The High Cost of Funerals: Families Forced to Cut Back
Life + Money

The High Cost of Funerals: Families Forced to Cut Back

When my father died at age 88 in July 2005, I followed his funeral instructions to the letter. He wanted to be embalmed and brought home for visitation in our living room, then cremated, his ashes to rest on the mantel over the fireplace.

It was a cut-rate funeral in many respects: His casket was cardboard. Still, the cost was $3,661.70. After that, I sprung for a mahogany urn and added a brass plaque with Pop’s dates of birth and death on it, as well as his signature. Cost of that urn: $856, though by 2005 standards my father took an economical trip into eternity.

In only five years, those same funeral home costs, adjusted for inflation, have zoomed to $4,847, an increase of nearly $1,200, or 32 percent. And that doesn’t include the death certificate, register book, casket spray or newspaper obituaries. 

Today’s median cost of a full-service funeral — embalming, casket, vault, public viewing, ceremony, hearses — is nearly $7,400. But with expenses of another $2,000 or more at the cemetery (for the plot and the grave digging), the total is approaching $10,000 — plus any monument or marker.

The Recession’s Effects
Nevertheless, some funeral home operators have seen a sharp turn toward frugality today. “Many families feeling the economic pinch are making different choices when planning funerals,” says Emilee High, communications coordinator at the National Funeral Directors Association in Brookfield, Wis. “They’ll choose less expensive caskets and urns, reduce or eliminate certain services and events — such as visitation hours or graveside service — and buy fewer flower memorials.”

In Webster Springs, W. Va., population about 800, John Reed, owner of Dodd & Reed Funeral Home, says that full-service funerals generally cost $5,500 to $6,500.  Even there, “people have been a little more conservative,” he says. “A few have chosen a cremation service, as opposed to a full service.” That shaves off as much as $3,200 from arrangements for a loved one and reflects a growing pattern. In the early 1960s, fewer than 3 percent of deaths ended in cremation nationally; that figure is now about 35 percent. (Washington State sees more than 70 percent cremations.)

“The recession is bumping up the cremation rate a couple percentage points quicker than we thought it would,” says Joshua Slocum, executive director of Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit with 95 chapters around the country. “In the past few years, people have said, ‘We’re considering things we never would have considered before. We’re sweating a mortgage, and we’re not going to put ourselves out of house and home to bury Grandma.’ It doesn’t mean they don’t love Grandma.” 

More Greed than Grief?
While national trends show families moving away from traditional church funerals — younger generations opting instead for more personal celebrations — “green burials” have gained popularity in places like the West Coast over the last two years. “Green” can mean a burial in a simple wooden or biodegradable cardboard coffin, without an outer vault or concrete or marble container — essentially a traditional Jewish or Muslim burial. Or it can signify a back-to-nature burial in the wilderness or commercially owned cemetery with a nature-preserve section. Such cemeteries invest the money for the grave in a trust fund to maintain the land.

Still, the high cost makes the funeral industry seem more concerned with greed than with grief. “We’ve always said that what the industry calls a traditional funeral is a commercially created tradition put together to extract the maximum dollar value from the grieving,” says Slocum. “In America, we’ve internalized the notion that the more we spend, the more we love. The dead are still just as dead as they were before — and you’re still going to miss them just as much.”

Most Vulnerable Time of All
DeAnna Mooneyhan, of Germantown, Tenn., discovered how pushy funeral directors can be when her 57-year-old husband, Ken, a long-distance truck driver, died unexpectedly on the job in 1997. At 3 a.m., hours after she talked to him by phone, men from the trucking company showed up to tell her that her husband was dead.

“I was in such a fog that I barely remember going to the funeral home,” she says. “I just recall hearing them say, ‘You want this, you want that,’ starting with the top-of-the-line caskets, and my friends stepping in and saying ‘no.’ When you’re at your most vulnerable, they really do try to sell you everything. I spent about $7,500, which was a lot of money 13 years ago. And we didn’t have extras.”

Mooneyhan says you have to careful about revealing too much when negotiating a funeral.  “The first thing they want to know is how much life insurance you have. My advice is, don’t tell them there’s any life insurance. They’ll try to sell you the paint off the walls.”

This makes the National Funeral Directors Association bristle. Spokeswoman High says that funeral directors have always served families of different financial considerations: “There are many things that can be added to a funeral or memorial service that cost little or no money.”

Joshua Slocum agrees. “From a consumer advocate’s point of view, if there’s a silver lining to the recession, it’s the opportunity for families to reassess questions of emotional and financial value.” He suggests cash-strapped families think anew when planning the celebration of a life — organize potluck farewell to Dad at his VFW hall, for example. “It’s really important that people talk about things like this ahead of time.”

My 86-year-old mother, who already suffered from dementia at the time my father died, seldom talks about her husband of 58 years, other than to make the occasional comment. She’s particularly fond of a portrait of him that I placed near his urn in the living room where we held his visitation.

“That’s a handsome dude,” she said one day recently.

Her eyes shifted to the burnished mahogany container. “What’s in the box?”

“The handsome dude,” I replied.

Perhaps it’s time for me to go buy a matching urn.

Have you had a recent experience with high funeral costs? Please share your story in the comments below.