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Honoring Memory, Respecting Wishes: Balancing Funeral Costs with Sentiment

Explore our guide to planning meaningful funerals without the financial strain. From eco-friendly memorials to living funerals, discover how to celebrate your loved one’s life affordably. Get tips on budget-friendly tributes, meaningful celebrations, and navigating essential conversations about end-of-life wishes.

Funerals can be as different as the people they are celebrating. One person’s funeral might be a no-expense-spared extravaganza (think Aretha Franklin’s 100 pink Cadillac procession), while someone else has a quiet goodbye in a forest with a few family and friends. For most people, the event is somewhere in between, depending on their choices, their religion, their values, family traditions and the needs and location of their friends and family.

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the cost of a funeral with visitation and burial is over $8,000. A full-service cremation with viewing and ceremony is about $2,000 less with a direct cremation usually between $1,000 and $2,000. For most families, planning a funeral is a balancing act between their budget and what really matters most to them. 

Essential Steps for Budget-Friendly Funeral Planning

It’s helpful to think of funeral planning in two parts: the handling of the loved one’s body and the service held to remember them. Families can save money on both halves of the funeral cost equation.

Making informed decisions about how you conduct your funeral planning is dependent on understanding the language that is used in the funeral industry. For example, strictly speaking, a funeral means the service that’s held with a body or remains present, though many people use the term genetically even for a Celebration of Life, other memorial, party or other type of scattering event. When we talk about funeral arrangements and funeral planning, we are really talking about the whole range of options available for both the loved one and their service.

Why Have a Funeral at All?

As fewer Americans identify as religious and more people move away from their hometowns, there's a trend of skipping funerals or memorials when someone dies. Additionally, some individuals who expect to die before their family members may choose to spare them the stress of arranging a funeral or making a fuss to celebrate their life after they pass away. But research has shown that by gathering in some sort of service, whether it is a formal funeral or a less formal “Celebration of Life,” those left behind can gain meaning while sharing stories and memories with others and can move more easily in their grief journey. Even if you think you don’t want one, there’s some reasons to consider why you should plan a funeral for those you will leave behind.

Living Funerals: A Unique Pre-Death Celebration Idea

A growing trend is for loved ones to gather for a “living funeral” to celebrate a person while they are still alive. Spoiler alert: In the movie “Dick Johnson is Dead,” Kirsten Johnson pays tribute to her dad Charles Richard “Dick” Johnson in a funny and sometimes bittersweet film that shows him dying in fantastical ways, though he is very much alive and coping with dementia. In a key scene, friends and loved ones gather to share their memories of Dick Johnson and he is able to join them in the celebration. Living funerals have become a popular way to celebrate the lives of loved ones while they are still able to enjoy sharing the memories.

Creating Affordable Tributes: Meaningful and Low-Cost Memorial Ideas

There are many ways you can create a meaningful tribute for your loved one without a large expense. There are no right and wrong decisions for choosing the elements that are authentic and meaningful to you. Consider these ideas for inexpensive tributes for your loved one.

Write a Poem

Crafting a heartfelt poem can create a space for emotional healing and solace for grieving people.

Make Music

Music can evoke cherished memories and serve as a beautiful contribution to the funeral service.

Dress with a Theme

Encouraging attendees to wear their favorite sports team's jersey or clothing that reflects their preferred color or style can be a powerful way to honor their memory.

Pick a Decor Theme

Themed decorations can not only show their unique personality but also serve as a comforting reminder of how they lived their lives.

Make a Memory Table

Encourage attendees to bring objects that represent different aspects of the person's life and collect them on a table to serve as a focal point where stories can be shared.

Whether you choose one of these ideas or a DIY project of your own, the main thing is to capture your loved one’s personality, quirks and interests with the personalized rituals you share.

Is a Funeral Just a Pricey Party?

When you are grieving, the idea of planning a service can feel overwhelming because of the many details and the price tag. The cost of a traditional funeral (with viewing and burial) is now over $8,000, so family members may be blindsided by the cost if they or their loved one did not plan ahead. However, there are ways to save money. Consider these options if you are on a budget:

  • Cremation instead of burial 
  • Hosting a memorial service or life celebration instead of a traditional funeral
  • Look into payment plans

A cremation (even one with a viewing and service) is on average $2,000 less than a burial. Direct cremation, where a ceremony does not happen until after the cremation, is usually about a third of the cost of a full-service cremation.

Hosting your own memorial service can be as fancy or modest as you need it to be. It can be held at your home, a church hall, park or private club. Food can be catered for a reception or you can make it “potluck.”

Payment plans can help you pay for your loved one’s funeral over time. There are options for credit cards and breaking the cost into several payments, depending on which funeral provider you choose.

Planning an Epic Celebration of Life on a Budget

Instead of a somber and traditional funeral service, many choose to celebrate their loved one's life with a focus on their passions, personality, and accomplishments. These five ideas can help you plan an “epic” celebration.

