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The Ultimate Guide to Funeral Costs: Planning for Peace of Mind

Explore our Ultimate Guide to Funeral Costs and find peace of mind with affordable planning options. Learn how to honor your loved one without overspending, understand funeral costs, and discover how to navigate financial decisions with ease.

How do you balance grief and financial decisions for a loving farewell that won’t cost more than you want to spend? 

Honoring wishes on a budget doesn’t have to be complicated when you have caring and reputable professionals to guide you. Given today’s average funeral cost, it is not disrespectful or inappropriate to want affordable funeral options. Prepaying for a funeral, purchasing funeral insurance, or putting money into a separate bank account is the best way to save, but many people do not. By taking a few minutes to read this guide, you’ll feel more comfortable talking to providers, asking for a funeral cost breakdown, and making the right choices for your budget and your loved one’s legacy.

Funerals don’t have to be over-the-top extravagant, but they should stand as a testament to your loved one’s beliefs, passions, and values — and as part of your acceptance of a new normal without your loved one. 

How Much Does an Average Funeral Cost?

According to the most recent National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) data, the national median cost of a funeral with a viewing and burial in 2023 is approximately $8,300 (if a burial vault is required, add $1,695). The average national cost of a cremation with viewing is about $6,280.  

However, a funeral cost breakdown identifies factors that can raise or reduce your total price. Some of these factors you control, like opting for cremation over casketed burial or planning a simple memorial at the beach instead of a higher-priced location. Other factors you cannot influence are where you live (urban or rural), the cost of goods and materials, and mandatory permits.

Factors That Affect Funeral Costs:

  • Type of Service – Funerals with viewings and burials are more expensive than cremation, including cremation with viewings.
  • Funeral Home Services – Funeral homes offer varying service packages, and the cost will depend on factors like embalming, viewing, transportation, and facilities for the ceremony.
  • Casket or Urn – The material, quality, and design of the casket or urn selected can significantly impact the overall cost. 
  • Embalming and Preparation – Embalming, refrigeration, and other preparations have different price points. 
  • Location – Funeral costs vary based on geographic location, local market conditions, and urban versus rural areas. 
  • Transportation – Transportation costs for the deceased, family, and mourners are based on distance traveled and the type of vehicle used.
  • Cemetery or Crematory Fees – These charges include interment, cremation, gravesite preparation, or niche placement. 
  • Memorial Products – Expenses for memorial cards, printed materials, flowers, and tribute videos contribute to the overall cost.
  • Professional Fees – These fees cover licensed funeral directors and staff's expertise and assistance. 
  • Preparation and Planning – The level of customization and detail in planning the funeral service, including coordination with clergy, musicians, or celebrants, can affect costs.
  • Government Fees and Permits – Charges for death certificates, permits, and other legal documentation vary by jurisdiction.

Do You Even Have to Hold a ‘Funeral’?

In today's world, when we talk about a "funeral," it's not just about the somber ceremony anymore. This catch-all term includes everything from what we do with the deceased’s body to how we remember the person. You don't have to plan a traditional funeral if it doesn't feel right. There are other ways to honor someone's memory:

  • Memorials allow you to pay tribute to someone special without the physical presence of their body or ashes.
  • Celebrations of life are informal gatherings to reminisce about fond memories and your loved one’s legacy.
  • Scatterings (spreading their ashes in places that were special to them) can be structured or freeform – just be certain you have permission to scatter from the property owner, local government, or other authorizing agent.

Bottom line: Whether you call them funerals, memorials, or life celebrations, it is important to have some kind of ceremony where friends and family come together to share stories and support each other. There is no one-size-fits-all, and no one should pressure you into purchasing or planning something that does not feel authentic to you. 

What Is the Cheapest Way to Plan a Funeral?

A loved one’s sudden passing can be incredibly challenging. You must not only process the shock of an unanticipated life event but also shoulder an unanticipated financial burden. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for planning a funeral on a tight budget:

Set a Budget and Prioritize

Start by determining how much you can afford to spend on the funeral. After setting a budget, prioritize the key elements that are most important to you and your loved ones. This will help you allocate your resources more effectively.

Consider Direct Cremation or Direct Burial

Opting for cremation instead of a traditional burial can be more cost-effective. Cremation generally involves fewer expenses, with direct cremation being the lowest cost for any type of funeral. If you don’t feel comfortable with cremation, direct burial is an affordable funeral option. Direct burial includes only the necessary services and costs less than a traditional burial. The average cost for an immediate burial is about $2,600.

