Learn 31 Ways to Save on Funeral Costs

Traditional funeral services are an ancient American con, prevalent in a thankfully shrinking sector of the Death Care Industry. Just as the Wedding Industrial Complex and Christmas profiteers take advantage of emotional Americans, these tricksters twist fragile emotions into morbid profit. 

Chris Goes, co-owner of Goes Funeral Care and Crematory in Fort Collins, Colo, is one of a new breed of 'funeral service providers.' Goes, a self-styled "Funeral Guy," says his staff works to provide clients with "enough information that they have a sense of control and understanding while dealing with the issue of death.

"We're committed to helping create the most meaningful tribute to a person's life at a sensible price because it's the right thing to do."

Sadly, a minority of those in the Death Care Industry aren't interested in this new philosophy. Here are 31 price-gouging tactics and services to avoid while still honoring your loved one.

1. Pre-need Contracts
Also known as "pre-arrangement" contracts, these devious marketing ploys are standard at most funeral homes. A director convinces you paying or planning upfront "relieves the burden of planning a funeral," or some other such blech.

Later, when the time comes, the home may say your dearly departed's chosen casket is no longer available, or the plan can't be changed. But wait, there's an alternative available for $1,000 more! Too bad your contract doesn't cover it.

If you're up to it, however, it makes sense to visit with a funeral director or two ahead of time and learn your options. For some it's easier to "shop around" beforehand rather than during a period of deep grief.

prepaid contract

2. Pre-paid and Life Insurance Funerals
Some burial insurance plans are ridiculous. You might not see any pay-out for the first few years and what you eventually receive will most likely be outpaced by inflation or balked at when a funeral home charges interest. These plans are useful, however, if they include a clause allowing family or the policy holder to borrow against the balance, should the insurer face an extended illness.

Trusts are a bit safer, but that's like calling a panther more gentle than a lion.

Best bet: Set up a Totten trust or a pay-on-death account. Just don't make the funeral director your beneficiary.

3. Direct Cremation or Immediate Burial

Funeral homes are required to provide a list of these two -- you should excuse the expression -- bare-bones services. They include no viewing, no ceremony and no extra expenses. Unscrupulous directors may not mention these options or bury them beneath loads of package deals because there is very little profit involved. Often, the entire cost comes to less than $1,000.

A word on these basic services: If you opt to work with a funeral home, they're only required to charge you for pickup of the body, a basic services fee, filing of death certificates, and transportation to the cemetery or crematory. Crematoriums and cemeteries have some extra required fees that you should not pay directly to the funeral director.

4. Package Funerals
If one thing can be said about arranging a funeral (or any shopping experience), it's to not go with the first thing a salesman sticks in your face. Understandably you may want to send Great Aunt Selma out in style, but why rush into a package deal with such extras as a $150 dove release (which the ASPCA opposes) and a ceremonial ash spreading at Mount Everest? Leave the combo meals to McDonald's.

funeral director

5. Funeral Directors
Only a handful of states legally require consumers use these middlemen. FinalPassages.org offers a bevy of tips for de-institutionalizing death with alternatives to current funeral practices.

6. Obituaries
Unless the funeral director is an old friend, their obituary is going to be formulaic. Since you've gathered all the information yourself anyway, why pay them to write this final testimony to your loved one?

If you're not comfortable writing something creative, your local newspaper may have a form to fill out or you can follow the template provided by ObituaryGuide.com.

7. Funeral Announcements
Most people read the obituary and ignore these little announcements that are really just advertisements for the funeral home. Why should you pay for their self promotion? Skip 'em.

8. Cremation
Ashes to ashes isn't just affordable, it's green and increasing in popularity. All bodies are cremated the same way, whether in a $3,000 casket or an unadorned wood box. If you're planning a viewing you could rent a nice casket and buy a simple, inexpensive and eco-intelligent wood box for the cremation.


9. Urns
See that $400 urn over there, the "cheapest" on display at the funeral home death shop? Yeah, you can find a more personal urn, cookie jar or even birdhouse from a wholesaler or local artisan for a lot less.

A warning: Don't let your loved one's ashes ANYWHERE near Rolling Stones' guitarist Keith Richards, who once jokingly claimed to have snorted his Dad's ashes.

10. Embalming
It's a myth that a corpse must be pumped full of chemicals (chemicals that will later leach off into the earth) and caked with more rouge than Joan Rivers or present a health risk during the viewing.

