5 Unexpected Funeral Expenses You Should Prepare For

by Emily Guy Birken · 18 comments

Votive candles
One of the final scenes of my favorite movie The Big Lebowski features John Goodman’s and Jeff Bridges’ characters arguing with a funeral director over the cost of their friend Donny’s funeral. At one point, John Goodman (who plays a constantly angry character) shouts, “Look, just because we’re bereaved doesn’t make us SAPS!”

After having recently gone through a family funeral of my own, I find myself more sympathetic toward the character’s outrage. When it comes to funeral expenses, it can seem as though the prices for necessary services and products are out of proportion to any reasonable expectations. While funeral homes are required to give you an itemized list of prices for final expenses, it can still be very difficult to navigate the stress and financial worry of a funeral.

Here are some aspects of a funeral that cost more than you think:

1. Use of the plot
Purchasing a grave plot is not your only cemetery expense. While many people will make sure to plan ahead by purchasing a plot for themselves, they might not realize that their family will have to pay more in order to use that plot.

Opening the grave is another service that the family will have to pay for in order to hold the funeral, and the cost can be an additional $300-$500 – and potentially more if you’re holding the funeral on a weekend.

2. Obituaries
Newspapers used to print obituaries gratis as a service to their readers and the local community. Unfortunately, newspapers can no longer afford to do this. In order to have anything more than a brief death notice (which is still free), family members will need to spend $400-$500 for a longer obituary containing pertinent information.

3. Vaults
Some cemeteries require you to use a vault within the grave. These vaults help prevent the grave from sinking as future deterioration sets in. The addition of a vault to the burial can add anywhere from $500 to $5,000 to the cost of the funeral. While no state law requires that cemeteries use a vault, you’re probably not going to be in any shape to protest against it.

4. Caskets
Caskets can be extremely expensive. You can find a plain pine box for as little as $500, but caskets can range up to $10,000 or more for mahogany or other beautiful materials.

Even if you’re willing to go for the plain and simple casket, you might field a sales pitch for a sealed casket, which will protect the interior of the casket from water and insects. These seals are generally just rubber gaskets though. Plus, does it make a great deal of sense to protect a dead body?

5. Flowers
Flowers through the funeral home are going to cost you. The base price of a funeral doesn’t include the cost of flowers, and adding them will cost you much more than normal flower arrangements would. Expect to spend between $250 and $1,000.

Planning Funerals Without Spending Too Much

At the end of the day, no one is happy about funeral costs but it’s just something that seems necessary. The good news is that there are ways to avoid spending too much money on a funeral. You need to know when to apply which strategy though. Here are a few things to keep in mind during this tragic time.

Planning Your Funeral
If you are a planner, then working out the details of your funeral won’t seem too macabre. You can pick your plot, your casket, what kind of service you want, and arrange every aspect imaginable. The primary advantage of control gives way to the secondary advantage, that of paying for your arrangements in advance at today’s prices. What you pay will remain the price of the funeral. This saves your heirs money and aggravation, as long as you leave a copy of the contract with your papers.

Consider Cremation
Cremation is considerably cheaper than a traditional burial. Aside from the fact that you don’t usually need to embalm a body that is being cremated, there is no cost associated with a plot or the need to purchase a fancy coffin to impress anyone. A traditional burial begins at about $5,000 and heads up fast from there, whereas cremation starts at $1,000 and doesn’t increase much unless you really try.

Places to Cut Costs Around Funerals
There are many places that you can reduce expenses, without appearing miserly. Flowers are nice but completely unnecessary. If you feel they are required, stick to less expensive options like carnations. Hiring some clergy person who barely knew the deceased is pointless. It is better to ask someone who is acquainted with the individual to speak. The more you formalize the service the more you will pay.

Caskets are another area where money is made by the industry. Try to remember that ultimately this box is going to end up in the ground or burned. Do you really need to spend top dollar in either case? If you really want to save money, opt for a plain pine box, but even that can set you back a grand.

While some people feel that it is necessary to travel from the funeral home to the cemetery in a limousine, it really isn’t crucial. You can avoid the whole traveling expense by simply having a nice closed casket service at the cemetery and encourage people to come to the house afterward for finger foods and reminiscing. This is much more personal, and frankly, cheaper.

When my time comes, I want to be in one of the new cardboard coffins that my children and grandchildren have decorated with paint, glitter, and love. I want to be put in a green cemetery with as little fuss as possible, and have someone plant a tree above my head. Simple, cheap, and meaningful!

