The options available at death are numerous and range (in order of least- to most-expensive) from Donation to Medical Science, which can be free, to a formal funeral with burial, which can cost $10,000 and up, WAY up! Which option you choose will depend on such factors as your religious affiliation, ethnic culture, budget available and — above all else — the stated desires of the deceased. Below we will briefly examine each option starting with the least expensive.
Donation to medical science differs from donating organs in that the entire body is offered as a gift to a teaching hospital or medical school. Typically, the receiving entity pays for embalming and transportation of the remains, as well as cremation later with the ashes (called cremains) returned to the family. This is NOT always the case, however. Recently we’ve encountered medical schools that expect the family to pay for all this! While Funeral Directors are rarely thrilled with you exercising this option, do not rule out their cautions prematurely because they could well be acting in your best interests. To investigate this option, you should contact your nearest medical school or teaching hospital for details. I’d also recommend a wonderful book called Anatomical Gifts: Whole Body Donation Guide by Regina Lee and published by Consumer Education Services of Atlanta, which is perhaps the best work ever done on the subject.
You should also understand that there is a difference between ‘Embalming for Presentation’, which is routinely done for funerals, and ‘Embalming for PRESERVATION’, which is done for anatomical teaching and research. True preservation takes more time, more skill, and more materials than the usual presentation embalming and will likely cost more.
By Direct we mean the body is taken from the place of death (or coroner’s office) directly to the crematory, with any memorial service held later. By using your state Cremation Society rather than a funeral home (in states where this is legal) you can completely by-pass the funeral home. Typically a direct cremation can cost under $500 through a Cremation Society, yet runs $2000 or more through a funeral home. A Memorial Service differs from a ‘funeral service’ only in the fact the body is either not present at all, or is in the form of cremains. More and more people are electing this option, choosing to display a nice portrait of the deceased in happier times rather than the often-depleted and overly-cosmetized body itself. For information on a cremation society near you, call 1-800-CREMATE (1-800-273-6283). Do understand, however, that Cremation Societies are for-profit entities, they offer better prices due to the lower overhead they enjoy when compared with a funeral home.
Some people elect cremation following a formal funeral and viewing. Cremation is growing in popularity as funeral and burial costs escalate and we see, almost daily, old cemeteries being moved to make way for new roads, shopping centers, etc. A case in point occurred in St. Louis last year, when the bodies of several hundred nuns were exhumed from an old church cemetery to make way for more pavement. Cremation is also the choice of the more affluent and better educated, as witnessed by the fact that in ritzy Marin County California, over 70% of those who could afford anything they want choose cremation. Cremation currently stands as the choice of about 30% of all Americans, with this number expected to grow to over HALF within the next couple of decades.
Per the Funeral Rule Legislation of 1984 (revised in 1994 and up for review again this year), funeral directors cannot say a casket is required for cremation. An ‘alternative cremation container’ may be used instead, and these are typically much less expensive. These come in several forms, from a simple canvas sheath to an unfinished wooden box, to a glorified cardboard container. All perform their prime function and all are totaly consumed in cremation. As a matter of curiosity, the price range we found for that cardboard container was from $10, from a cremation society in Virginia, to $465 from a funeral home in California. With just a couple of phone calls we established that the cost for 100 of these ‘butcher board or wax-coated’ cardboard boxes from a west coast supplier was… you guessed it … $465! Caveat Emptor.
Some states will require you utilize a funeral home for cremations (Michigan, Virginia pending), and if you wish a viewing, the funeral home will require embalming and the purchase or rental of a casket. Some funeral homes go so far as to ask a family member come by to identify the deceased, then charge their standard viewing fee for this ‘service’! This can be declined and probably should be since, per our research fellow’s training session, the prime motive for this is to have a family member see how pitiful the deceased looks in an inexpensive container as well as to drive up costs. Don’t fall for this. If an ‘identification viewing’ is offered, be sure and ask about the added costs, if any.
