Save Your Money with Natural Burial

The average cost of a funeral in 2010 was $6,560.  Compare that to the average cost of a funeral in 1960 at $708 and the cost of a funeral has increased almost ten times in less than a lifetime!  These are the average prices reported in a survey conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association.  With an average price tag of $2,295 the cost of a metal casket is the largest portion (35%) of a typical funeral.  These prices do not include the cost of a cemetery plot, monument, burial vault, or other incidentals such as flowers or obituary announcements.  Factor in these added costs and the average cost of a funeral today can easily exceed $10,000!  We may easily spend more on our funeral than we spend on a comfortable bedroom set during our entire living lives!

So how, exactly, can I save money on my funeral?  The first and most important step is to plan ahead.  For an event that is 100% guaranteed to happen to each one of us, there is good reason to maybe a few basic choices and plan our own funerals.  Second, our wishes can only be known if we talk about them with family and friends and write them down.  Your funeral director can be of great service when it comes to planning a funeral, recording your wishes, and helping your family carry out your wishes at the time of your death.  For more information on planning a funeral, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has published Funerals: A Consumer's Guide and it is available for free.

One aspect of funeral planning overlooked by many of us is shopping.  The Federal Trade Commission suggests that you price shop for funeral services the same as you would for any other large purchase--such as a new car.  The consumer's guide published by the Federal Trade Commission has a lot of good suggestions for questions to ask and how to compare prices when shopping for a funeral service provider.

Burial shrouds for less than $300.
Saving money on a funeral is a matter of making smart choices.  While it is true that a natural burial can cost as much or more than the average funeral, the reasons for the additional costs are generally due to special cemetery requests, cost of transportation to a far-away natural burial cemetery, or a special casket for natural burial.  None of these is essential to a natural burial or the cost conscious funeral planner.  As reported by Ken Strauss in the Post-Bulletin in Rochester, MN, "While conventional burials can cost $6,000 to $8,000, green burials can be half the cost or less."  Natural burial casket options include handmade sea grass and wicker caskets ranging from $1400 to $3000, the trademarked Ecopod that retails for about $2700, or burial shrouds priced under $300.  Other options for natural burial include a growing selection of wooden caskets and casket kits ranging in price from $600 to $1500 including freight delivery to your home or funeral home.

Let's take a closer look at natural burial and how it relates to the cost of a funeral.  The Wikipedia entry on natural burial reads,
"The goal of a natural burial is to return the body to the earth in a manner that does not inhibit decomposition and allows the body to recycle naturally. It is intended as an environmentally sustainable alternative to existing funeral practices that may pose future hazards to public health and run counter to modern resource-conservation activities."
Many of the cost-accumulating practices incorporated in a typical funeral today are also contrary to natural decomposition of human remains and, in some cases, pose a threat to public health.  An example of one such practice is embalming.  While most states require some form of preservation of human remains if not disposed within 24 hours, there is no legal or regulatory requirement in any state to embalm human remains.  Embalming has a practical purpose and value for families who need time make travel arrangements and say goodbye.  Seeing the deceased for one last time in a peaceful state, sleeping, for many is a very helpful step in grieving the loss of a loved one.  There is a compromise and we should be aware of the impacts of embalming so that we can make choices consistent with our values.  Environmentally speaking, the formaldehyde in embalming fluid has been the subject of much debate for polluting ground water.  Even worse is the fact that 95% of cremations in the U.S. are embalmed.  Cremation of human remains requires permits and licensing, special training and protective gear to protect crematorium operators from the toxic gases produced.  As of July 2010, formaldehyde is under consideration to be banned in the European Union because of its carcinogenic effects.  For those families who value the environment, forgoing the embalming opting instead for a natural burial may be more in tune with their values.  You can opt to refrigerate the remains of your loved one until the day of the viewing--if a viewing is preferred.  You need not feel rushed to bury your loved one.  With the availability of refrigeration, you have days or weeks to make appropriate funeral arrangements, or arrange for attendance of family and friends who may need to travel from far away places.  Ask any county morgue and you will learn they sometimes have unidentified human remains in refrigerated storage for years before cremation or burial.

Precast concrete burial vaults by Century Group in Sulphur, LA.
Other cost-accumulating practices in a funeral today include the use of concrete burial vaults and elaborate steel caskets marketed to "seal out the elements."  A typical concrete burial vault sells for $1100 and the average price paid for a steel casket is $2300.  While most public and private cemeteries require use of a burial vault, no state law requires this practice.  There is a practical reason for burial vaults in that they prevent additional maintenance to "fill in" graves as they collapse from decay in the first year or two.  Nonetheless, we bury 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete every year in America's cemeteries--that is enough concrete to rebuild the Hoover Dam every 4 years!  Add to that the 100,000 tons of steel caskets and burial vaults and you have enough steel to build a 100-story sky scraper each year.  All of this is, in very practical terms, quite unnecessary.  Some cemeteries have compromised for different religious groups that require a casket be placed directly in the soil for a "natural return to the elements" for their deceased by just using the concrete vault lid to cover the casket.

The meadow at Usk Castle Chase.
The good news in all of this is that the consumer trend is changing as consumers educate themselves about the costs associated with funerals.  The popularity of the "Green" movement has drawn attention to the funeral industry.  The number of green and natural burials in the United Kingdom has risen with the first natural burial ground opening in 1993 and more than 200 in operation today.  In the United States it is encouraging to take note that the number of green burial cemeteries and eco-friendly burial spaces in traditional cemeteries has doubled year over year since 2005.

There's more good news.  Every funeral service provider in America already offers a natural burial service!  Federal law requires that funeral service providers give consumers a general price list of all goods and services without the consumer having to ask for it. As regulated by the Funeral Rule enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, every funeral service provider in the United States must also include a price and description in their offering for "Direct Burial/Entombment".  This service includes the minimum funeral service fee and transportation service to a cemetery.  There is no embalming service, viewing, or memorial service--the family can plan a memorial service at home or the cemetery after the burial and independent of the services provided by the funeral home.  Costs for this basic funeral range from $2000 to $3000 without a casket or burial vault.  Of course, even this basic funeral service is not required by any state law or federal regulation.  There is a small, but growing, number of families opting for a home funeral where all parts of the funeral are performed by family and friends.

Save your Money.  Save your Planet.  I challenge every reader of this post, regardless of age or health, to take action by talking to a friend or member of your family about your end-of-life wishes.  Some of us may say, "I'm dead, I really don't care."  But please ask yourself, where's the dignity in spending thousands of dollars on unnecessary products and services that consume precious natural resources and could bring harm to the environment you are leaving behind to your children?  Individually, we can each have the most influence on our own burial by just taking a few moments to talk to someone about our wishes.  Take the next step and write down your funeral wishes with the help of a funeral service provider or a member of your family.  With a little effort, you could save enough money to pay for a semester of college tuition for your child or grandchild.  How that for a little end-of-life dignity?