The High Cost of Dying

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent GardnerMy mother died in October at age 92. It has yet to become real to me—I reached for my phone to tell her how lovely her funeral had been. I’m sorry she missed it. One of my browser’s home pages remains set to our ongoing Scrabble game on Facebook. She’s winning. And always will be.

A child of the Depression, she’d tucked a newspaper clipping tucked into her papers that suggested ways to cut the cost of a funeral. When my sister & I sat down with the funeral director, I handed him the clipping and said, “We’re under orders!”

A recent piece in the Huffington Post puts the average cost of a funeral at $11,000. Many spend far more. What can cost so much? I was surprised at what we had to spend on burial. My parents purchased a pair of cemetery plots in 1992 for $492. The real estate is the cheap part. Burying my mother next to my dad cost $2,505. And we’ve not yet bought a 10” x 2” piece of bronze that will add “October 16, 2017” to the marker we’d purchased when he died in 2000. The marker already has her name and birth date. The cemetery wants $600—I figured I could get it cheaper elsewhere (and I was right).

Another big item is the casket. The funeral parlor advertised prices from “$850-$6,500.” They didn’t have any of the cheap ones to display, though, only tiny pictures (!). The $850 is made of wood—particle board. Funeral director said something lame like “Don’t know about that—wouldn’t want the handles to fall off.” My sister groaned and we bought a metal one for $950. Looked like any other casket to me—I can assure you that the handles were robust. And I’m sure that the wooden one would have been just fine.

The casket is placed in a concrete vault that cost another $850, required by the cemetery. The concrete makes sure that the coffin doesn’t sink over time so the cemetery keeps its nice flat lawn. A concrete liner is cheaper—just sides & a top. The coffin can sink if it wants but the cemetery remains easy to mow.

You needn’t buy a casket from the funeral home, either, as the Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule makes clear. Online sources may sell for less and routinely ship overnight.

Most funeral homes “bundle” the “basic” services that aren’t separately billed. These are the “table stakes” of the funeral biz. Our guy (his name’s Tim) charges $2,150. I understand that some families tax the patience of the most patient funeral director, but if you know the drill (I managed my father’s arrangements and my sister had just gone through this with her mother-in-law), then there may not be much to do. In our case, Tim & staff booked a few hours, tops.

We were charged a flat fee of $375 to move Mom’s body 4 miles from the hospice and $400 for the 14 miles to the cemetery. Helping out at the graveside was another $150. And we paid Tim for the death certificates and some flowers.

Which brings us to embalming (where some of you will quit reading and move on to another column or blog). For the record, embalming is not required by law. Tim told us that it was required by Indiana State Law IF there were to be public viewing, but I find no evidence of this after scouring the Indiana state code. Tim is within his rights to refuse to host a viewing without embalming the body, but his claim that this was state law seems to have been false.

This “viewing the body” issue is very personal, I understand. I have heard the argument that viewing the body brings some a sense of closure about the death. Considering both of my parents, however, I can testify that their mortal remains at death bore no resemblance to the people I loved.

Remember the death of Leonardo Dicaprio’s character in Titanic? Beautiful Leonardo, floating away in the cold water? Now that’s a body that would look good in a coffin. But most bodies need a lot of work to be viewable. We polled the family and decided to not have a “viewing” or an open coffin. We chose to skip embalming ($800) and “other preparation of the body,” which is what they do to make the body look a LOT better than the deathly reality (another $250).

Tim’s fee to host a viewing is $850 per day, incidentally, so we saved the estate $1,900 by remembering Mom in (better) pictures and having a closed casket. Her funeral and reception were held at the church she’s attended faithfully her entire life.

Courtesy of Mom’s post mortem guidance (and her frugal genes), we were prepared to take a hard line on cost. Still, it was tough. We’re not mentally or emotionally equipped to ask the hard questions within hours of the death of a loved one. When Tim said, “gotta embalm her for a viewing—it’s a state law” I didn’t say, “Hang on a minute while I review the Indiana State Board of Funeral and Cemetery Service’s compilation of the Indiana Code concerning funerals.” Our frugal “hard line” still left a bill for $7,600.

It is easy to feel guilty about scrimping on burial costs. Mom deserved the best—when she was alive. Her earthly remains deserve respect. But she wouldn’t want us taking hard-earned dollars left in her estate and burying them with her body or expecting us to incur debt for her farewell.

So make plans. Talk with your loved ones. Give them permission to pick the cheapest casket. Or think cremation—that averages about $1,100. Maybe you want to follow my mother’s example and put this column where it will be found when you die.

I’m 62—I hope to follow my mother’s example and live another thirty years, but who knows? I won’t have any use for this corporeal husk when I die, so I’m donating it to the University of Rochester Medical Center. See My wife & kids can throw a nice party with what they save or give it to a good cause.

Podcast on WXXI’s “Connections with Evan Dawson” with the author and a local funeral director.