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Easing the financial cost of a death in the family

Several ways to cut the cost of a funeral include direct burial, choosing a cheaper casket, and cremation. Air travel costs are hard to minimize.

By Mar 17, 2014 2:47PM
This post comes from Elizabeth Sheer at partner site on MSN MoneyWhether sudden or expected, the death of a loved one is emotionally wrenching. At a time when logical thinking is most compromised, you have make decisions and arrangements.

Headstone © Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc Green/Getty ImagesIt's easy to spend way more than you have to, even if only to honor the departed. Having a friend or relative serve as a sounding board before choosing among the alternatives can help lessen the financial strain.

Funeral expenses tend towards exorbitant. The median cost in 2012 was $7,045, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), but the final bill can easily reach $20,000. Some people make their wishes known before they die, but a surviving family member often is left to make decisions about the type of funeral, and whether to bury or cremate.

Even in an emotionally fraught state, you can arrange a funeral for far less than the median cost.  One way is to request a direct burial. Although usually handled by a funeral home, direct burial eliminates expenses like embalming, dressing, cosmetics, hairstyling, open casket viewing, chapel services, hearse, and limousines. Instead, the body is delivered directly to the cemetery in a pine or cardboard casket and the service is held graveside. Expenses include only the burial site, transportation, and the cost of the interment vessel and service. A rough estimate of the savings, based on NFDA figures, comes to nearly $5,000.

Federal law requires that funeral homes show the bereaved the full range of available caskets. Sometimes, however, the staff neglect to offer the cheaper models, so be sure to inquire. A plainer and less expensive casket is also most biodegradable, and it may be the preferred choice for environmental, religious, and/or financial reasons. You can also cut costs by buying a casket at Costco, which sells several models for less than $1,500, including expedited shipping.

Cremation is now the rite of choice in about two out of five deaths. The cost of cremation runs between $2,000 and $4,000 if a funeral home is involved, about $1,500 to $3,000 if arrangements are made through a crematory. Either way, a loved one can be honored with a memorial service at a facility of your choosing, which eliminates many funeral home costs. If you prefer a funeral home setting, you can cut expenses by renting a casket for the duration of the viewing hours and the service.

Prepaid funerals
Sometimes the deceased person has prepaid their funeral. This means no guessing about what your loved one wanted and no big or costly decisions to make. Indeed, many nursing homes require that residents do this.

Individuals who opt for a prepaid funeral specify the casket and type of service, and then deposit money with the funeral home. Prepaid funerals cover only goods and services provided by the funeral home, and do not include cemetery or cremation costs.

Lawyers caution that many things can go wrong with this plan, and instead suggest opening a designated bank account (called a Totten trust) to ensure that funds for funeral expenses will be available when needed. If you are considering a prepaid funeral, first check your state's consumer protection laws; it may be that they are strong enough to let you feel secure about depositing money with a mortuary.

Travel to a funeral
When the deceased does not live nearby, getting there quickly is a priority. Often that means air travel, which requires last-minute booking and uncertainty about the return date. The last thing you need in a time of emotional stress is to shop around for a cheap fare.

Some airlines offer special bereavement fares, but the courtesy is rapidly disappearing. In late February 2014, for example, American Airlines announced that as a result of its merger with US Airways, it was jettisoning the bereavement fare.  Currently, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are the only major U.S. airlines with this fare classification. Discount carriers like Virgin America, Jet Blue, and Southwest have never offered it.

Generally speaking, you need to be an immediate family member of the deceased, but Delta and United are generous about what this constitutes, and domestic partnerships are honored. To obtain this special fare, you must always call the airline, and be prepared with the name, address, and phone number of the funeral home. If you can't provide the necessary documentation immediately, United and Air Canada offer a small refund off the paid fare when you subsequently present a death certificate.

Note, however, that a bereavement fare isn't necessarily a deal. In fact, it might be more expensive than a ticket bought at the last minute. The primary advantages of a bereavement fare are its flexibility (although you must travel within a week of making the reservation and return within one month) and it is refundable.

