The Champagne Life on a DIY Budget Since 2007

The Last RIP-Off: Planning a Funeral

planning a funeral budget

We’re always trying to save money while we’re alive, but what about after we’re dead? Whether we want to talk about them or not, funerals are the last rip-off in life.

Even after you or someone you love has passed, there’s someone else trying to take money out of your pockets. A few movements are currently trending across the country in the hopes of making funerals more affordable — and more environmentally friendly.

The average American funeral runs about $6,000 and up. Toss in another $3,000 or so for a burial plot and other cemetery costs, and that’s a pretty pricey send-off. Make no bones about it, the funeral industry (worth $11 billion a year in the US) is a business that’s long been tapping into a time when families are at their most vulnerable. In 1985, Congress passed a funeral reform bill, empowering consumers by requiring funeral directors to itemize bills and inform families about possible options before collecting payment, but, as Frugal Yankees, we thought we’d pull together a few tips to help you to keep even more of that green stuff in your wallet, while being “green” at the same time, too.

The first tip is easy: money does not equal love or respect. Buying an expensive casket or having a funeral with all the trimmings doesn’t ease anyone’s sorrow. As with most decisions, a little planning, a little knowledge, and some judicious decision making will have your wishes (and those of the deceased) fulfilled while also preventing the funeral from becoming the last RIP-off.


Undertakers are required by law to disclose all costs on a printed price list prior to any decisions. Packaged goods and services can be broken down into line items. Consider these services as an a la carte menu. For example, providing your own casket or decline embalming is a personal choice and not something required. When presented with a list of potential services, pick and chose carefully.


The best situation for all concerned is to make personal arrangements ahead of time. If the financial burden rests within the immediate family, take the pressure off. Prepay for selected services, plots, even post burial parties. Be sure the arrangements are written down. This will alleviate any residual confusion or guilt. Then give several people copies of these wishes/directions. Everything from wake, burial or cremation, music, eulogies, charities and more should be included. Preparation like this can save painful arguments among the survivors.


Approximately one third of all deaths are now cremated. It is much less expensive than burials and most religions accept this procedure. There are even cremation societies to assist in the process. They run about $1000 to $2,000 — generally the cheapest option. Note that cremation is not allowed in Orthodox Jewish, Islamic, Eastern Orthodox, and even a few Fundamentalist Christian faiths.

Body Donation
This is the least costly option and does some good after death. The body is donated to a medical school for study. When they are finished, they handle costs of burial or cremation. This should be arranged ahead of time, however; not after the fact.

Caskets can be a huge cost. Remembering that money does not equal love, and knowing that caskets will be buried under ground, what’s the point of paying for watertight liners, solid mahogany, and two or three other layers of frill to surround the body? The essence of your loved one is not there. A strong movement for using simple shrouds or minimally adorned wooden caskets is emerging, and which makes both ecological and financial sense. No embalming chemicals are used, which allows the body to peacefully deteriorate into a ‘natural’ state. Over time, the remains return to nature, perhaps becoming a tree, flowers, or grass, just as our ancestors did.

If a traditional casket is desired there are plenty of new options. Search online, find local companies or craftsmen and even some big box stores like Wal-Mart have caskets that are far less expensive than those available at funeral homes. Savings can run high, with 50% off the retail price being easy to achieve. Start with the National Casket Retailers Association. There are even cardboard caskets available for $25 between $150. If all else fails, simply tell the funeral director to price out the least expensive casket. Unless it’s bright pink or something equally obnoxious, it should do just fine.

Embalming is not always required, and embalming chemicals are scary. They can leach into the soil and even into the water table. Embalmers have been shown to have an elevated rate of cancer. If the person is already dead, why is the body being preserved? Check local laws regarding embalming and plan accordingly. Health departments are a good place to start.

Home Burials
Believe it or not, funeral homes and cemeteries are not always required. Rules vary by state, but in some areas, viewings can be held in your home. (Think: traditional Irish wake.) Most states do require a licensed professional to transport a body, however. If a home viewing is chosen, be realistic about the number of people who will want to attend and how the location can accommodate them. This is an age-old way for families to honor a passing. These days, the distance between the living and the dead may make some people uncomfortable with having a dead person in a personal environment, but a home viewing can also be a very personal way to say goodbye. Just be sure it works for the people closest to the deceased before choosing it.

Backyard Burials
In rural areas, you may actually be able to bury a family member in your backyard or on your property/land. Obviously, urban areas and suburban areas would have issues with this, but check state laws and local zoning regulations. Be sure to consider all the elements of a home burial, like appropriately digging the grave, covering it, and placing the marker.


An unprepared funeral will cost more, create more emotional distress, and more than likely fail to what it should be: a time to commemorate a life. Some simple planning, forethought, and consultation with loved ones will make any funeral something to remember. It should never be regretted or put the survived into financial shell-shock.

For more of the Frugal Yankees coverage on Frugal & Green funerals, check out:

I blog about my brother’s own funeral. Even though he planned it well and everyone wanted to accede to his wishes, there were still issues. Being a Frugal Yankee helped.


We interviewed Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, for his best tips on planning a funeral on a budget and with environmental issues in mind. Listen to our Frugal & Green funerals podcast.

Louise chats with New England Cable News about the state of planning a Frugal Funeral in our neck of the woods. Watch the video on