Truth be told, no state legally requires embalming. If a funeral is held within three days, it's perfectly fine to leave a body in its natural state and the director can't charge you diddly. Refrigeration is good for several weeks but could cost extra. Beyond that, any burial worker will tell you nothing can stop Mother Nature.

11. Over-Dressed Casket Clothes
Dad never wore fine-pressed, Italian silk suits while he was alive. Bury him in the brown corduroy two-piece he wore to your wedding and you'll actually recognize him as Dad.


12. Caskets
Casket options are mind boggling: Gasket-sealed for decades of preservation; solid bronze outer with gold-leaf accents; adjustable satin headrest; inner-spring coil mattress with plush velvet lining.

Yes, coffins really come with these "luxury" extras, meant more for your peace of mind than any actual purpose. It's heartbreaking when funeral directors prey on the bereaved with such extras, convincing them the dead will know whether a coffin pillow is satin or cotton.

The sad fact is that gasket-sealed caskets don't preserve the recently deceased. If anything, they speed up decomposition by trapping gases. Adding insult to injury, the tubing used costs about $8, yet ups the price as much as $800.

What's a poor consumer to do? Inexpensive caskets are easier to find than any funeral director would have you believe. For one, Walmart caskets are available online. A slew of build-your-own coffin sites sell caskets online, as well as building kits and free casket plans.

13. Open Viewing at Funeral Home
This is a tough call as some people truly want to say a last farewell to the deceased. Others would rather display photos of their loved in good health.

The question is whether a funeral-home director is pushing you into an open viewing to earn extra on embalming, beautification, a costly casket, flowers and other death do-dads.  

14. Funeral Program
Of course you want a formal reminder of your loved one, but does it need to be on professionally printed, high-gloss, lace-lined paper with 300 DPI picture quality? No. But someone will try and convince you this is a necessity.

Use a free funeral program template or get creative with Photoshop and make your own.

funeral service

15. Funeral Service
The ceremony can be as large or as intimate as YOU want. Some people choose to hold "celebrations of life" in their back yards; others prefer a church ceremony with full service.

Ultimately, the funeral ceremony is designed to support the survivors through their grief, not empty their bank accounts.

16. Honorarium for Officiant
Like hiring a DJ or award show host, officiants supplied by a funeral home are little more than announcers reading from a script. Billy Crystal doesn't work the Oscars for free and neither will this guy.

Preferably, the officiant should be someone who knew the deceased, can talk about them with ease, and is comfortable speaking in public. They needn't represent a particular religion, unless that's your preference. A token honorarium is usually expected, however.

17. Extra Fees
Select a casket from an outside source and some funeral homes will slap you with a "handling fee." Not only is such a charge completely illegal it's a warning sign to find another funeral home.

In fact, it's illegal to charge anything above and beyond basic services, including such extras as "disinfecting/care of un-embalmed remains," "sheltering of remains," and "supervising a funeral service."

18. Additional Cemetery Charges
If you buy a cemetery plot, you'll also be charged additional fees that aren't included in the actual price of the hallowed ground. Because the funeral home won't mention these extras in their estimate, including presiding over the plot during the ceremony, check with the cemetery before you make out your budget.


19. Flowers
Flowers can cost upwards of $50 an arrangement, not to mention the mental toll of dealing with ornery and overworked local arrangers.

Get affordable funeral flowers with 1-800-Flowers free shipping or pick some fresh flowers and make your own arrangement. That's what Grandma would've done anyway.

20. Live Music
Unless you play organ professionally or know local musicians who would happily accompany the ceremony, consider playing a CD of music that strikes the right note. Often it's more the song selection that matters than who plays the music.

21. Cemetery Escort Service
Do you really want a deeply personal, family-oriented day to resemble a scene from "Speed," complete with cops, sirens, lights and stopped traffic? Many people don't realize you're paying extra for that cemetery escort service. While it may seem like a nice touch, is it really vital that everyone in the funeral entourage arrive at the same time?

burial vaults

22. Burial Vaults and Grave Liners
Both are sold at exorbitant prices to "protect" a burial plot from the elements and other damage. Haven't we gone over this hoax already?

If there wasn't a solid steel casket 6-feet under, there'd be no need to worry about damage and a buried body doesn't know the difference. Plus, vaults and liners actually make it harder on gravediggers to create room in overcrowded cemeteries.

