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You may not want to think about it, but we're all going to die someday. Unfortunately, if you don't make your final arrangements in advance, death can be extremely expensive. The average U.S. funeral and burial costs nearly $12,000 — and no one is in the state of mind to make smart financial decisions after the loss of a loved one.
To help you plan for the inevitable, we break down the financial and environmental costs of being dead, and offer ways you can save on your own funeral expenses.
All told, the median total cost of funeral services comes out to a staggering $11,755. Opting for cremation will cut the price almost in half, with a median of $6,260. Where do those numbers come from? According to the National Funeral Directors Association, these are the 2017 median costs for an adult funeral with a viewing and burial:
That adds up to $7,360, but unfortunately, those aren't your only costs. You'll also have to pay for a burial service, which is another hefty expense. Parting estimates that burial adds the following to the price tag:
Then there's the headstone, which could cost an extra $1,000 to $2,000. Choosing an immediate burial (without preservation before the body is buried or cremated) can save you the price of embalming, as well as the cost of holding a viewing. Still, that'll only shave off about $1,400. In the end, your grieving family is still going to shoulder thousands of dollars in charges. That's an especially tough deal when they may also be handling medical bills or other expenses.
Both burial and cremation carry an environmental cost, too. Embalming preserves a body but pumps it full of carcinogens. If the body is buried, those chemicals eventually leech into the groundwater. If it's cremated, chemicals and carbon dioxide go up into the air.
Space can also be a problem, as graves continue to consume acres of land. Particularly in urban areas, cemeteries are running out of space. In fact, Arlington National Cemetery might not have room for more burials in 23 years. As cemetery plots become more rare, they'll become more expensive, too.
There's an alternative called alkaline hydrolysis, or "liquid cremation," a process that's been used in the past by the medical industry to dispose of remains. (If you donate your body to science, this is probably what'll happen to it eventually.) Alkaline hydrolysis is similar to cremation, but it uses chemicals rather than flames to do the work. And it's considered green, leaving only bones and sterile liquid behind.
Liquid cremation is also budget-friendly. In Minnesota — the first state to legalize the process — it costs about $2,400. But there's a problem: It's currently only legal in 15 states. Don't count on this process being a viable option if yours isn't on the list, as transporting a body across state lines can also be pricey.
Funerals don't have to cost an exorbitant amount. But if you want to save, you'll need to make a plan and share it with your loved ones.
The first step to saving your family the financial and emotional stress of making funeral arrangements is making your own plan now. When ushered into a funeral home, your grieving family members are likely to be shown the most expensive caskets — dearly departed you deserves the best! Without any idea of what you wanted, it's easy to spend more than necessary.
Making a plan in advance — even a very basic one — will let your family know what is (and isn't) important to you. And giving them the okay not to buy that $10,000 casket will make it a lot easier for them to turn down the funeral director's offer when the time comes.
The law requires that funeral homes provide you with written price lists for products and services, according to the Federal Trade Commission. And yes, those lists have to include the simple, low-cost options that'll keep a family from diving into debt.
Just like any big purchase, it's smart to shop around. You can compare funeral home costs online and then get detailed price information over the phone so you'll have a full picture of your choices. You can even make your own plans with a funeral home now, eliminating the need for family to make these costly choices later.
Here are some options that could save quite a bit on funeral costs:
Consider donating your body to science. If you qualify, it's usually free. Plus, you're making a contribution to future medical breakthroughs! Your remains (typically cremated or processed via alkaline hydrolysis) will either be returned to your family or scattered.
Look into direct burial or cremation. These skip any preservation of the body, which saves money and keeps gallons of embalming fluid from being buried with you. If immediate burial isn't an option, refrigerating the body is often an acceptable (and cheaper) alternative to embalming.
Don't overspend on showy caskets, urns, or burial vaults. Though they may look flashy or promise to preserve the body, nothing will prevent a body from decomposing forever. And if the funeral home's prices aren't to your liking, you can buy from a third party; stores like Costco and Walmart sell caskets these days.
Shop around for cemeteries, too. As we mentioned earlier, cemetery space comes at a premium in urban areas. Some cemeteries may charge additional fees for "perpetual care," which can also be costly.
Veterans may be entitled to free burial in a national cemetery or a burial allowance. Though it won't cover all funeral costs, this benefit can cover pricey burial fees.
Skip the viewing, graveside service, or even the whole funeral. There's no reason you need to put your body on view, or have a service at the funeral home. Opting for direct burial or cremation and then holding a memorial event in the venue of your choosing saves on facility rental and staff. If you don't skip these services entirely, limiting their size or duration will also cut costs.
The most important part of making a plan, of course, is letting your family know about it — preferably in writing. This can be as simple as a list of your general wishes, or as elaborate as a specific plan with information on your preferred funeral home and cemetery. Make sure your loved ones have a copy of your plan or know where to find it.
While you may assume money or property left in your will can cover funeral expenses, your loved ones won't get this immediately. Since the funeral home's bill is likely to show up before any money from your estate does, you should also make plans to cover funeral costs.
Many funeral homes offer the option to prepay for your funeral, letting you get the cost out of the way before the inevitable. However, there are a number of potential pitfalls to paying in advance. What you're buying isn't always clear, and some costs may not be included — meaning your family could still be hit with unexpected bills. If you move, the plan may not pay anything (or may require an additional fee to transfer). And if the funeral home goes out of business, your money is likely gone, as well.
This isn't to say prepayment is necessarily a bad deal, but you'll want to compare plans from different funeral homes. And read the fine print, so you know exactly what you're paying for.
Funeral insurance is another option, but it can be an equally iffy proposition. This is essentially a type of whole life insurance, which doesn't expire and has a guaranteed payout on death. It has a relatively low payout (as it's only intended to cover funeral expenses), but also has very loose health requirements, meaning most people can qualify.
This can be an option for families who will have no other way to pay these expenses, but the premiums could easily add up to more than the final payout. If insurance seems like your best option, make sure you shop around to find the best policy — and a premium you know you can afford.
The most straightforward option may be a simple savings account. This gives you the most flexibility, as your family can work with any funeral home or use the money for other expenses that pop up. Should you run into a financial emergency, you could even tap into your funeral fund. If you put the money you'd spend on an insurance policy into this account, you may well wind up ahead.
However, you can't just open a standard account and expect your loved ones to have easy access to it after you're gone. (It would have to go through the standard probate process.) Instead, look at a payable-on-death account, sometimes called a Totten trust.
This is essentially a basic checking or savings account, but in the event of your death, a person you've specified can claim the money immediately — often without needing to do more than show a copy of the death certificate. That makes these accounts a no-fuss way to pay for funeral expenses.
Readers, have you had experience planning your own funeral? What do you think are the best ways to save on funeral expenses? Let us know in the comments below!