Easing the Financial Cost of a Death in the Family

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Whether sudden or expected, the death of a loved one is emotionally wrenching. At a time when logical thinking is most compromised, you have make decisions and arrangements. It's easy to spend way more than you have to, even if only to honor the departed. Having a friend or relative serve as a sounding board before choosing among the alternatives can help lessen the financial strain.

Funeral.

Funeral expenses tend towards exorbitant. The median cost in 2012 was $7,045, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), but the final bill can easily reach $20,000. Some people make their wishes known before they die, but a surviving family member often is left to make decisions about the type of funeral, and whether to bury or cremate.


Even in an emotionally fraught state, you can arrange a funeral for far less than the median cost. One way is to request a direct burial. Although usually handled by a funeral home, direct burial eliminates expenses like embalming, dressing, cosmetics, hairstyling, open casket viewing, chapel services, hearse, and limousines. Instead, the body is delivered directly to the cemetery in a pine or cardboard casket and the service is held graveside. Expenses include only the burial site, transportation, and the cost of the interment vessel and service. A rough estimate of the savings, based on NFDA figures, comes to nearly $5,000.

Casket.

Federal law requires that funeral homes show the bereaved the full range of available caskets. Sometimes, however, the staff neglect to offer the cheaper models, so be sure to inquire. A plainer and less expensive casket is also most biodegradable, and it may be the preferred choice for environmental, religious, and/or financial reasons. You can also cut costs by buying a casket at Costco, which sells several models for less than $1,500, including expedited shipping.

Cremation.

Cremation is now the rite of choice in about two out of five deaths. The cost of cremation runs between $2,000 and $4,000 if a funeral home is involved, about $1,500 to $3,000 if arrangements are made through a crematory. Either way, a loved one can be honored with a memorial service at a facility of your choosing, which eliminates many funeral home costs. If you prefer a funeral home setting, you can cut expenses by renting a casket for the duration of the viewing hours and the service.

Prepaid Funerals.

Sometimes the deceased person has prepaid their funeral. This means no guessing about what your loved one wanted and no big or costly decisions to make. Indeed, many nursing homes require that residents do this.

Individuals who opt for a prepaid funeral specify the casket and type of service, and then deposit money with the funeral home. Prepaid funerals cover only goods and services provided by the funeral home, and do not include cemetery or cremation costs.

Lawyers caution that many things can go wrong with this plan, and instead suggest opening a designated bank account (called a Totten trust) to ensure that funds for funeral expenses will be available when needed. If you are considering a prepaid funeral, first check your state's consumer protection laws; it may be that they are strong enough to let you feel secure about depositing money with a mortuary.

Travel to a Funeral.

When the deceased does not live nearby, getting there quickly is a priority. Often that means air travel, which requires last-minute booking and uncertainty about the return date. The last thing you need in a time of emotional stress is to shop around for a cheap fare.

Some airlines offer special bereavement fares, but the courtesy is rapidly disappearing. In late February 2014, for example, American Airlines announced that as a result of its merger with US Airways, it was jettisoning the bereavement fare. Currently, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are the only major U.S. airlines with this fare classification. Discount carriers like Virgin America, Jet Blue, and Southwest have never offered it.

Generally speaking, you need to be an immediate family member of the deceased, but Delta and United are generous about what this constitutes, and domestic partnerships are honored. To obtain this special fare, you must always call the airline, and be prepared with the name, address, and phone number of the funeral home. If you can't provide the necessary documentation immediately, United and Air Canada offer a small refund off the paid fare when you subsequently present a death certificate.

Note, however, that a bereavement fare isn't necessarily a deal. In fact, it might be more expensive than a ticket bought at the last minute. The primary advantages of a bereavement fare are its flexibility (although you must travel within a week of making the reservation and return within one month) and it is refundable.

If your travel dates are fixed, you may be able to find tickets at the aggregator sites for less than the bereavement fare. Hotwire contends that its specialization in last-minute fares often provides a cheaper option, and you can see many airlines' schedules and fares at once. Travelocity says that looking at "flight + hotel" deals yields particularly good last-minute values.