Shop Around and Compare Prices

Just as you would for any large-ticket purchase, compare prices. Take the time to research and compare prices from different funeral homes in your area. The Federal Trade Commission's Funeral Rule requires funeral providers to provide consumers with detailed price information called a General Price List (GPL). Don’t be afraid to ask questions or negotiate for a lower price. 

Be aware that there are some costs that you cannot negotiate when buying funeral arrangements:

  • Taxes, including sales and local taxes
  • Government fees for necessary permits and documentation 
  • Cemetery fees
  • Crematory fees

Packages Versus Per Item

Packaged funeral plans typically offer a pre-selected bundle of funeral services and merchandise at a fixed price. They provide convenience and deliver cost savings compared to purchasing each item separately. Packages also simplify decision-making during difficult times and can help prevent emotional overspending. Carefully review the package details to ensure it includes everything you want or need. 

On the other hand, per-item pricing allows you to choose specific services and items individually, paying for each separately. You can select specific services and merchandise that meet your preferences and budget. Selecting products and services is beneficial if you have particular preferences or wish to prioritize certain elements.

Buy Your Own Casket or Cremation Urn

Funeral homes cannot refuse to handle a casket or urn you bought online or at a local retailer. They cannot charge you a handling fee for caskets or urns you provide. They also cannot require you to be present when the casket or urn is delivered to them.  

You can also skip a cremation casket if you’re not having a viewing or traditional funeral. No state or local law requires the use of a casket for cremation. A funeral home offering cremations must tell you about alternative containers of unfinished wood, pressed wood, fiberboard, or cardboard.

Opt for a Simple, DIY Service 

Rather than relying solely on funeral home services (which can add up), consider taking on specific tasks yourself or with the help of family and friends. You can create homemade floral arrangements, design and print your own memorial programs, or even prepare the food for the reception. DIY elements help reduce costs and add a personal and meaningful touch to the service.

Consider a more straightforward and intimate gathering instead of an elaborate memorial. You can hold the service at a local community center, a loved one's home, or even outdoors, depending on your preferences and local regulations. 

Explore Financial Assistance Options

In some cases, there may be financial assistance programs available to help cover funeral expenses. Check with local nonprofits, religious organizations, or government agencies to see if you qualify for assistance programs or grants. Qualified veterans, their spouses, and certain family members can access burial benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Another option is a whole-body donation. Organizations like Science Care work nationwide with funeral homes and crematories to provide body donation and cremation services to families at no cost. 

How Do Funeral Costs Breakdown?

Taking a few minutes to understand how funeral costs breakdown is an excellent way to stay within your budget. Although some services and products are not optional (per your local ordinances or cemetery rules), knowing the approximate cost for each item can prevent overspending.

Keep in mind that these are average prices, and things might cost less or more depending on where you live:

  • Metal or fiberboard casket: $2,500 (casket prices vary and increase when you look at mahogany, bronze, and copper)
  • Burial vault: $1,695
  • Burial plots: $1,000 - $5,000
  • Columbarium: $350 - $2,500
  • Funeral service fee: $2,459
  • Cremation casket: $1,310
  • Alternative cremation container: $160
  • Embalming: $845
  • Cremation fee: $368
  • Cosmetic preparations: $295
  • Hearse: $375
  • Flowers: $80 and up, depending on type and amount
  • Transportation to funeral home: $395
  • Urn: $295
  • Cremation fee: $400
  • Service vehicle: $175
  • Facility use for viewing: $475
  • Facility use for memorial: $550
  • Basic memorial printed package (programs, prayer cards, etc.): $195

Why Are Funerals Costs Higher in Certain States?

Funeral costs fluctuate depending on where you live. Click here for a breakdown of median burial and cremation costs by state.

  • Local Economy – In areas with a higher cost of living or greater affluence, funeral expenses tend to be higher. Conversely, in economically challenged regions, funeral costs may be comparatively lower.
  • Cultural and Religious Practices – Different communities and regions have diverse funeral customs and traditions. Some areas may emphasize elaborate ceremonies, expensive caskets, or specific rituals, contributing to higher overall costs.
  • Competition – In places with numerous funeral service providers, more competitive pricing and a broader range of services may be offered.
  • Regulations and Licensing – Funeral industry regulations and licensing requirements vary from state to state. Compliance with specific standards and licensing fees may affect the operational costs of funeral homes, impacting the prices they charge.
  • Overhead and Operational Costs – The general cost of doing business, including overhead expenses like facility maintenance, staff salaries, and administrative fees, can contribute to the overall pricing structure.
  • Seasonal Costs – Harsh weather conditions like cold and frozen ground can mean extended preservation costs, special equipment for grave preparation, and additional labor.

