Frugal to the end

How to Save on Funeral Expenses

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

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The American Association of Retired Persons estimates that the cost of a funeral doubles about every decade, currently over $10,000 without many "extras."

Preplanning can save if it lets you lock in current-day costs irrespective of future inflation. But if a loved one passes suddenly and without preplanning, the funeral expenses can quickly escalate as bereaved family members usually do not have the time or presence of mind to bargain hunt. Instead, consider ways to reduce funeral expenses before an emotional time such as this.

  • Veterans' families and survivors of those who belonged to some union organizations may receive burial benefits. It doesn't hurt to ask.
  • Be upfront with the funeral director; tell him you want to control funeral expenses. It's none of his business why. It's his job to make arrangements to suit your family.
  • Order funeral services a la carte to avoid spendy extras like $45 for thank-you notes (which can cost $1-2 for 10 at a dollar store). The funeral director must give you an itemized list in advance and can do so over the phone.
  • Ask your clergy member for help in finding reputable vendors and good deals. Plus, you can likely host the calling hours and funeral or memorial service right at your house of worship, a big savings over a funeral home.
  • The memorial service option still gives you the advantage of a public event without the necessity of a public viewing. (If the family is nearby, you can make informal good-byes at the bedside in some cases, so if everyone's okay with that option, skip right to the memorial service for more extended friends and family to pay respects and gain closure.) Typically, families display a few nice photos of the deceased at a memorial service. You can host a memorial anywhere you wish. I know a family who hosted a service at their favorite private airport to celebrate the life and passing of a hobbyist aviator.
  • If you go with a viewing, don't feel you must buy a new suit or dress for the deceased.
  • Consider a closed-coffin funeral. Skip embalming (depending upon your state's laws and how soon you can make arrangements), donate the body to science or go with cremation.
  • You don't have to buy all or any of the items through the funeral home and they can't charge you a fee for bringing in your own. In fact, you'll likely do better on price looking elsewhere.
  • In most states, you can choose whatever container you desire for holding the cremation ashes. "Official" urns cost $200 to $1,000 or more; however, a nice piece of glazed, hand-thrown pottery with a lid can cost as little as $100.
  • Don't be afraid to go with an inexpensive or "scratch-and-dent" casket and monument. The vendors of these items have access to dozens of suppliers and scores of models, but you'll likely be shown only a few so as to not overwhelm you. Ask to see the least expensive items available. Shop online and consider alternative vendors such as Wal-Mart and Costco for caskets and a local sculptor for a monument.
  • Some people use a rented casket or imitation casket made of cardboard (really!) for show at the funeral and then go with a basic pine box for the actual burial receptacle. Orthodox Jews use very plain, inexpensive boxes for burial.
  • A coffin vault represents unnecessary funeral expenses; it's basically an outer box for the casket. Instead, go with the grave lining required by your state to add stability to the grave. After burial, who will ever see the coffin vault again?
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  • Steer clear of the florist shop funeral arrangements that can cost several hundred dollars and check out "general" arrangements at the grocery store. For example, Aldi stores offer cut flower bouquets for $2.99 a half-dozen, which includes greens and other fillers. Place two in a large-sized vase and you're done. In my opinion, this looks far more elegant than the expensive, maudlin arrangements florist shops concoct for funerals. Consider renting flower arrangements or borrowing them from your house of worship. And remember that friends and family will likely send flowers, so you won't need to provide much.
  • It's traditional to offer guests who are close friends and family refreshments or a meal after the graveside service; however, you don't have to host this at a restaurant. It's perfectly acceptable (and more affordable) to host it at the church's fellowship hall, at a private home or to rent a facility (which may be your only option if many people are expected).
  • Many church social committees can help you with food by having a few members bring in dishes. Or you can buy deli and cookie trays from your local grocery store. Add salads, chips, rolls and beverages for a nice, light lunch.

There are many decisions to be made when a loved one passes, but don't be fooled into thinking that you honor them by spending a lot of money on their funeral. The real honor is in the memories that you made with them, and memories can't be purchased at any price.

Reviewed May 2017

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