The goal of burial is to allow the family and friends of the deceased to begin grieving properly. Spending so much money that everyone ends up in debt is no legacy. Don’t get pressured into spending too much. No amount of money will bring back your loved one, so make your decisions carefully.

The Bottom Line

Burying a loved one is an upsetting and overwhelming experience, and it can be very difficult to make intelligent financial decisions in the midst of such turmoil. It’s a good idea to research funeral expenses before the time comes and to always bring a friend or family member with you when meeting with the funeral parlor. That friend will be able to help you determine the best course of action.

Have you faced unexpected costs during a funeral? Anything you’d add to this list?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • dP_Ted says:

    Sure makes me wish I hadn’t left where I used to live. We could bury on our own property, putting the grave wherever we wanted, as long as it wasn’t close to, or uphill from, our water source. I don’t believe we even needed a casket. Because of where it was located, I checked the laws, but it’s been years so I can’t remember all of it. At the time, I didn’t think I’d ever move, and I’d planned on the whole family being buried there.

  • CB says:

    The cremation rate in the USA is about 60% now. 85% out west in Washington and Oregon.

    You can prepay into a trust and your family won’t have to worry about any costs.

  • Frankie's Girl says:

    I honestly don’t understand the lack of planning for death. The one thing that we are guaranteed in life is that we are going to die, so why not plan out what you’d like for that as well? Avoiding it means you’re leaving that burden on your family at a time when they are worst equipped to deal with it.

    Just my opinion: If you make it to your twenties and especially if you’re married, with or without kids – you should discuss what you’d like for your funeral with your spouse. If you don’t have a spouse, you still should discuss it at some point by your thirties with your family. If it is something that might cause issue with your extended family (for instance, you want to be cremated, but your mom and dad would have a fit at the idea) then you need to put that in writing so they can’t try to overrule your spouse and cause fights during the process.

    My dad passed away late 2012, and unfortunately didn’t make any plans for what he wanted. The thing is, he was terminally ill and knew this for over a year, so that meant he had plenty of time to discuss with my sister and me what he would like… but never did (and would get weird if we brought up anything). He did tell us he had a plot already next to his parents, so that’s one thing… if you do have anything already planned TELL YOUR RELATIVES so they can avoid buying a duplicate because they were unaware.

    I don’t blame funeral homes for capitalizing on the grief of people left in this situation – they are a for-profit business after all – but it would save so much time and MONEY for those left behind if the arrangements (not necessarily paying in advance, but I think that is an option) were made prior to death. Forcing family members to make the decisions after death means emotions and guilt/grief control a decision-making processes involving large amounts of money… a recipe for over-spending since most people think they need to get fancy this and that because that’s what the deceased “would have wanted” or not wanting to appear cheap for their funeral.

    Write out what you want – type of casket, flowers and music you’d like, who you’d like to speak, where you’d like to be buried and what type of stone and any other details you think your loved ones should know and maybe even a range of cost for the whole thing. If you have a general idea of how much it will cost, make sure you’ve got that much put aside for it or set up an account.

    I left most of the decisions up to my sister as I lived out of state and she was the one that was more distraught over what dad would have wanted. It ended up costing around $10K. That’s below average in the area, but they still take advantage since haggling or questioning prices is looked on as tacky. I still did it, and felt weird about asking the prices, but I wanted to know.

    I have already discussed with my husband what I want – just need to put it in writing, but it’s not as pressing an issue since we have no one that would contest what he does if I go first, and it’s pretty simple – donate if possible, cremate or whatever if not – with no funeral service or gravesite. He wants the same, so at least we are aware of each other’s wishes.

    Bottom line as far as I am concerned, the saying “funerals are for the living” is 100% correct. The deceased don’t care what flowers were used or the fancy details on a casket – they have no use for them and serve no purpose other than window dressing. How much you spend should not be an indicator for how much you loved them.

    • Caroline Joanna Mary Bowman says:

      totally agree. My late mother, who is desperately missed, told anyone who would listen that she would countenance no funeral, just cremation and no religious service. After that, it was up to me.

      So we cremated her, declined the very insistent salesperson’s attempts to put the ashes in a terribly ornate ”memory urn”, but held a party in her honour at her very favourite hotel, for her dearest friends and relatives, the ones who really loved her and one day, when I can bring myself to, I will scatter her ashes where I know she would want to be.

  • Jay S. Fleischman says:

    The average cost of a funeral is over $6,560 according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Add to that the cost of retirement and attendant health care, and you’ve got a situation that calls for smart financial planning as early as possible. What’s worse is that if you don’t plan for your funeral costs, it’s a burden you leave behind to your children or next-of-kin.