Are Burial Vaults, Caskets, and Embalming Required?

The short answer to whether you must purchase a burial vault, casket, or embalming is no, but there are exceptions. 

Embalming: Usually Optional

No states require routine embalming for every death. Some states require embalming or refrigeration if burial or cremation doesn’t occur within a particular time. In most cases, refrigeration is an acceptable alternative. In addition, direct cremation and immediate burial don’t require any preservation. Many funeral homes have a policy requiring embalming for public viewing but might offer a brief, private family viewing without embalming. 

Caskets: Usually Yes and Recommended

There are no existing federal regulations that require a casket for ground burial. Green or natural burials are becoming more popular and do not involve a casket. But state and local regulations often limit where you may bury someone without a casket. Even when no casket is required, many states, funeral homes, and cemeteries require a burial vault or similar container.

For the living, caskets provide a sense of reassurance that our loved ones are secure and protected. When accompanied by a burial vault, caskets slow the natural decomposition process. This preservation allows us to cherish memories of our loved ones as they were rather than dwelling on the inevitable changes over time. Consequently, many individuals choose to acquire caskets, whether it is a mandatory requirement or a personal preference.

Burial Vaults: It Depends

A burial vault protects the casket – and your loved one – from water, soil, and other natural intrusions. Burial vaults also prevent the soil from sinking in and around the gravesite, which could make the ground uneven and unsafe. Many cemeteries require burial vaults for this reason. However, they are not mandatory under state law anywhere in the U.S. Cemeteries generally do not require purchasing a burial vault if you choose a mausoleum because they are above-ground. 

What's the Difference In Burial and Cremation Costs?

When comparing funeral costs, one thing becomes apparent: cremation is more affordable than burial. Here are the most prominent differences in funeral prices between burial and cremation.

Burial

Funeral Services – Burials typically require a casket and burial vault, which are significant costs. Depending on when the burial occurs, embalming or refrigeration is needed. Burials often have graveside ceremonies, which contribute to higher costs.

Cemetery Costs – Burials involve the purchase of a burial plot, vault, or mausoleum space, each of which has its associated costs. You must also have some type of grave marker or headstone, a separate expense. Some cemeteries charge ongoing maintenance fees for the upkeep of the burial site. 

Cremation

Funeral Services – You might need embalming or refrigeration if you choose a viewing or visitation or if there is a delay in cremation. Cremations require a combustible container, although it does not have to be a casket. If you are keeping the ashes at home, burying or interring them, you should buy a permanent urn to replace the flimsy temporary containers that the funeral home or crematory provides. 

Cemetery Costs – Cremated ashes can be buried, interred, or scattered, so you might not have cemetery costs. Of course, many families want a permanent memorial. You can purchase space within a columbarium or niche. Glass-front niches cost more and allow you to display a photo or other memento. You can also inter ashes into statuary, such as a pedestal or bench. Many cemeteries have scattering gardens. 

Memorial Services for Burial and Cremation

You can incorporate all the traditional elements associated with burial but for cremation: viewing, visitation, casket or urn displayed during the service, and a religious or secular memorial. However, cremation offers greater flexibility in terms of scheduling and location. If you want to have the casket on display, you must have the funeral before burial, and typically, within the funeral home’s chapel or other space. With this option, you have less time to plan and shop for the best prices. 

Cremation allows you to plan and schedule a memorial or celebration of life when and where it is most convenient and affordable for you – unless you want a traditional funeral in which your loved one’s casket is present for the service. 

Whether you choose burial or cremation, you can plan a meaningful and respectful memorial without overspending by making thoughtful and intentional choices.

What Is the Difference Between Traditional and Direct Cremation?

Even if you know your loved one preferred cremation, you may not be aware of your options for where and how their cremation may be handled. There are two types of cremation: traditional and direct. 

Traditional Cremation

Generally, funeral homes offer complete packages for traditional cremation, which might include the following: 

  • Transportation of your loved one to and from the funeral home
  • Embalming and dressing your loved one for a funeral service
  • A private viewing for friends and family before cremation with an open or closed casket
  • A memorial service or traditional funeral service
  • A witness to observe cremation as it takes place 
  • A rental casket, flowers, catering, a decorative urn, and other options may also be included or offered for an extra fee

Direct Cremation

In contrast, direct cremation, or simple cremation, is a more straightforward and cost-effective alternative. Direct cremation services include the essential elements of cremation:

  • Transportation of your loved one from the place of passing to the funeral home or crematory
  • Completion of paperwork necessary for cremation
  • Cremation performed without witnesses
  • Simple container to store and ship your loved one’s ashes

What Is Direct Burial?

