Death is expensive.
For more than two decades, I have extensively written and reported about money-related content and even I was surprised at the cost of my mother’s funeral.
The median cost of a funeral with a viewing and burial is approximately $7,848. That doesn’t include the cost of the cemetery or monument, which varies by state.
On average, a single plot in a private cemetery can range from $2,000 to $5,000. The location of the plot and the type of plot you purchase can affect the price. Add the burden of those costs together and you have what many experts call funeral poverty.
“Traditional funeral burial costs are the third largest expense in the life of the average American,” says Victoria J. Haneman, Frank J. Kellegher Professor of Trusts & Estates at the Creighton University School of Law. “They’re aberrational consumers. We are not shopping for death care in the same way we would shop for other large expenditures. It puts consumers in a compromised position in the context of death care,” she adds.
My mother did not plan for the end of her life. That left my brother and me responsible for shouldering her funeral costs. I am a saver and was financially prepared to cover my share. But what about poor people who can’t afford to put their loved ones to rest?
Why are Funerals So Expensive?
Funerals are big business. The funeral industry generates more than $16 billion in revenue, according to the most recent data released by the Census Bureau in 2012.
“We forget that a funeral home needs to be a profit center,” says Haneman. “Every death is an opportunity for them to drive costs.”
The largest funeral costs include embalming and the burial or cremation casket. Funeral costs vary depending on the region, with the most expensive pricing in the west north central part of the United States, which includes Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska.
But why are funerals so expensive?
Haneman says one reason is regulatory capture. Regulatory capture is when regulatory agencies support the concerns of special interest groups and the industry they are in charge of regulating instead of acting for the public good.
“The funeral and the death care industry is regulated state-by-state,” she says. “When regulatory capture exists, an industry has an incentive to create obstacles to prevent innovation from happening. In my opinion, this is one of the things that drives cost.”
Haneman says that the funeral industry also knows they are dealing with vulnerable consumers.
“We have a consumer that does not behave the same way they behave in other spaces when they’re making a large purchase,” she says.
What Happens if You Can’t Afford a Funeral?
It’s no surprise that families struggle to pay for their family members’ funerals.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says low-income individuals, people of color and those with less education are the least likely to have money saved for emergencies. Forty percent of adults say they would have difficulty covering a $400 emergency expense and would have to carry a balance on a credit card or borrow from family or friends, according to a report from the Federal Reserve.
“If you situate that statistic against the cost of death care, it’s crazy,” says Haneman. “Those who are unbanked and underbanked don’t have access to credit. They find themselves in a devastating position when there’s an unexpected death. There’s no social safety net to help them.”
Government assistance is only a small drop in the bucket. A surviving spouse or a child of a deceased person entitled to receive benefits can receive a $255 payment from Social Security if they meet certain conditions.
Families who can’t afford a funeral can authorize the release of the deceased relative to the county coroner’s office for burial or cremation, leaving some families with an unthinkable option.
“We don’t talk about the number of deceased who are abandoned by their relatives and never claimed,” says Haneman. “People are abandoning the deceased because they can’t afford to pay for death care service.”
When my mother passed away in a nursing home, I was asked what I planned to do with her body. I expected the nurse to speak to me about cremation or burial. I was surprised when she shared that some families have no choice but to abandon their loved ones’ bodies. According to the Cremation Society of North America, there are approximately 2 million unclaimed cremated remains across North America.
“When I talk about it, people are horrified, but they’ve never heard about it,” says Haneman. “If you’re worried about how you’ll pay for childcare and feed your family, this is something you consider doing.”
The Cheapest Funeral Options
A traditional burial is the most expensive option for a funeral, but there are cheaper alternatives.
Over half of Americans choose cremations over burials, which average around $6,970, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). The price of direct cremations — which are without a funeral or memorial — can cost under $1,000 depending on the provider or the location.
“Direct cremations are a great option for a family that’s low on funds and wants to explore ways to honor their loved one, yet keep costs down,” says Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, CEO and founder of AskTheMoneyCoach.com, a free financial advice website for consumers. “At the service, you can have a picture of the person, you can have memorabilia or you can have other things that are reflective of the person’s essence and character.”
