ask about our son’s end-of-life wishes.

We asked him about his favorite church songs, flowers, the clothes he wanted to wear for burial and other things he wanted for his memorial service.

Jason was mentally and emotionally very mature for his age, and although this was an uncomfortable discussion, he accepted that we were focused on his quality of life. We wanted to honor his last wishes.

Knowing for sure what Jason wanted after he passed relieved a huge emotional burden from our shoulders. It eliminated a lot of inaccurate guessing about what he wanted for his end-of-life activities. This was important to us because we were focused on Jase’s quality of life before, during and after his passing.

When the time came, I called our hospice nurse while my husband stayed with Jason at his bedside. Then, I called the memorial society.

Just one phone call set the process in motion. Memorial society volunteers came to get Jason’s body within an hour.

The volunteers were amazing; they were compassionate, respectful, kind and loving. Even though my husband and I were emotional wrecks, they knew what to do and quietly did it.

Their presence made getting through this tragedy easier for us. It was the best possible scenario in the worst possible situation a parent can experience.

Our Final Costs With the Memorial Society

Back in 1988, we paid a total of $2,200 for Jason’s airfare, embalming, pine box casket and burial plot in Ohio, where my husband’s family lived.

Today, burial in a plain pine box or cremation is about $1,000 through a memorial society. For instance, the Cleveland Memorial Service offers simple cremation for $755 and simple burial for $895. You’ll want to contact your local society for accurate pricing information.

Regardless, it’s quite a bit less than the horror stories you’ve probably read about planning an affordable funeral.

If you’re interested in saving yourself hundreds or even thousands of dollars on your end-of-life costs, check out your local memorial society. It’s a reasonable amount of money in exchange for the benefits.

In my experience, it was more peaceful to have everything arranged ahead of time, so we didn’t have to worry about making decisions in the moment.

Your Turn: Would you join a memorial society?

Susan Fox, a talented freelance writer, specializes mainly in holistic health and self-help topics. See her website at Contact her to write for your business.