In early 2006, I started working in an industry that I had never once considered; the funeral industry.  For the next six years, I worked alongside my husband, a mortician, helping families prepare for their final goodbyes. During that time, I witnessed immeasurable heartache and tragedy, and learned just how fragile life can be. The truth is, not everyone dies of old age and safe in their bed. 

The world can be a dangerous place, and people die unexpectedly more often than you think. I helped bury babies and teenage mothers, young parents and lost souls. I assisted in over 1,000 funerals during my time in the funeral industry, but the surprise deaths- the tragic ones- are the ones I'll never forget. It was during those desperate times that I learned how to help people who hated everything and everyone, and how I could play a part in easing their burden by making the entire process go as smoothly as possible.

Although I learned a lot about human emotion and grief during my time in the funeral industry, some of the most valuable lessons I learned were financial ones. For example, one thing I learned about funerals, death, and dying is that no one really wants to plan for it. Death is entirely inevitable, yet so many families do nothing to ensure that the financial aspect of death is taken care of. And when this happens, the pain of the loss is made much worse than it should be.

Imagine losing your mother then realizing that she doesn't have any life insurance. (See: The Difference Between Term, Whole, And Universal Life Insurance). Now imagine that you don't have the money to pay for a proper burial or cremation. This kind of situation happened far too often during my time in the funeral industry, and my husband continues to experience it daily.  But, why?

The Truth: Funerals Are Expensive

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the median cost for a traditional funeral in the United States was around $7,045 in 2012 (This includes basic services of the funeral home, embalming, visitation, a funeral service, hearse and car rental, and a basic metal casket). As you can see, the cost of a traditional burial has been rising faster than inflation for many years:

funeral cost table*National Funeral Director's Association, Trends and Statistics, 2013

And keep in mind, the cost of an average funeral doesn't include cemetery expenses such as burial space, a burial vault, the opening and closing of a grave, or a headstone. When accounting for those expenses, the average cost for a traditional funeral rises dramatically, usually to somewhere between $9,000 and $12,000.  I've even seen hundreds of families spend upwards of $15,000 or more over the years. