A funeral or memorial service can help you cope after the loss of a loved one. In the early days of grief, navigating the practical issues that arise after death may feel overwhelming. Your loved one may have left instructions for you, or the decisions may be up to you or another family member. Many people may not be aware of the cost of funeral planning or the options available to families. Even if you do not plan to hold a traditional funeral, certain decisions still need to be made.
Note: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides additional guidelines for funeral planning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Early Funeral Planning (Before Death)
Ideally, funeral planning would happen before a person passes away. The benefits of early planning include
- The person can be involved in the planning and decision making.
- The person can provide information on any insurance policies that may cover funeral expenses.
- The family can find comfort in knowing that their loved one’s wishes are followed.
- The family can focus on grieving and remembering their loved one after he or she passes away.
Funeral planning can be part of estate planning. See Triage Cancer’s Quick Guide to Estate Planning.
Who Decides What Happens after Death?
“Laws for Body Disposition”—laws that determine who decides what happens to a body after death—vary by state and include
- Personal Preference Laws: In about half of states, there are laws for survivors to honor the written wishes of the deceased unless the wishes are highly impractical, illegal or financially burdensome.
- Designated Agent: In some states, you may also be able to appoint a person to make these decisions. (Typically, power of attorney ends at death and would not cover the right to make burial/cremation decisions.) If no person is appointed for body disposition, responsibility goes to next of kin (spouse, adult children, parents, bother/sisters).
Funeral Consumers Alliance provides information on laws by state.
Choosing a Funeral Director/Funeral Home
Find a funeral director you trust.
- Shop around to find one who can help you meet your needs and budget.
- The Funeralocity website allows you to search and compare prices of funeral homes by city and zip code.
If funeral arrangements have not already been made AND if the person passes away in a hospital setting,
- Ask the hospital if the body can be held in the hospital’s morgue for a day to two.
- This may not always be possible, but it can give the family more time to make arrangements.
- If the family sends the body to a funeral home immediately, they may be “stuck” with the funeral home or begin building up storage fees or other costs.
Avoiding Unexpected Expenses
Know the cost of every aspect of the funeral. You do not want to be surprised by unexpected costs.
- Funerals typically have to be paid for in advance.
- Some funeral home’s offer third party financing.
- Ask for a written itemized statement before you pay.
- The Federal Trade Commission provides a funeral pricing checklist.
The Funeralocity website allows you to search and compare prices of funeral homes by city and zip code.
Low-Cost Options at Traditional Funeral Homes
Always ask for price lists and always ask if there is a cheaper option even if one isn’t presented at first.
- Direct cremation is almost always the least expensive option at funeral homes.
- Always ask what isn’t included in a charge. Even with direct cremation, there will likely be additional charges (for example, cremation permit, urn, etc.).
- Funeral providers who offer direct cremations must also provide an alternative container option (essentially a cardboard casket) that can be used in place of a traditional casket.
- Urns or other storage for cremated remains can often be bought cheaper by purchasing them through a third party.
- An urn is also not specifically required. You can use anything—vase, bottles, other containers.
- Cremated remains for an adult weigh 4-6 lbs. on average. This will fill a container that is about 200 cubic inches—a little less than a gallon jug.
- Direct burial is another option that is less expensive than a traditional, full-service funeral.
- The body is buried shortly after death with no viewing or visitation so embalming is not necessary.
- A memorial service may be held graveside or later, but this may come with additional costs.
- Caskets are available for purchase through a third party but remember to account for shipping and/or transportation costs.
- Grave markers can also be purchased through a third party but check if the cemetery has any restrictions.
Note: Even if a family chooses a direct burial, direct cremation, the family can still hold a memorial service or celebration of life at home or other less expensive location to honor their loved one and share fond memories.
Embalming is NOT required except in some states for when
- A body crosses state lines from Alabama and Alaska, OR
- A body leaves California, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota or New Jersey by common carrier (airplane or train).
Note: The above information could change. For up-to-date information, click here.
A funeral home may insist on embalming if an open casket viewing or funeral is planned.
Embalming does not preserve a body forever.
What Is the Average Costs of a Funeral?
The following are average funeral and burial costs in the US in 2020 compiled by Funeralocity. These amounts may not include additional costs such as flowers, musicians, obituary notices, or cemetery fees.
|Funeral with viewing and burial
|$2,597 + cost of casket
|Funeral with viewing and cremation
Home Funerals and Home Burials
Home funerals are legal in every state.
- Some states may require that a funeral director is involved in some way.
- It is legal for a family to keep or bring a loved one home after death for bathing, dressing, private viewing and ceremonies.
Most states allow home burials on private property outside city limits.
- Each city/state has its own laws and restrictions for home burials.
- Some states require that a funeral director is hired to assist with a home burial.
- Home burials are illegal in California, Indiana and Washington.
For more, visit National Home Funeral Alliance: State Requirements for Home Funerals.
Donating a Body for Education and/or Research
Programs that accept bodies donated for education and/or research are called Whole-Body Donation Programs or Non-transplant Anatomical Donation Organizations (NADOs).
- The body will be cremated when complete, and the remains returned to the family at no cost to the family.
- It can take 2-3 months (or longer) for the remains to be returned. Check with the specific program for more details.
- Some programs also cover the cost of death certificates and a nice urn.
- Whole-body donation is different from being an organ donor for transplant purposes. A person can be an organ donor without making a whole-body donation.
- Cancer does not typically disqualify a person for whole-body donation. Some communicable disease such as HIV and hepatitis can disqualify a person for whole-body donation.
A donation may be made directly to a hospital or through a non-profit service.
- Different programs have different requirements.
- The prospective donor may be required to sign a consent form before death. In other cases, the next of kin or person with legal rights may be able to consent to the donation.
- American Association of Tissue Banks (You can search for accredited programs.)
- Anatomy Gifts Registry (Charges a shipping fee for return of ashes)
- United Tissue Network
Note: Even if a family chooses whole-body donation, the family can still hold a memorial service or celebration of life to honor their loved one and share fond memories.
All veterans are entitled to burial at a national cemetery at no charge.
- This includes plot, opening and closing of grave, and marker.
- This does not include funeral services or transportation to the cemetery.
Click VA Veteran Benefits to learn more.
- Social Security death benefits provides a one-time, lump-sum death payment of $255 to the eligible surviving spouse or child. A funeral director can usually assist in making the claim.
- Government assistance for a funeral by state
- You may also consider asking family and friends to make contributions to the funeral costs.
- Some life insurance policies or supplemental policies help cover funeral expenses.
- Local churches or religious organizations may have funds set aside to cover funeral costs for low-income families.