The Last Goodbye: How to Plan a Funeral - Consumer Reports (2024)

Six years ago, Kelly Avery and Kristin Harper, sisters from Birmingham, Ala., gathered their families by the sky-blue ocean waters of Destin, Fla., to memorialize their mother, Barbara Harper.

They shared funny stories and music, and shed some tears as they spread their mother’s ashes from the deck of a large boat. The captain played the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” over the public address system in her honor.

The experience not only gave the family a meaningful way to pay tribute to Barbara but also got the sisters thinking about their own memorials. When it’s her time to go, Kelly says, “I would also want a party filled with laughter and fond memories.”

In this article

  • Traditional Burial
  • Cremation
  • 4 More Ways to Go
  • Should You Put Aside Funeral Funds Now?
  • How to Make Your Wishes Known

Like Kelly and Kristin, many people are embracing a new model for saying goodbye to family members and other loved ones. Cremation, for instance, is growing in popularity, as are environmentally gentle burials and even at-home funeral services.

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And whether these services are traditional or more unusual, there are now more ways than ever to personalize end-of-life arrangements—and to keep them low-cost.

The key is making some choices well beforehand, which more people appear to be doing. For instance, according to an April 2024 Consumer Reports nationally representative survey (PDF) of 2,042 adults in the U.S., 50 percent said they planned or intended to plan ahead either for their own funeral or for someone else’s. Read on for a rundown of possibilities and costs.

(Prices for the traditional burial and cremation packages below are from the 2023 National Funeral Directors Association’s Member General Price List Study.)

Traditional Burial

This still popular choice often gets a more personalized spin these days. It’s all in the details, which you get to choose.

These burials may be what their name suggests—traditional—but lately they tend to come with more personal touches, says Glenda Stansbury, a licensed funeral director and celebrant in the Oklahoma City area: “I see more focus on telling a person’s life story” than on a religious ceremony.

And many details are up to you. For instance, embalming may not be mandatory, though it’s strongly suggested for open-casket services. The only musts are the fees for basic services (funeral planning, transporting and storing remains, permits, copies of the death certificate) and anything the state calls for.

How to choose? Ask for prices at a couple of local funeral homes. A typical package may include everything the fee for basic services covers, a visitation or viewing and/or a graveside service, the use of a hearse and limousines, and embalming and dressing the body. With a $2,500 casket and $1,700 vault (a concrete box for the casket), the cost is nearly $10,000—and can run higher.

A funeral home must give you a list of its goods and services when you call or visit, says Melissa Dickey, an attorney and co-coordinator of the Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule program. That won’t include sales tax, the cemetery plot (often $2,000 and up), and fees for opening and closing the grave ($900 and up). A headstone adds another $1,000 to $3,000 on average, according to Empathy, a website that offers what it calls a “comprehensive support system” for bereaved families.

If you have a set amount to spend, “let the funeral director know, and see what they can put together for you,” says Christopher P. Robinson, president-elect of the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).

There’s another increasingly popular option: a home funeral, the norm in the U.S. before the 19th century, says Shannon Lee Dawdy, PhD, a University of Chicago anthropologist and author of “American Afterlives” (Princeton University Press, 2021). The body remains at home for several days as family and friends say their farewells. Some people also have a formal funeral service there. Get more information at homefuneralalliance.org.

Cost of a Traditional Burial: $9,995

With a viewing, a full funeral service, the use of a hearse and limo, a $2,500 casket, and more, a traditional burial can get pretty pricey. One way to reduce costs is to buy a casket from Costco.com, which has models for $1,500. Not a member? Retailers such as Amazon and Walmart also offer lower-priced caskets.

Cremation

It’s America’s favorite exit strategy and is expected to become even more common.

Cremation, which has outstripped burial in recent years by 60.5 percent vs. 34.5 percent, according to the NFDA, typically involves using heat and flames to reduce human remains to tiny bone fragments commonly called ashes but more accurately referred to as “cremains.”

Beyond the basics, you’ve got several options. The least expensive and most straightforward is direct cremation, where the body goes to a crematorium without a viewing or service. While costs vary, the NFDA lists a national average price of $3,290, and Cremation.com quotes an average of $2,000.

You may also find much lower prices. For instance, some ads for direct cremation in New York State cite starting fees of $595; services like transporting the body may increase costs.

If you instead choose a funeral home viewing, with embalming and preparing the body (recommended for a viewing), and transferring cremains back to the family, the median price in 2023 was $4,665. A formal service before cremation costs an additional $1,615.

As with traditional burials, it’s wise to check with a couple of providers before you choose one. Some funeral homes have their own crematoriums, and many others can help you make arrangements with local facilities, including those for direct cremation. The Cremation Association of North America offers a directory at cremationassociation.org.

You’ll also want to plan for what to do with the cremains after any ceremony is over. Some people keep them at home in a container they choose. Funeral homes typically offer these, at a median price of $295. Amazon has carved rosewood boxes for $13 and up, and urns for $15 and up. Or cremains can be divided among family members. You’ll find mini urns and small decorative or commemorative boxes for that purpose with a Google search.

