How to Die Frugally

Pine CoffinDylan Thomas pleaded with his father: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But the light will go out for all of us eventually. Still, whether we’re defiant or sanguine about the end, our final act doesn’t have to be an extravagant, expensive affair.

For most people in the U.S., a funeral is the third largest single expense they will ever face (after a house and car). The average burial funeral is around $10,000, while the average cremation is over $3000. Because of this cost discrepancy, more and more people are choosing cremation (41% as of 2010).* Regardless of whether you opt for burial or cremation, a little planning can save a lot of money.  Following are some ideas to help reduce costs.

  • Shop around: The Funeral Rule, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, stipulates that funeral homes must provide upfront pricing for all services. Many funeral homes post this information online.
  • Don’t get embalmed: Embalming is an unnecessary expense that does not preserve bodies in perpetuity, and it introduces toxic chemicals to the environment. No state requires embalming, except in certain situations. Direct burial or cremation is an option, and refrigeration is an alternative if a body must be preserved prior to burial/cremation.
  • Don’t get a vault: Vaults are expensive ($1000 or more) and can use a ton or more of carbon-intensive concrete. No state requires vaults or liners, but many cemeteries do, to keep the ground from settling. If you can’t find a cemetery that doesn’t have this requirement, request a less expensive liner.
  • Find a reasonably priced casket: The average casket costs $2300, and prices can be upwards of $10,000 (in which case a funeral may have supplanted a vehicle as the number two expense you’ll face in your life). Most caskets are primarily metal, consuming tens of thousands of tons of steel and other metals each year. Another quarter of caskets are made from unsustainably harvested hardwoods. And casket coatings and sealants have landed casket manufacturers on the EPA’s list of the top 50 hazardous waste producers. Most funeral homes can provide a simple casket, generally made of wood or cardboard, often used for cremation but acceptable for burial, that should cost no more than a few hundred dollars. Alternatively, my company and many others provide traditional and/or green caskets for under $1000. Or you can build your own casket.** The Funeral Rule dictates that funeral homes must accept outside caskets without charging any additional fees.
  • Find a reasonably priced cemetery: Some church and municipal cemeteries offer plots at a fraction of the cost of for-profit cemeteries. If you’re a veteran, you’re entitled to free burial in a national cemetery.
  • Donate your body to science or for parts: Often these organizations will provide services for free or with minimal charges.
  • Do your research: Much of the above information can be found at the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance website. Many areas also have local memorial societies that can help provide information specific to your area.

Want to take it even further? Following are more ideas that may involve too much for some, but that will save even more.

  • Direct your own funeral: In all but eight states, families do not need to hire a funeral home to direct a funeral. The family can file a death certificate (certified by a doctor or examiner), set up direct burial or cremation, and transport the body. Families may also wish to conduct a home funeral. Many areas have home funeral guides who can help with this process for a fee. Hospice workers are also a good resource for information.
  • Be buried on your own (or a friend’s) land: In rural areas of many states, people can be buried on their own land once the proper paperwork is filed. Local and state regulations differ, so do some research.
  • Don’t use a casket: On rural land and in many green burial cemeteries caskets aren’t required at all. You can choose to be buried in a simple shroud, a favorite blanket, in your clothes, or in the same attire you wore when you were born.

The least expensive funeral is one in which the family fills out the necessary paperwork, transports the body to their rural land, digs the grave themselves, and buries their loved one without any accoutrements. And, guess what? This is the way families used to do it – this is a traditional funeral. Although this may not be feasible for everyone, conventional funerals today have become what many see as a bizarre transmogrification of traditional burial, a toxic sludge of waste covered with glitter and sparkles to trick us into thinking this is what we need. For many, a simple, traditional funeral provides a more meaningful, cathartic ritual for letting go of a loved one.

Dylan Thomas seems to have spent much of his time raging, but if anything, it was the reason his light died at age 39. Hopefully we all have much more light in our lives. Meanwhile we can rest in peace knowing that when it’s time to Rest In Peace, our legacy will include a little less financial strain on those we leave behind.


More resources:

The American Way of Death: Revisited by Jessica Mitford. The original book from the 1960’s shed light on many of the nefarious aspects of the funeral industry. This updated version (1998) revealed that much of the earlier tricks of the trade remained business as usual. Mitford spent $533 on her own funeral in 1996.

Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death by Josh Slocum and Lisa Carlson. Continuing on Mitford’s path, this book also helps you plan your own funeral.

Grave Matters: A journey through the modern funeral industry to a natural way of burial by Mark Harris. Details the environmental costs of conventional funerals and provides insight into some alternatives.


*The primary reason people choose cremation is its lower cost. Secondarily, people choose cremation because it preserves land. But, if one’s goal is to go green, cremation isn’t the best choice either – it utilizes fossil fuels and releases sometimes-toxic pollutants. Green burial provides a way to sequester your body’s own carbon, while simultaneously preserving a small plot of land forever. For more info on green burial, see the Green Burial Council website or the award-winning documentary A Will for the Woods.

**I’ll soon have a how-to video on the Videos page.

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