If your travel dates are fixed, you may be able to find tickets at the aggregator sites for less than the bereavement fare. Hotwire contends that its specialization in last-minute fares often provides a cheaper option, and you can see many airlines' schedules and fares at once. Travelocity says that looking at "flight + hotel" deals yields particularly good last-minute values.

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Mar 17, 2014 5:01PM
Funeral directors are just a bunch of money hungry ho's. When my cousin died, my aunt decided to have him cremated. They charged her full price for a casket, for the viewing, and told her that she had to buy it outright, since it would then be "USED" and could not be sold as new, they also cremate a person in a cardboard box, NOT a casket.  When my Mother died, the funeral home tried to soak us over $500 for a new dress, because Mom would have wanted it.
Then there is the casket with the "LIFETIME" warranty. Think about that. The second you're in it, your dead and the warranty is expired. That adds about 2 grand more, over a "cheap" casket. 
When I die, I told my wife to have my body taken right to the crematorium and no funeral or viewing. Heck, if you can't come see me when I am alive, pee on you, after I am dead. 
Mar 17, 2014 6:10PM
I have a binder on my bookshelf with all my instructions and directions, copies of insurance papers, deeds, financial info, etc.  Last thing I want is for my survivors to have to deal with a lot of decisions at that time.  I've had a lifetime to think this through and make preparations.  I'm ready to go, sort of.
Mar 17, 2014 3:57PM
Emotions are for the living... quit using them for guilt.  I could give a rats butt when I'm dead. Let the State grind me up into sausage or use my ashes mixed in with road salt. The whole funeral thing isn't going to cost me a penny because my last check I write in this world is to the funeral home and it's going to bounce. 
Mar 17, 2014 3:39PM
Easy: don't die. Continue to collect social security well beyond statistical human life expectancy. Great Uncle Earl is 208 and has been collecting since 1935. Whenever anyone calls to check on him, mysteriously "he's at the store."
Mar 17, 2014 4:53PM
I already dug the hole in the back yard.
Mar 17, 2014 6:36PM
I am going with cremation. No obit, no funeral, no urn,  no letting anyone know I have passed. When I'm done burning put what is left in a coffee can and throw me on the side of the road. 
Mar 17, 2014 4:53PM
I guess it won't matter much after we bite the dust, so to speak. We aren't going to be here after we die anyway, whether any of us will be buried in a casket and placed six foot under and pushing up daisies or smoked in a crematorium. We won't know about it anyway. I still laugh when I read when Larry Hagman said after he was cremated he wanted his ashes scattered for fertilizer in a field of marijuana plants so everyone can smoke a little bit of Larry. If they ever legalize that stuff, maybe that would be alright with me.
Mar 17, 2014 8:30PM
Hmmm, I notice a lot of joking about this subject of death.   Does it really make folks THAT uncomfortable??    Do a little planning ahead and spare others what is your responsibility.  It's not that bad.   
Mar 17, 2014 3:35PM
Catapult.  That's what I'm doing. 
Mar 20, 2014 2:00PM
there is an interesting documentary out there about home funerals and the people who help with/promote them. we viewed it on netflix about 4 years ago. most had their own home viewing, put the corpse into the cardboard box, loaded it in their pick-up and delivered it to the crematory. a farm family all helped grandpa build his own wood box. some states you can roll the departed in a blanket and bury them on your own property they said. I have seen first hand how many families will only spend a brief amount of time with their loved ones body, pick up the phone and call the local funeral home to take it away. this is not human closure the way our psyche needs it to be. seen more consideration for a pets corpse thanks to the stigma and fear put upon people in our culture. my son did a school work study program at a funeral home and assured me he will not let strangers who dont give a s..*, and are only in it for the currency handle my corpse. 
Mar 19, 2014 9:11AM
When I am dead and gone from here I want to be buried face down, so the government can kiss my but, also I would like to be bronzed so people could park their bikes when they come to the cemetery.
Mar 20, 2014 7:15PM
Do what ever you want with me.  If I start grumbling please stop.
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