Funeral homes also like to charge both a cremation fee and a cremation charge which is often just double billing. Often you’ll see the charge is identical (or even MORE!) to what the crematory or cremation society would have charged for the entire process (including paperwork, permits, collection, transportation, etc) had you gone to them directly. You may also hear disparaging remarks from funeral home personnel as soon as you mention cremation. Such unkind terms as ‘shake and bake’ are not uncommon and are used to disuade you from pursuing this option. Bear in mind, before you change your mind, that given the urban expansion we’re seeing here and in every other industrialized nation, it’s only a matter of time before cremation is the only option. Oh, and those bodies dug up when cemeteries are moved to make way for construction? Most of them are cremated with the cremains returned to the families for final disposition.
Cremation offers a range of options for final disposition. Cremains can be retained in an urn or other container, scattered over a favorite place, or scattered at sea. Some elect to have their ashes strewn from an airplane and there is even a program that, for a considerable sum, will send a small portion of the cremains into outer space! A new wrinkle is having the cremains compressed to form a DIAMOND! Talk about your ‘keepsakes’. The key thing to remember is that cremains are not ashes at all. They are the remains of the larger bones which survive the heat and are then pulverized into a consistency somewhere between sand and kitty litter. They are pathologically inert and can be shipped via any traceable means, including the US Post Office, UPS, Federal Express, etc. For a death away from home, cremation offers a means of transporting the remains far less expensively than transporting a body, and with less paperwork.
One final word on cremation. If you do elect this option, the funeral home or crematory will likely try to sell you an urn to retain the ashes. This is true even if you plan to scatter the ashes, and these ‘made for the purpose’ urns can be very expensive. Suffice it to say, anything from the plastic box the crematory will provide as part of their service to a Tupperware bowl to a Rodin original bronze sculpture is adequate. You might want to look around for a nice vase, ginger jar, or other suitable container rather than spend several hundred dollars on an urn. A great case in point was a mahogany urn I saw for sale at a funeral home for $985. I looked at the bottom of it and saw it was made by an acquaintance’s company in Belize, so I called him. He told me that same mahogany box was available from tobacco shops for $89 as a cigar humidor! He went on to tell me that both the tobacco shop and the funeral home paid the same wholesale price for the unit… $18.50.
Direct burial is the norm for some cultures, such as Orthodox Jews. The body is taken from the place of death directly to the cemetery and buried in a simple container. A memorial service may be held later, if desired. Outside of cremation and donation, this is by far the most-reasonably priced option and virtually every funeral home offers it. They just don’t bother telling you about it as a rule. Expect a direct burial with a ‘minimum casket’, which is cloth-covered particle board, to run $2500 or more.
Funeral & Mausoleum Crypt
I know, you thought a standard ground burial would be less expensive, didn’t you? In some cases it might be, but if you do some shopping and comparisons, you may find a mausoleum is quite cost-effective. Outside spaces (crypts in the outer wall, rather than inside the mausoleum building) sell for as little as $2500 and your savings come primarily from what you won’t have to buy. No burial plot ($1000-3000 savings), no ‘sealer’ casket ($800 or so savings), no burial vault ($500-1000 savings), no opening-and-closing fees ($350-1500 savings), though you will likely have to pay a nominal fee for entombing and sealing the crypt, and a greatly-reduced monument fee ($700 and up savings). Considering that the mausoleum has throughout history been the choice of those for whom expense is no concern, from the pharoahs of Egypt to Princess Diana, it is gratifying to know it can also be a responsible option for the rest of us, too.
Funeral & Ground Burial
This is the option with which we are most familiar and, not surprisingly perhaps, also the most expensive of the lot. The funeral director will try to convince you to buy an upscale casket (See section on caskets), an outer container or burial vault (covered in our Cemetery section), as well as funeral services. The cemetery will hit you for the plot itself, perhaps a burial vault (seems funeral homes offer better prices on these), fees for opening and closing the grave, a monument, and perhaps a perpetual maintenance fee. The current average for a complete funeral with ground burial is over $8,500 with $10,000 funerals commonplace. Read the other sections for amplifying information on how to greatly reduce these costs.
There are other options for the truly adventurous. For a hefty fee ($35,000 or more) a company in Utah will mummify the remains. Another company will soon be offering freeze-drying for humans, they are already doing pets. Whatever option you choose, there are ways to keep costs under control. Read the rest of the sections to better prepare yourself, and constantly bear in mind that it isn’t what society or even the family thinks that matters, but rather the wishes of the ‘guest of honor’. If you do nothing else to prepare, do ask that person his or her desires, while you still can.