While funeral homes can't require either vaults or liners, cemeteries have different rules.

23. Urn Vaults
See above. Don't let a smooth operator convince you internment at the cemetery or an adorned box is more meaningful than displaying your loved-one's remains on the fireplace mantel.

24. Limousines
Limos are rather unwieldy for funerals anyway. If you anticipate an entourage driving from service to the grave site, a nice, clean, four-door car is entirely appropriate.

25. Service at Cemetery
Despite the industry construction of "traditional," it's not required to have a viewing at the funeral home and a graveside service. You could opt for either, neither or both, depending on your preferences. Keep an eye on your wallet, however, as the clock watchers charge by the hour.

grave marker

26. Grave Markers
A permanent headstone or monument means a great deal in the future, even if your loved one's ashes are spread elsewhere. It gives you a quiet place to contemplate memories and perhaps talk with someone you miss very much, if such is your inclination.

The key here is to avoid buying the headstone or monument directly from a funeral home or cemetery with a "private quarry." Private means they either own it, or are getting a huge kick-back for the recommendation. There are more than 9,000 family-run monument makers in the United States alone. Hire a small, local company for a less expensive marker that will be tailored to your preferences.

27. Reception Food and Location
Remember all those friends who keep asking, "What can I do?" Here are a couple areas in which they could really help: They could provide home-made food for the reception and help you find an inexpensive but appropriate location. Neither is difficult but allows them to feel they've contributed.

Keep the ball rolling by allowing others to contribute glassware, plates, tables, chairs and whatever else may be needed. There's nothing like a sense of community to honor your grief and the grief of all who knew their friend or family member.

28. Home Burial
As long as you secure the proper forms, there are very few states that don't allow burial on private property. HomeFuneralDirectory.com offers a wealth of resources for legal and inspiring home funerals.

green burial

29. Green Burial
Be one with nature, dude. Green burials have increased in popularity as environmentalism has become part of our consumer consciousness. You might say it's the ultimate in recycling.

But beware of places using this as a marketing scheme. Search GreenBurialCouncil.org for a bona-fide green cemetery in your area.

30. Donate Your Body for Research
You spent thousands on college tuition, so why not make the ultimate final donation to a medical school near you. Schools can't actually buy corpses (it's against the unspoken academia fiscal code), but they will front the charges of transportation and cremation.

Most medical schools and research institutes prefer you register your donation before the "joining the choir invisible." While you're at it, you also might check off that little "organ donor" box on your driver's license.

Not a lot of folks know this, but some universities and research institutions return ashes or remains within a year or two. It's more like a body loan than a body snatch.

31. Know Your Rights
The non-profit advocacy group Funeral Consumers Alliance suggests consumers treat a funeral like any other transaction. A federal law also requires funeral directors itemize all options and charges, making it much easier on the bereaved.

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I was reading a blog about a woman whose mother passed away and she couldn't afford the Obituary. So she created a website that allows users to post Obituaries online for $14.99. The words are unlimited - not counted. It also includes four pictures. It is like any newspaper Obituary site, but you don't have to pay per word or line. I think it is a GREAT idea!
Posted by Mary
I have always thought funeral expences a rip off and will do everything possible to escape unnecessary fees. I have it in my will that there is no bought flowers no bought wake they must take their own packed lunches and the cheapest box on offer. I have been accused off no emotion but money is for the living not a corpse. Not for me is a horse drawn hearse and mass emotion.
Posted by maggie kerr
Another tip not directly related to funeral expenses will be the obituary fees. Most newspapers will print whatever the families want these days. But the publication fees are by the word, or by the line. It will get VERY expensive VERY fast if you have a lengthy writeup and / or want to schedule the notices in multiple newspapers because relatives and friends are in other cities. The best thing to do is to write a short obituary with the basic details: such as name of deceased, names of immediate family, time / date / place of services, maybe a line or two extra. You can always put a longer write-up that some families want to have in the funeral program, or as a display at the funeral home, or tell the memorable stories during the services.
Posted by Monroe On A Budget
I remember dealing with the funeral industry when my dad passed. Even tho he was being cremated, we had to transport him to the crematory in a casket. The least expensive was $300. When I asked the underhandedtaker why we couldn't just use a body-bag, he said, piously, 'That's your Father!', to which I replied, "No it's not...it's my father's body...he's long gone by now." Still irks me.
Posted by James Rabe