Cremains can also be placed in a columbarium (a bookcase-like structure at a cemetery that holds urns) at a cost that can range from about $750 to $3,125, according to Cremation.com. And some people bury cremains in a cemetery, a pricier option because you have to pay for the plot and cover other cemetery fees. If you want to scatter the ashes, some cemeteries allow this in certain areas, as do some public spaces. Check the rules first. For instance, you can sprinkle cremains in parts of Yosemite National Park, but you need permission.

Cost of Cremation: $6,280

This fee covers the costs of the cremation itself and an urn for the cremains, along with services such as transporting and preparing the body, a funeral home viewing and formal service, death certificates, and printed materials such as memorial cards and a guest book.

4 More Ways to Go

Here are options that are more eco-friendly and often less costly than a traditional burial or cremation.

Green Burial
You dig a grave by hand and cover the body with dirt. That’s a green burial, which generally uses no chemicals—such as embalming fluid—“and no outer burial container except those that are biodegradable,” says Edward Bixby, founder of the Global Green Burial Alliance. Instead of a headstone, you can save GPS coordinates to the plot.

Green cemeteries (some located within traditional cemeteries) tend to look like nature preserves with paths. Check greenburialcouncil.org for providers who can work with you.

Depending on factors like your location and the options you choose (will the body be wrapped in a cotton shroud or placed in a biodegradable casket?), these may range from $2,000 to $5,000.

Cost of a Green Burial: $2,000 to $5,000

It can be as simple as placing the body in the ground in one of 456 park-like cemeteries in the U.S. and Canada—or you can include a viewing and full funeral service plus a biodegradable casket.

Water Cremation
Considered more eco-friendly than regular high-heat cremation, alkaline hydrolysis uses water, chemicals, and heat to speed decomposition. It’s legal in more than 20 states, with costs starting at around $1,995 and averaging $3,500. Search for “alkaline hydrolysis” to find a provider.

Donating Your Body
Medical schools use donated bodies for research or teaching and may cremate them afterward.

Hospitals retrieve organs from donated bodies, often returning the body to the family afterward. In both, a funeral provider is usually needed for services like transportation, which the family generally pays for. To designate a facility for donation, check for the “anatomical gift program” at medical school websites, or “body donor” or “anatomical donor program” at hospitals.

Burial at Sea
Here, cremains or a body are taken by boat out to sea for release in the water. While the military has a long history of providing this for personnel, it’s an option for anyone who has the proper permits and follows government guidelines. Search for “burial at sea” and “charter boat” to find operators who can help or connect you with funeral directors experienced in such burials. Cost depends on location, how many people will be onboard, and how far a boat must travel. One California provider publishes prices of $6,130 and up.

Should You Put Aside Funeral Funds Now?

It’s wise to consider how to cover funeral costs ahead of time. But what’s the best way? Here, the pros and cons of three options.

Opening a final expenses bank account. An interest-bearing “payable on death” savings account is a smart way to set aside money for arrangements. When the time comes, the funds can be transferred to an appointed family member or friend. Ask at your bank or credit union.

Paying in advance. It’s fine to purchase a burial plot well before it’s needed, but funeral directors also often suggest prepaying for funeral home services. This isn’t necessarily in your best interest, according to the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA). What if the funeral home closes or your survivors don’t know or forget that you prepaid?

Buying an insurance policy. Burial insurance (also known as final expense insurance) pays $5,000 to $25,000 when you die, with monthly premiums of about $50 to $100 for a $10,000 death benefit. Some funeral homes and insurance agents and brokers offer “pre-need” insurance in which you pick a funeral package and the payout goes to a specific funeral home after your death. In both of those cases, you’ll likely spend more on premiums than the policies pay out, according to the FCA. Some policies also have waiting periods of, say, one to three years. If you die too soon into the policy, your survivors may get far less than the full amount.

The Last Goodbye: How to Plan a Funeral - Consumer Reports (1)

How to Make Your Wishes Known

It’s important to put your end-of-life plans in an advance directive, a legal document of your healthcare and other wishes. You can fill out this state-specific form yourself and give copies to key family members or friends.

Or consider creating a “when I die” file and sharing it with loved ones. Online repositories such as Prisidio and Everplans will make your advance directive and other essential information—such as life insurance account passwords—available to a trusted person or two when they’re needed.

Documents aside, it’s also a good idea to talk with family members about your end-of-life preferences so that you can work through any questions or concerns. Need a hand getting the conversation started? Tips on the Conversation Project website will help pave the way.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the August 2024 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

The Last Goodbye: How to Plan a Funeral - Consumer Reports (2)

Janet Siroto

Janet Siroto is a writer and content strategist specializing in lifestyle and wellness topics. She's held senior editorial positions at Good Housekeeping, Vogue, and Cosmopolitan, and contributes to Real Simple, Next Avenue, and other titles. She is also a trend tracker whose work has been presented at South by Southwest, the Wall Street Journal's The Future of Everything, Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, and other summits.

The Last Goodbye: How to Plan a Funeral - Consumer Reports (2024)
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