  • Sandy says:

    As a clergy person, I make it a point of reminding my parishioners to make their plans, and make them known – keeping a written copy of details about the service as well as finances (some insurance plans include money for funeral expenses) in several places. Also, in this day and age, leave a list of passwords – you may want access to the deceased’s facebook page, for example.
    I also often go with the family to the funeral home, because I am a bit less emotionally involved, and can reassure the family that there’s nothing wrong with not having a gasket on the casket and avoiding other sales gimmicks. Having a service (and the meal after) at a church is usually less expensive than at the funeral home or a restaurant.
    It made me sad to read the comment above about the costs for feeding guests — what happened to the tradition of friends and neighbors bringing food? When my Dad died recently there was more food than we knew what to do with. But after the excitement in the first week after the death, it was such a relief to not have to think about cooking.

    • Caroline Joanna Mary Bowman says:

      I can say that when my mom died, I was blown away by the kindness of various people, some of whom weren’t particularly ”close” friends, who just showed up very briefly with a dish of something comforting that could either be thrown in the oven or frozen for later, baked goods and so on. It was the nicest thing to receive and I’ve made a point of always doing it when people are ill or bereaved or have had a baby, more so now that I’ve been on the receiving end.

  • Do_Not_Reply says:

    The main thing that costs more than you think: Social pressure from the death industry.

    The body is not the person. Honor the person, and let the body return to nature. Dig a hole in the back yard and bury it with all your other pets. Pay nothing, and get on with your life. Use your resources where they can do some good.

  • Mark says:

    You have to be careful of unscrupulous morticians who will prey on you in your moment of grief.

  • Fru-gal Lisa says:

    To simply have the body transported from the funeral home to the church was a big expense. So I just had them go from the funeral home to the cemetery and we had a memorial service (ie, a funeral minus the coffin) at the church. It saved big bucks, although I came under fire for it — certain very critical relatives complained the guests thought the deceased had been cremated instead of buried. I really don’t care what anyone thought! The newspaper obituary clearly stated that burial was in the local historic cemetery. Of course, to save more money, just opt for graveside services.
    Also, be sure to shop around, even though you don’t feel like it: there is a significant difference in prices charged by funeral homes. I chose a funeral home that is out on the highway instead of the “establishment” one that’s been in town for generations — and saved more than half.

  • Money Doug says:

    Not a fun topic to discuss, but good to know. At what age do you think it would be responsible to start arranging all of these items so your next of kin does not have to be burdened by setting this up after your death?

    • Fru-gal Lisa says:

      I think you should do it ASAP. Every adult needs to do this as soon as they leave their parents’ home and are out on their own. No one is guaranteed that he or she will live X number of years. What if you died in a traffic accident tomorrow?

  • Michelle says:

    This is a great post for people who have never experienced death in the family. Hopefully most families know how expensive funeral can be and any cut will really help. Thanks for sharing this info.

  • Ben Stiller says:

    There are families who want to make a funeral of their loved one as special as their loved one hence they spend a lot of money to pay their last respect. But really spending a lot on the casket which eventually will rot 6 ft down under is unnecessary.

  • Elizabeth Howerton says:

    One of the funeral expenses when my Mother passed last year, that was unexpected, was feeding out of town guests. My Moms service was a very small, but we still had people come in from out of town.

    And since my husband and I were local – most get togethers were at our house. So beverages, snacks, and meals were mostly at our home (day or two before the funeral and after).

    • Caroline Joanna Mary Bowman says:

      I can imagine this would have added up both emotionally and financially, and honestly, it leaves a sour taste. I totally get that people were guests from out of town, but they could have ordered good-quality takeout or done something practical to mitigate the costs, even firmly insisting on giving you some cash to offset the expenses. You weren’t hosting a holiday shindig, you were burying your mom!

  • Paul Michael says:

    When my cousin died, at 34 years, everybody was so shocked, and the funeral services firm they worked with charged them almost double before they realized it. There was this man who took advantage of their pain and charged everything at almost a double price, but before they made the last payment they realize something was wrong and made him do all the math again. They managed to pay less because the firm was afraid of a law process, but there are many families out there that realize it too late, an unfortunately there are people who still take advantage of others pain in order to get rich

  • Ramona says:

    When my grandfather dies it was so sudden, there was no chance to plan anything. Still, we stuck to simple less expensive stuff. We couldn’t cremate him, since in Romania this is still frowned upon. But we got a cheap casket and all the stuff, since in the end they all end up in the ground to rot. We did get a good “deal” out of it, meaning we didn’t lose as much money as we could have.

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