Funeral Expenses: Saying Goodbye to Granny

by Samantha Clark

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My husband's grandmother recently died of cancer. It's a subject most of us would rather avoid. But I saw firsthand how costly a funeral can be.

Granny had made some prior arrangements herself such as buying a plot in a graveyard and setting up a Living Trust. The situation looked fairly simple to handle. In the last week of her life her youngest daughter began to make the final preparations for her burial.

Without specific instructions from Granny, however, questions quickly arose. Granny was raised and spent most of her life as a Catholic. But the last 4 years she attended her daughter's Byzantine church. (Byzantine is closely related to Catholicism and "in union" with the Pope.) She never officially joined the Byzantine church, although the Priest visited her house during her illness and was available to the whole family to help deal with the crisis.

The youngest daughter found out that Granny could be directly cremated for under $700.00 while the most basic funeral at the church, with the traditional use of a casket, would cost at least $3,200.00. Granny's third daughter wanted an open casket viewing as she was unable to be in town when Granny died. The oldest daughter wanted the funeral to be in strict accordance with the traditional Byzantine funeral rites while the youngest thought less money should be spent. Tensions soon arose among the 4 daughters. A funeral director explained that no arrangements could be made until all 4 daughters came to an agreement.


Luckily, our family had time to discuss the issues and work out an agreement before Granny died. The oldest daughter offered to pay the difference of having a full funeral with a casket instead of cremation out of her own pocket. As all 4 daughters were raised Catholic, my husband read the guidelines from the local Archdiocese and found out that the local Catholic churches do allow cremation but still favor a full burial in a casket. This information was enough to sway everyone to agree to the full Byzantine funeral. As a compromise, a private viewing of the body was held for family only before the services, for the daughter unable to be with Granny when she died.

I believe all of the daughters were eventually satisfied with the solution. But the entire situation would have been avoided if Granny had left instructions. Even on her deathbed she insisted she was going to beat her cancer.

I now realize that avoiding making plans for your burial can leave an unfair burden on your family. If nothing else, you can write your wishes on a piece of paper and leave it in your dresser.

Imagine that Granny had been a young person killed in an auto accident. In a time of unexpected and overwhelming grief, the family isn't likely to be able to rationally plan a burial. There are plenty of funeral homes out there selling overpriced, and even needless, items to a bewildered family trying to cope with a death.


  1. Make your wishes known. Specify if you want direct cremation with no services, a full funeral with all the bells and whistles, or something in between. If you're religious, check with your local minister, rabbi, or priest for guidelines. For example, the Kennedy family put JFK, Jr.'s ashes into the ocean in an urn. The local Catholic Archdiocese here in Albuquerque strictly forbids burial anywhere but a Catholic cemetery. All Catholics are forbidden to scatter ashes.
  2. While your family may belong to the same religion, "rules" for funerals and burial may vary by region. Different beliefs may cause even more problems. You may want your Catholic sister to scatter your ashes, but it would be a mortal sin for her to do so. Check beforehand that your relative will be comfortable in following your wishes.

    Granny had a prepaid policy at a funeral home. We didn't find out about it until after arrangements were made at a different home. Apparently this is common. Make sure your family can find your instructions and arrangements.

  3. Specify the type of burial container you want. The Jewish faith prohibits any metal on a casket. If you are to be cremated, do you want a $300.00 urn from a funeral home? A beautiful piece of pottery can be had for under $100.00. A local potter told me that a vase can be sealed with paraffin wax at the top if there's no lid. A nice touch would be adding a candle on top of the paraffin wax to be burned during a ceremony.
  4. It is now legal to scatter ashes in all 50 states. A former New Mexico governor recently died. His son packed his ashes into their annual fireworks display because his father had always enjoyed the fireworks immensely. My husband tells me he wants to be put directly onto our compost pile.

    Some of the most frugal readers out there might prefer their ashes in a favorite crock pot. Be assured that without written instructions from you, your family members will feel the need to buy something a lot fancier.

  5. Buy ahead when possible. If you know you want to be buried in a certain cemetery-- buy now. Granny paid less than $150.00 for a burial plot in 1969 that would have cost the family over $1,000.00 at the time of her funeral.
  6. Please note that while one family member will see an elaborate funeral as the only fitting tribute to a loved one, another family member will surely see it as a big waste of money. Granny's youngest daughter initially felt cremation, and even a tribute in her house, would be preferable to a full church funeral. But she was so touched by the Byzantine service and generosity of the congregation that she may join a Byzantine church in her own hometown. How much money to spend on death is an incredibly individual decision. I remain convinced, however, that I want it done as cheaply as possible.

Final Thoughts:

I've avoided thinking about my burial until Granny's death. I'm only 31. Let me assure you that it's not as scary as it seems. Plus, you can change your instructions if your wishes change in the future. The most important thing is that making your wishes known can save your family both money and stress at a time when they are already overburdened. It is a final gift from you.

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