My sister, Christine, is a nurse and she suggested a book to me. It was called Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty. Caitlin is a mortician and she also writes a blog called The Order of the Good Death. Her book was an eye-opening read and she is really changing thoughts and ideas around death and dying. She’s got a young, relatable voice, and the book is a memoir about her time working at a crematorium. It’s hard for me to think about death and I don’t like to do so. I know that this is not something that is unusual or unique to me. When I was reading her book I noticed that I felt like crying a lot, and I realized that I have a lot of anxiety around this topic. This isn’t very surprising considering death and dying isn’t a topic we openly discuss in our culture. Caitlin Doughty’s book got me thinking about this uncomfortable topic in a different way, and while it feels completely awkward to think and talk about this stuff, I know it’s important to do so. – Anna
I started down the morbid path awhile back when I wrote the post Your Body Is a Gold Mine (If You So Choose) – Selling Body Parts for Cash. And, not too long ago I decided to walk down the path a bit further and look into ways that your corpse can save a family money. Hey, anything to save a buck, right? One of the inevitable facts of life is that one day, life will end for all of us. Yes. It’s super depressing, and it’s a thought that most people don’t like to linger on for too long, but when is the last time you really thought about what type of funeral you want to have? Never? Okay. Maybe today is the day to think about it or, at least, think about thinking about it…
In western societies disposing of a deceased body has come down to two main choices: burial and cremation. Even though cremation is an excellent, inexpensive option, more choices are available. When I stopped to think about it for more than a fleeting moment, I realized that I don’t want my awesome corpse to be a financial burden on those I leave behind. FuneralTips.com reports that the average cost for a traditional funeral (embalming, casket, tombstone, etc) is roughly $8,000-10,000 dollars. Imagine, with inflation, the cost of your funeral. The majority of the cost of a traditional funeral comes from the funeral home itself and you’ll pay for every service they provide. Most services also have a way to be up-sold as well (did you know most caskets are marked up a ridiculous 900%??!). Imagine the savings if you can cut out that middle man altogether. There are ways to do this and save a bundle.
Also, your religion, if you have one, may have rules that dictate how a body must be treated after death. It’s also understandable that people would need closure when a loved one dies, and, granted, not all of the proposed burial practices will provide that.
Obviously no specific means of burial is “wrong” and it’s a personal decision, but if you (and your family) are open-minded and want to save some cash (and possibly become a piece of art) consider one of these alternatives to a traditional funeral.
Everything You Never Wanted to Know About How to Have an Inexpensive Funeral
Cremation is probably the most popular and readily acceptable alternative method to a traditional funeral. Rather than having remains buried, a corpse is reduced to ash with extreme heat, than the ashes are placed into a receptacle and either buried, put on display or scattered.
Cremations are far less expensive than a traditional funeral but unfortunately you’ll need the use of a crematorium, and any time a middleman gets involved in the process, the price starts to go up. Even at rock bottom prices, FuneralTips.com tells us that most cremations are still going to cost between $1,000-1,600. Foregoing a memorial service and keeping the urn simple will save a few more bucks. If you choose to spread the ashes, keep it simple, because many expensive and trendy alternatives are popping up. Now, you can get jewelry made out of the ashes, become a “living reef” by incorporating the remains into a coral reef, or you can even have ashes ejected into outer space by doing a “Space Burial“.
Personally, I have always felt that cremation sounds right for me. Since I love road trips so much, my plan is to leave enough money to either my kid(s) or grandkid(s) and have them drive my ashes across the country and toss them out throughout their road trip. Although more costly than cremation (but still cheaper than a traditional burial) there are more environmentally friendly variations of cremation that essentially accomplish the same thing by using solutions of water, electrolysis and other chemicals—methods like Aquamation, Resomation, Bio-cremation.