Green burials are done without embalming chemicals and biodegradable caskets. Not only are they better for the environment, but they are also typically priced thousands of dollars less than traditional burials. However, not all cemeteries are certified to handle green burials.
Some families donate their family member’s bodies to advance medical research, which typically includes a no-cost cremation. But going that route may be easier said than done.
“Most Americans actually will not qualify to be medically donated because of weight issues,” says Haneman. “If you’re over six feet, over 200 pounds, or if you’ve died of a pathogen like COVID, they won’t take you and it ceases to be an option.”
Avoid Overpaying for a Funeral
Families often overspend for funerals because they are emotionally distraught and feel pressured to make a decision quickly. Some families use funerals as a demonstration of love or to reconcile feelings of guilt.
“It leads to an interesting philosophical question of who’s the funeral for? Is it for the living, or is it for the deceased?” Haneman asks. “If you engage in pre-need planning, you’re having conversations about what this deceased person wants and it becomes about them. If you’re not talking about it at all, it becomes more about you.”
To avoid overpaying, John O. “Jack” Mitchell IV, member of the NFDA and Funeral Director at the Mitchell-Wiedefeld Funeral Home, advises consumers to compare prices at more than one funeral home.
“It may be worth a little more to work with someone you have comfort with and confidence in,” he says. “Obtain information so that you can find out what your options are and then determine what is most important to you and the costs.”
Khalfani-Cox says funeral costs usually rest on a few people’s shoulders, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
“There’s no shame in asking other family members,” she says.
How to Plan for Funeral Expenses
Talking about death before your loved one passes away can be very uncomfortable, but it’s essential.
“None of us are leaving without dealing with this expense,” says Haneman. “Understanding that it’s inevitable is particularly important for the low-income consumer to protect themselves by having conversations about death care during life.”
Burial or final expense life insurance is a whole life policy that covers your funeral expenses and medical bills when you die. The policy doesn’t require a medical exam, making the approval process easier, but it typically pays out a smaller death benefit.
A pre-paid funeral plan is an agreement made with a funeral home to pay for the costs before someone dies. It gives the purchaser the ability to specify exactly what they want their funeral to entail ahead of time.
“If you wish to pre-pay, you can do so and the costs that you pay at the time of pre-payment will be guaranteed, thus protecting you from inflation,” says Mitchell.
Mitchell notes that not all costs are guaranteed.
“A funeral home cannot guarantee the cost for items over which it has no control like newspaper death notices and death certificates issued by the state health department, but all other costs can be locked in,” he says.
How to Pay for Funeral Expenses
Many states have programs on the statewide or county level that help pay for burials and cremations. Haneman is a proponent of tax incentives in the form of credits to encourage people to put away $5 or $10 a month for their funerals.
For some grieving families, the inability to pay has them resorting to begging or borrowing.
Crowdfunding sites have become a popular way for people to raise money. GoFundMe boasts of more than 125,000 memorial fundraisers per year.
“It’s become the new funeral insurance and the problem with that is crowdfunding is implicitly racist,” says Haneman. “You’re more likely to hit your campaign goal if you are young, white and attractive and have a compelling story. The short of it is that most campaigns do not meet their fundraising goal.”
A funeral loan, similar to a personal loan, allows borrowers to spread out funeral costs over time. But interest charges add to the cost of the loan, elongating financial stress for poor families.
“I would strongly discourage people from taking out loans to cover funeral expenses,” says Khalfani-Cox. “That’s an indication that the family and the loved ones left behind don’t have the financial capacity to be able to pay for the funeral.”
She advises the bereaved to let their love of the deceased person be their guide.
“I tend to think that their loved one who’s passed away wouldn’t want them to go into debt,” Khalfani-Cox says. “You’re honoring the person, your memories of that person. Your love for that person is priceless and the thing you must hold on to most. Don’t allow yourself to be emotionally, financially or even spiritually guilted into thinking that I did wrong by this person because I didn’t bury them in a sort of fancy, over-the-top kind of way.”