Choose a Meaningful Location

One way to personalize your loved one’s celebration of life is by selecting a location that holds significance for your family.

Highlight Their Passions

By highlighting their passions, you create a celebration of life that truly reflects their unique character.

Celebrate Their Hobbies

Think about the activities or hobbies your loved one enjoyed during their free time and find ways to incorporate them into the event. 

Include Music in the Memorial

Incorporating your loved one's favorite songs into their service can create a unique and heartfelt memorial.

Embrace Environmentally Conscious Choices

For those with a passion for the environment, a green burial, giving out seed packets to your guests or donating to an earth-focused charity could each be an option for remembering their cause.

More Budget-Friendly Memorial Personalization Ideas

According to Be Ceremonial cofounder Megan Sheldon, you can create a ritual-filled memorial without spending a lot of money. She shared these ideas with Afterall.

Talk a Walk

Instead of meeting at an expensive venue, invite guests to join in on a special walk where stories can be shared, songs sung or candles lit.

Create a Virtual Memory Book

Many websites including Afterall have free areas where you can create an online memorial or “memory book” to save on printing costs.

Virtual Sharing

Whether you meet online or in person, you can encourage participants to bring an object that connects them to the person and be prepared to talk about it or leave it on a memorial table.

A memorial that includes a reception can also be personalized with a toast of the loved one’s favorite drink or food they enjoyed or made for others.

Make or Purchase a Meaningful Memento

After the guests have gone home and your loved one laid to rest, you may want some tangible object to remember them by. While some people may opt for a diamond or a parting stone, there are many inexpensive remembrances you can create or purchase. For a memento that is less costly, consider these options:

Go Green with a Tree

Whether you plant your own tree, shrub or flower, or purchase a memorial tree from Afterall, a living tribute is an environmentally conscious way to remember your loved one.

DIY Ideas from Bracelets to Rock Gardens

If you are crafty or have a green thumb, there are many DIY ideas for remembering your loved one. The supplies are affordable if you can provide the labor of love.

Memorial Jewelry

For those who’d like to wear their memento, jewelry is an option.

Whether you call it a keepsake, a memento, a trinket or a “tchotchke,” any item you make, purchase or keep from the items they left behind can keep your loved one’s memory alive.

The Most Important Conversation Americans Avoid

According to the nonprofit, The Conversation Project, while most of us think talking about funeral and end-of-life planning is important, few of us do it. The group was started by journalist Ellen Goodman who, because of her own experience with her mother, realized how helpful it would be to start having these important conversations.

While you may have been raised not to talk about someone’s health, finances or death, these are all things that you may need to make decisions about on their behalf at the end of their life if you are next-of-kin or an important loved one who has been chosen to navigate the choices.

The Conversation Project has online suggestions on how to start the conversation. Among the questions you should ask or tell your loved one (or have a conversation in both directions):

  • Where you bank
  • Whether you have investments and through what companies
  • If you have life insurance
  • If you have a safe deposit box
  • If your bills are on autopay or not
  • If you have a trust or will and where it is

These conversations don’t have to happen all at once, but experts agree that it is never too soon to start having them.

While it may seem awkward or “too soon,” to have these conversations, without guidance, family members are left to wonder if they made the decision a loved one would have wanted. 

Easy first questions to discuss with your loved ones could include whether you or they:

  1. Would like to be buried or cremated, or if you are interested in one of the evolving methods (aquamation, human “composting” i.e. natural reduction, body donation).
  2. Would like a funeral (that is, a service with a body or remains present) or memorial.
  3. Have an idea of where you would like your final resting place (in a cemetery, scattered at a favorite location, in a family plot, etc.).
  4. Have a budget in mind. Generally speaking, cremation is about $2,000 less than burial in price surveys of disposition that also includes a service and a viewing.

“You need to sit down at the kitchen table with people you love and talk about your wishes and their wishes for end of life,” Goodman explained in a TedTalk. The Conversation Project has many tips on its website including a “starter guide” with many prompts to begin these important talks.

Resources

We’ve gathered many resources here on Afterall to help you plan ahead for a funeral for yourself or make arrangements for someone else. 

In addition to what you’ll find here, you may also look at helpful tips from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which governs the funeral business through what’s called the Funeral Rule. There you’ll find information about your rights as a funeral consumer and information on how to compare prices.

The Funeral Rule gives you the right to:

  • Buy only the funeral arrangements you want. 
  • Get price information on the telephone. 
  • Get a written, itemized price list when you visit a funeral home. 

You can find more information on the FTC website. Other helpful sites include the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance and AARP.

There are a wide range of choices available to choose from when planning a funeral. We hope these tips help you navigate the balancing act between the costs and the sentiment of paying tribute to your loved one. In the end, it is not what you spend but the memories that you share that’s most important.

A Funeral Director can help provide all the resources and support that you need. Find one near you.

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