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10 Creative Ways to Keep Funeral Costs Down

By Alexandra Kathryn Mosca December 28, 2019 Lifestyle

Funerals can be expensive. There’s no doubt about that. In 2017, the median cost of a funeral was listed as $7,360 on the National Funeral Directors Association’s website. That cost excludes certain outside expenses – cemetery, crematory, and clergy fees – that do not fall under the control of the funeral home.

To help navigate the potential costs, funeral homes are required by the Federal Trade Commission to furnish consumers with a general price list. The GPL, which describes the goods and services offered by the funeral home, is a useful tool for understanding and controlling funeral costs. 

Once you know what you want in terms of a funeral, along with the associated costs, you can create the funeral that best fits your needs and wallet.

A word of caution: Although price-shopping might seem like a good idea, a low-cost funeral home is not necessarily a guarantee of good service. Instead, work with a reputable funeral home you feel comfortable with and try incorporating some of these ideas.

Shorter Wake Hours

Funeral director Doris Amen, who owns Jurek-Park Slope Funeral Home in Brooklyn, New York, has made it her mission to keep costs down for her clientele. One of the ways in which she does this is by encouraging what she calls an “upscale direct cremation.”

After an hour or two of visitation in the morning, “it is off to the local crematory,” said Amen, who has seen a substantial increase in one-day funerals, whether preceding a burial or cremation.

Peter Brown, the manager of S.W. Brown & Son Funeral Home in Nutley, New Jersey, has noticed this growing preference as well. His funeral home offers a package that includes two hours of visitation in the morning before a religious service.

Not only is this less expensive than a long wake, Brown believes that “doing everything in one shot is convenient for people who live far away and can only spend one day.”

Use Veteran Benefits

Veterans who have been honorably discharged are entitled to a free grave, or niche (for cremains) in a national cemetery. The veteran’s spouse and dependent children are eligible, too. The VA also provides a monument, or grave marker, and a government issued grave liner at no cost.

Monty Wulff, the general manager of Charles Step Funeral Home in Detroit, Michigan says, “If you’re a veteran, it’s the best way to go.” He urges families to take advantage of the benefits available to those who served.

Wulff regularly conducts funerals in Michigan’s national cemeteries. Great Lakes National Cemetery, dubbed “Little Arlington,” is a particular favorite of his.

A headstone and certain other reimbursements may also be available for veterans who will be buried in non-military cemeteries. On October 1, 2019, some limits were raised. Check with the Veterans Administration to see if there are additional benefits you may be entitled to.

Volunteer Pallbearers

Family and friends can serve as pallbearers. Not only does that lend itself to a monetary savings, it adds a personal touch as well. Many are honored to serve in such a capacity.

Funeral director and celebrant Ruthann Disotell, who grew up in the family funeral home in New Jersey, stresses that it is important for people to understand that one doesn’t have to be male to be a pallbearer.

“I don’t want a woman to feel like she can’t do it,” said Disotell. “It is a loving thing to do and I encourage them.” She does, however, caution female pallbearers against wearing high-heels.

Rent a Casket

More and more funeral homes are offering rental caskets for the visitation period. Rental caskets have a removable interior box within the casket which is suitable for cremation. Amen said that 60% of her burial clientele use them, and “all my cremation families use the rental casket.”

Generally, they are made of wood, but Brown offers one in metal in addition to his oak and poplar models. “I use them on 70% of my cremations easily,” he said.

Consider a Home Funeral or Alternative Venue

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, home funerals were the standard practice. They are slowly making a comeback around the country. While they are not for everyone, if you have the room and the inclination, a funeral director will do all they can to accommodate you.

But a home funeral is not the only choice for an alternative venue. Wulff has handled funerals in the banquet rooms of hotels and restaurants. One of the most unusual was a combined luncheon and closed casket visitation which took place in a local Red Lobster restaurant, with clergy officiating.

Some churches, too, will allow wakes to be held in their establishment, sometimes for a small donation.

Purchase a Pre-Owned Cemetery Plot

“Pre-owned gravesites are big,” says Brown, who recently had a family ask about how they could sell two graves after moving out of the area to Florida. He said this is not a rare occurrence.

People look to sell unused graves, and graves that are empty following a disinterment. There can be a substantial savings, “as long as the seller is willing to negotiate,” according to Brown.

Classified ads offering unused cemetery plots can be found in newspapers and online, usually at a substantial discount. The Cemetery Exchange website is a good place to start.

Nix the Death Notice

Death notices in major newspapers can cost hundreds of dollars. Social media can quickly spread the word that a death has occurred and provide details about the wake and funeral. “Facebook has finished off death notices,” said Amen about the pervasiveness of the Internet.

Go Graveside

Ask friends and family meet at the cemetery. A member of the clergy can offer prayers at the gravesite, and eulogies can be said as well. Disotell believes this is especially important for a committal of cremains. “The family may not have had any service before that,” she said.

One potential downside may be inclement weather.

Consider Cremation

Cremation, with or without a visitation, is substantially less costly than the purchase of a new grave or opening an existing one. What’s more, it lends itself to a variety of inexpensive options.

Cremated remains can be kept at home in an urn, scattered at a place imbued with meaning, or buried in a family plot.

For a more ceremonial approach at memorial masses, Brown, whose area has remained traditional despite the increase in cremation, places the urn in an ossuary which is reverently carried down the church aisle by two pallbearers. “The feedback has been phenomenal,” he said.

Go Direct

Direct cremation and direct burial are the least expensive modes of disposition. Keep in mind that you will incur crematory or cemetery charges in addition to the flat rate funeral home charge. Either can be followed by a memorial service at a funeral home or a venue of your choosing at a later date.

Disotell has officiated at memorial services in a variety of locales, including VFW halls, senior centers, and the ever-popular restaurant venue, “because you may want to have food.”

One of the most memorable services she recalls took place in a restaurant in which a banquet table was turned into an herb garden for a woman who had loved gardening.  Her gardening tools and gloves were displayed, as well. Mourners were invited to take home a small potted herb in her memory. Disotell remembers it as “beautiful and fragrant.”

What does the perfect funeral look like to you? Would that cost you a fortune? How would you minimize costs? Have you planned your funeral? Please share with our community!

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The Author

Alexandra Kathryn Mosca has worked as a funeral director in New York for more than 35 years. She is the author of three books: Grave Undertakings, Green-Wood Cemetery and Gardens of Stone and has contributed articles to Newsday, New York Daily News, The Saturday Evening Post and funeral industry publications. Visit her website here

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