Direct burial services are more straightforward than traditional burials and, therefore, more affordable. There is no embalming because immediate burials take place within a few days after passing. Direct burial includes:

  • Transportation of loved one to funeral home
  • Minimal or no public viewing; brief private viewing may be arranged
  • Transportation to the cemetery
  • Simple graveside service 

What Is a Green Burial, and Is It More Affordable? 

A green burial, also called natural burial or eco-friendly burial, is viewed as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional burial practices. Loved ones are buried in a biodegradable shroud or casket without embalming chemicals. Their resting place is a dedicated conservation burial ground or area within a traditional cemetery.

As an alternative to traditional burial, there are pros and cons to green burial:

Pros:

  • Environmentally Friendly – A green burial minimizes environmental impact by reducing the release of contaminants into the earth, such as embalming agents and non-biodegradable materials. 
  • Cost Savings – Green funerals offer substantial cost savings compared to conventional options by eliminating expensive aspects like embalming and elaborate caskets.
  • Legacy – A green burial is a fitting, final tribute to those who practiced good stewardship of the earth during their lifetime. 

Cons:

  • Limited Availability – Fewer providers offer green burials and might not be readily accessible, potentially increasing carbon footprint due to transportation.
  • Lack of Grave Markers – Green cemeteries may not permit traditional headstones, limiting grave marker options to flat stones or trees.
  • No Last Visit – Green burials may preclude visitation or wake if not performed promptly, as alternatives to embalming may not maintain a cosmetic appearance suitable for viewing.

Is There Financial Assistance to Cover Funeral Expenses?

You might qualify for financial assistance to help cover funeral costs. Here are a few agencies that could help. 

Veterans Benefits 

If you are an honorably discharged veteran, you might qualify for Veterans Affairs (VA) burial benefits, including no-cost burial or interment at a national, state, or tribal veterans cemetery. Other VA benefits include:

  • Government headstone, marker, or medallion
  • Burial flag
  • Two-person Honor Guard from service branch and playing of “Taps”
  • Presidential Memorial Certificate
  • Burial allowances to reimburse burial, cremation, and funeral costs

For eligibility and benefit information, visit this VA website. 

FEMA’s COVID-19 Assistance Program

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will provide up to $9,000 in reimbursement for funeral expenses related to COVID-19. Assistance is limited to funerals on or after January 20, 2020. FEMA will accept applications for COVID-19 funeral assistance until September 30, 2025.

To learn about available benefits and eligibility, call FEMA at (844) 684-6331 or click here. 

Social Security Benefits

Social Security offers limited benefits to help with funeral costs: 

$255 Lump Sum Death Payment – Typically paid to surviving spouse if they:

  • Lived with the deceased
  • Lived apart but were eligible for certain Social Security benefits on the deceased's record

If there's no surviving spouse, a child eligible for benefits at the time of passing can receive this payment.

Monthly Benefits – May be available to: 

  • Surviving spouse
  • Unmarried children
  • Dependent parents, age 62 or older
  • Surviving divorced spouse under certain conditions

To learn more about Social Security death benefits, call (800) 772-1213 or click here. 

Financial Assistance for Native Americans and Alaska Natives

There are federal, state, and tribal resources for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives to help with end-of-life expenses:

Indian Health Service (IHS) – Federal health services to American Indians and Alaska Natives with some hospice and palliative care resources. Visit https://www.ihs.gov

Indian Land Tenure Foundation – This organization’s "Leave a Legacy" initiative assists with wills, estate planning, and burial information for Native American communities. Visit https://www.iltf.org

Native American Rights Fund (NARF) – Legal representation and assistance on indigenous rights, including end-of-life legal considerations and burial rights. Visit https://www.narf.org

Local Tribal Governments and Organizations – Local tribal health departments or councils often have specific recommendations or services for culturally appropriate and respectful services, ceremonies, and post-death commemorations. Here are a few:

Taking the Next Step

Honoring your loved one’s final wishes on a budget can feel less overwhelming when you have knowledge and information to guide you. It’s also helpful to talk with a friendly, compassionate professional. Afterall is a collective of funeral homes, cremation providers, and cemeteries committed to helping families throughout the end-of-life process. We currently serve families in 21 states – click here to find a location near you.

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