Knowing Your Options
For North America, and the U.S. in particular, Ground Burial accounts for the final disposition of about two-thirds of all funerals. Cremation is next with 20% - 30%, depending on whose numbers you use, followed by mausoleums and donation to science. It is, however, important to note that these same trends were in evidence in older countries as recently as the last century, yet have given way to less space-intensive practices. In short, they have run out of room for burials . . . and so shall we in time. The following is a brief look at the options available, their pros and cons, and relative costs starting with the least expensive.
Donation to Medical Science
If you are the sort who would rather make a contribution to mankind than the undertaker, you might consider donating your body to science. This is the ultimate in selfless disposition of one's mortal remains. It is also the ultimate in cost-effective terms since, apart from a memorial service, it is FREE! Get in touch with any teaching hospital or medical school, fill out some papers, and you're done. When death occurs your body will be collected, embalmed, and used to teach the next generation of medical professionals. Then, generally after a year or so, your cremated remains will be returned to your family.
Naturally, the funeral industry doesn't care for this option at all. After all, there's no non-declineable fees, no casket, no outer container, no hearse and flower vehicle fees, no gravesite, no monument, they don't even get to sell you an urn! And, since they stand to lose so much, they aren't above stretching the truth a bit about its availability. You may hear them say "Well, there's a glut of corpses just now, so they probably won't accept anymore." Or that "Since your loved one (died of cancer, a rather mundane heart attack, a wasting illness, etc ... or was at an advanced age, rather obese -- Pick your excuse here) the medical schools won't be interested."
With a few exceptions this is untrue. Things that might make the body unattractive to medical schools would include death by severe trauma, an autopsy being performed (rare in the case of natural causes), morbid obesity, or death by a virulent disease that might be transferable after death. As an option that combines good works with fiscal responsibility, donation can be a godsend and should be considered by all who have chosen cremation as the ultimate disposition of their remains. Numbers and addresses of national donation foundations are available in the Resources Index of the book and planning program.
By direct we mean, the body is taken from the place of death (or morgue, medical examiner's office, etc ...) directly to the crematory, and the cremated remains--known as cremains and composed of the pulverized remains of the more compact bones--returned to the family. You can then have a memorial service or funeral and retain the cremains in an appropriate container or disperse them as is the family's wish. This simple means also finds disfavor among funeral directors for it cuts them out completely! No embalming (only required in a few states, and only in the case of death by virulent disease at that), no viewing, no casket, etc . . . Average cost from a funeral home, $1,500-$3,500. From a crematory or cremation society, about $700 including container.
The next most-reasonable means is direct burial, which is taking the body from the place of death directly to the cemetery for burial. Again, unless the body is to travel by common carrier, which includes airliners and passenger trains, but not a hearse or collection vehicle, embalming is purely optional. Granted, you still have to provide a burial plot, casket, etc ... but compared to the full-blown ground burial this can be a most reasonable option. Average cost from a funeral home, $1,700-UP depending on the model casket/outer container selected.
Cremation With Ceremony
Cremation will eventually be the only option. History will bear me out on this. You won't have to travel far to find a cemetery that has been moved from its original site due to flooding of a stream or river, development, or a new highway. As urban sprawl claims our land we simply won't be able to afford the 110,000 acres per year we're devoting to cemeteries each year. Bodies will be disinterred and, once we run out of fresh places to put them, cremated with the cremains returned to the families for disposition. In short, just as has already happened in Japan, India, China, and the more-populated areas of Europe, there's a cremation in your future whether you like it or not.
Most funeral homes and crematories alike require embalming if there's to be a viewing of the deceased, or if the deceased will be present in corporeal form at the ceremony. For those who perish from a wasting illness or trauma, a memorial service featuring the urn containing the cremains along with photographs of the departed in happier times may well be preferable. Joining a cremation society can limit costs for this to a reasonable level, just bear in mind that these societies are not the equivalent of a memorial society, but are for-profit organizations found in every state. Also bear in mind that, per the Funeral Rule, a casket is NOT required for cremation, and if a viewing is desired you can likely get a rental unit for much less than buying one.
Since we are now a much more mobile society, more apt to move to another state for a better job, kinder climate, or to be near family in our senior years. Cremation makes it possible to take our family with us, even after death. It also affords other options, such as strewing the cremains around a favorite site, such as a garden or park, or dispersal at-sea. The author of The Affordable Funeral has selected the ultimate in ambiguity; both cremation AND burial. A retired Naval officer with many years at-sea, he has stated he is to be cremated, a pinch of his ashes strewn at a national park, another interred in his family's plot (along with a monument being placed) and the bulk scattered at-sea. The options are limitless. Average cost for cremation is roughly half that of ground burial, and as little as $750 from a cremation society.
"Wait a minute!" you might be saying, "Aren't mausoleum crypts only for the wealthy?" No. In many places a mausoleum space can start as low as $2,000. Of course they can go into the thousands of dollars depending upon amenities, location, and several other factors including the age and occupancy of the mausoleum itself. Granted, this is still more than the minimum average cost of a burial plot ($750-$3,000), but the real savings come from what you won't have to pay for:
Given the added benefits of all-weather visitation and the permenance of a mausoleum, they are probably a good buy. Some even have temperature-controlled visitor's areas and chapels where the funeral or memorial service can be held, which can provide additional savings over renting one from the funeral home. The down side is that the largest mausoleum company in North America, Gibraltar, has been bought-out by S.C.I. so you may have to deal with them. Still, there's a reason why, throughout history from the pharoahs to the Taj Mahal, those for whom money is no object have chosen mausolems. Well worth investigating.
- The burial plot (say $1,000 average)
- Fees for opening/closing the grave ($375-$1795) Note: There will likely be an encryption fee, but much less than this figure as a rule.
- Outer container ($350-$7,500 and up)
- A monument ($1,200 national average)
As mentioned earlier, this is by far the most common disposition of remains in North America, though cremation is gaining annually, particularly in heavily-populated urban areas and on the West Coast. Contrary to what one might assume, high-priced funerals and ground burials are the domain of the blue-collar set, rather than the wealthy. The wealthy are more apt to choose cremation with a simple family ceremony. The underlying thought apparently being, "You can't take it with you, but there's really no point leaving it with the undertaker, either." It is a feeling we endorse most strongly.
This is also the most-costly option for several reasons, the most prominent being there are three levels of the funeral industry waiting to take their share. Both the book and the program offer dozens of ways to short-circuit this rip-off, including over a dozen tips than can save you $1,000 or more each. For our purposes here, suffice it to say you will require the full range of funerary goods and services for ground burial, and none of them will be cheap. As recommended in the planning guide, you should start any arrangement with the ending and work your way back. In the case of ground burial, this will be the cemetery. It is important enough to merit its own section on this website, so we'll address cemeteries later. Average cost nationwide, $8,300. From alternate sources, $2700 - $3,750.
Should you have cemetery plots or mausoleum spaces you won't be using, or should you be in the market for either, check our Funeral Properties Exchange elsewhere on this site. There you'll be able to list your property for sale, trade, or donation, or see what's available for purchase. You can even list your needs on the Wanted section.