Green burials aim to forgo all the luxuries in death, shun chemical preservatives, and advocate simply getting dropped into the ground with minimal environmental impact. Advocates of this type of funeral argue that traditional burials are a waste of resources with millions of tons of wood, steel and cement, along with rivers of embalming fluid (which contains known carcinogens) getting buried in the ground every year. I don’t know if people just like the idea of putting off decomposition for a few years or if it’s just a western culture thing, but modern funeral services tend to prolong the process at an extreme cost to the individual’s family and environment. Embalming, the concrete vault your casket lays in and the casket itself are all designed to keep the creepy crawlies away and to keep the body snug. An embalmed body, depending on the quality of the embalming, the burial container and burial location, can take 5-10 years to decompose. With a green burial, decomposition begins almost immediately. The un-embalmed remains are placed directly in the ground either in a shroud or buried in a natural casket made out of biodegradable materials, such as wood, wicker or cardboard. Green burials aren’t free, but are considerably cheaper than a traditional funeral. Also, not all cemeteries allow them, but they are gaining in popularity and I wouldn’t be surprised if more people start using this alternative.
Similar to a green burial, another low-cost alternative to a traditional funeral is the home burial. A home burial cuts out the middleman all together and the family handles all the arrangements. “Death coaches” or “death midwives“, similar to a birthing doula (only on the opposite end) offer their services to families needing assistant navigating the process. Only six states have laws requiring that a funeral director must handle human remains and some cities have ordinances that prevent home burials, but in most places it is perfectly legal. The cost of a home burial can be as low (or as high) as you want it to be because you are in charge of all the arrangements and can get as creative as you want. You can even pre-buy a coffin, and get more use out of it by having it double as something else such as a bookcase or a coffee table until the time comes when you need it. Home burials are often more personal and intimate than a traditional funeral because the family is involved in every step. If I don’t go the cremation route, and depending on where I live in the future, a family burial on a nice piece of farmland also sounds appealing to me. Getting tossed in a simple pine box with no luxuries (other than a few mementoes from life) and stuck in the ground amongst other loved ones feels right. The idea of being embalmed and lying in a coffin for years isn’t appealing to me. I’d rather decompose quickly and get my sexy atoms back into the universe as fast as possible. (References for this paragraph found at FuneralDirectory.com.)
Burial at Sea
Burials at sea aren’t just reserved for the Navy. Private citizens are free to get buried at sea as long as the stay within certain guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The biggies are non-cremated remains (meaning whole body burials) must me “buried” at least three nautical miles from land and in water at least 600 feet deep. All necessary measures must be taken to ensure the remains sink and stay at the bottom. (There do not appear to be any regulations stating how this is accomplished.) You also must also notify the EPA of burials conducted at sea, in writing, within 30 days. The good news is that official funeral directors don’t have to be involved with the process at all. Bear in mind though that depending upon where you sail from, there is not a guarantee that three nautical miles out to sea will result in water depths up to 600 feet. There are definitely a few hurdles to get over with a burial at sea. Transporting human remains isn’t the easiest task, and you’ll run into some added cost, especially if you don’t live near a coastline or own a boat capable of reaching the required distance and depths, but under certain circumstances, burials at sea can be a cheap option. (Info referenced from EPA.)
If you are lucky enough to live in the town of Crestone, CO or the adjacent area you can now go out in a blaze of glory, just like our Viking ancestors. A funeral pyre is an open-air, natural cremation where the deceased is placed on an alter, surrounded by logs, then set on fire. Generally considered taboo in the United States but readily acceptable in other parts of the world, currently only one organization in the United States offers funeral pyres, The Crestone End of Life Project. They offer open-air cremations for $425, but at this point only residents of the town and nearby areas can have the service performed due to the project’s limited capabilities. Like a traditional cremation, the family receives the ashes, but since it’s impossible to separate the wood ash from the human ash, the family typically gets about five gallons of ash. With more people seeking alternatives to traditional funerals and with the rise in more natural and ecological means of disposing of a body, I think options like funeral pyres will become more commonplace in the modern world.
Donate your Body to Science
Donating your body to science for the purpose of research and teaching is probably the cheapest way to get rid of your corpse and relieve your heirs of the burden of a costly funeral. It’s normally free and whatever scientific organization your body is going to will usually pay for all expenses related to the donation process. As with anything in life, there are also rules in death.
You can’t donate your body if you succumbed to certain communicable illnesses, are obese, or had mental illnesses (for legal reasons). Your body also has to be mostly “intact” and as “normal” as possible, so people with disfiguring illnesses or those who have succumbed in a horrific way are usually excluded. In order to donate your body, you need to have died in good health. Also, there is no guarantee what type of research will be performed on your body. It could be used for dissection by medical students, for crash test experiments, decomposition experiments, or any number of pretty nasty things most don’t want to think about. However, if you do choose this option, know that your body will be put to great use for the advancement of medicine and scientific research.
