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How to make time for funeral planning
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How to make time for funeral planning

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Navigating the death of a loved one is an intensely personal journey. It is also a very big business that can put a financial strain on the surviving family.

The death care industry — yep, it’s got its own industry moniker — is an estimated $20 billion business.

On an individual basis, that translates to a very big expense for a family dealing with a death. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the median cost for a traditional funeral, with a basic casket that also includes a vault (the casket liner most cemeteries require) can run more than $9,000. Add in the cost of obtaining a (single) plot and the services of the cemetery to handle the burial and ongoing maintenance and other ancillary expenses and you’re looking at an all-in cost around $15,000.

That tab goes a long way toward explaining why GoFundMe has a section dedicated to crowdfunding funerals. And why 10% of millennials recently surveyed by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Services who borrowed money from their 401(k) said they did it to cover a family funeral.

Even if you have the money for your estate to cover the cost, in terms of legacy, it can be illuminating to step back today and decide what you truly want, and whether you might prefer to keep costs low to leave more for your family.


Open to cremation? And a simple service? That could easily be doable for $2,000, if not less. That just saved your estate or your family $13,000.

That’s $13,000 that an adult child might love having to finish paying off student debt. Or it’s the emergency fund they’ve struggled to build. Or it’s the down payment for a home that costs $300,000 or less. Or it’s a nice leg up on retirement savings. Invest the money for 25 years earning an annualized 5% and it will be worth $44,000. If it has 40 years to compound, it will be worth more than $90,000.

Got a grandkid? If the $13,000 was put in a 529 college savings fund for a toddler, it will be worth more than $27,000 in 15 years.

That’s a whole lot of legacy that can grow from your last wishes.

It’s on you to make it happen. It’s unhelpful to leave your family guessing. In the throes of grieving your death, they are an easy mark for a death care industry that’s run for profit.

Despite some very basic federal disclosure rules, in most states it’s still impossible to easily comparison shop among funeral purveyors. Online price lists are not required. You really expect your loved ones to get on the phone to comparison shop and create a spreadsheet of the options when you’ve just died? C’mon. But you have the time now.

Typically, funeral homes also aren’t upfront about costs that are required versus optional. The median embalming cost is $750. Yet there is no law that requires embalming. Nor must a body be placed in a casket for cremation; the median cost for a cremation casket is $1,200 while an alternative “container” might cost less than $200.

Some tips

If you intend to pay, make sure the cash is easily available. If you want a big-ticket bon voyage with a fancy coffin, ornate headstone and blow-out memorial/party, think through how your family will cover the costs within days of your passing. If your executor doesn’t have immediate access to a bank account, someone in the family is going to end up paying upfront, with the expectation of getting paid back as the estate is settled.

Green burial

Interested in an informal burial with a more eco-friendly approach, rather than putting a non-biodegradable casket wrapped in a non-biodegradable vault liner in the ground? A green burial typically involves burial in a biodegradable shroud or soft wood coffin, and no embalming. These choices also reduce the cost. You can learn more and search for nearby options at the Green Burial Council website.



Cremation is already more popular than traditional burials. The funeral directors association forecasts that in 15 years, cremation will be the choice for nearly eight in 10 people. A funeral with a viewing and then cremation has a median cost of around $5,000, one-third the cost of a basic traditional funeral and burial. Skip the funeral home/service and work directly with a crematorium and the cost can be a 10th as much.

Be clear on caskets

If you prefer a traditional burial in a traditional casket, and you’d like to minimize cost, let your family know: Costco Walmart and Amazon offer low-cost options online that can be delivered quickly. And a quick web search will turn up plenty of other businesses that sell caskets and ship direct to the funeral home. Again, the funeral home likely won’t tell you about this option, but they must accept any casket you or your family chooses.

Write down your plans

Make your plans immediately discoverable. If you want to let your family know now everything you want, that’s fantastic. But if that’s not feasible given family dynamics, then make sure you spell out all your wishes in writing, and that the document can be quickly found by your executor. One simple option: Write it out, put it in a sealed envelope, and then tell the kids and/or executor right now where the letter is. That simple step can be the catalyst for easing their decision-making when you pass, and potentially provide some extra money to help them reach their goals.

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