Become a Piece of Art
Plastination is an anatomical process used to preserve bodies (or body parts). Similar to mummification, plastination halts decomposition by removing water and fat from the body and replacing it with a polymer solution that penetrates the cells and essentially turns your body into plastic. The process was invented by anatomist Gunther Von Hagens, the creator of Body Worlds, a controversial art exhibit that puts humans preserved by the plastination process on public display. I’ve seen Body Worlds myself and admittedly it’s a little creepy at first. All specimens on display are people who willingly donated their bodies to Von Hagens’ research institution with the intent of being plasticized and turn into art work. The donor list is long, the institute is in Germany, and there is no guarantee your body will ever make it into the actual exhibit, but if this is something you are interested in, I’d start the process now and hope for the best. Donate your body to Body Worlds Exhibit.
At some point in history, people stopped dealing with their dead and started outsourcing the dying process to professionals, and slowly but surely dealing with the dead became a profitable business and people forgot their rights. Most people now take what a funeral director says as gospel, but the fact of the matter is that very few states have laws requiring that a funeral home must be involved, that corpses must be embalmed, be buried in a casket or even buried at six feet deep.
Most people don’t know that those expensive concrete vaults your casket is placed in serves no other purpose than to keep the ground from caving in so the cemetery lawns can be freshly manicured and kept looking nice. No law requires concrete vaults, but most cemeteries require them. An un-embalmed corpse, as long as it is kept cool, can last for days and depending on the state and as long as you are not within a certain distance from a water source and own the property, the dead can be buried almost anywhere. Like all things in life (but in this case, death), getting educated on the subjected matter is the number one way to start saving money and when you know your rights, more options become available.
Have you discussed any of these options with your family? Would you consider an alternative burial? If so, which one?
P.S. Related read: “Death Comes Like a Thief in the Night” (& Other Reasons Why I’m Asking Myself if Saving Money is Really Worth It)
Kudos on doing such an unusual topic in a well-researched way! Death isn’t really a taboo topic where I come from but I never thought there were so many options. Thanks for an interesting read.
When my father died almost 8 years ago, we weren’t prepared at all. That was our biggest lesson, we had a financial problem and also for the funeral. It’s better to be prepared always.
It’s not the most comfortable topic but this was a very informative article. My Dad is buried in the town cemetary of Pagosa Springs. It’s a natural looking cemetary and you can do whatever you want with your plot, plus it cost $200 each and my mother bought 3. My thought is cremate me and put me somewhere on their plot so I don’t take up space. Three of the dogs are already buried with my Dad, as in with him in his casket in the little boxes ashes come in. It was a weird thing for my mother to do but at least I don’t have to worry about what to do with family pets, right?
My father donated his body to a medical school. He died of cancer, so I don’t think they require good health at the time of death. It took two and a half years before they returned his ashes to us. This shool required that you agree to a minumum of two years for the body to be studied. I know that whatever they did with his body, it was for the good of science. The hardest part for me was that at the time of death, we had a memorial service and at the time of burial of his ashes, we had another small private ceremony. That was very difficult to do twice, but also very meaningful. He was a man of deep faith who wanted to be of service to others, and he recognized that after death he would have no need for his body. This was his motivation, although I’m sure the frugality of the decision was a happy bonus. My mother plans to donate her body as well, when the time comes. Thanks for letting people know more about this option.
So informative, yet morbid also…death, it used to be so simple. We recently got life insurance for funeral costs. They would not cover me but they would my husband. My heart is not healthy.
It really helped when you said that cremation is way cheaper than the traditional way, and it usually costs about $1,000 to $6,000. This is perfect for us since our budget is until $5,000 only for the burial of our grandmother who died due to a heart attack. Thanks for the information regarding cremation!
I want to have my body donated to science. I don’t care what happens to my ashes. That empty shell is not “me”. I want each of my kids to have a cheap memorial plaque which they can keep in their yard in memory of me, and to plant trees and flowers in my memory. If my body is not accepted I want all usable parts to be donated to whoever needs them.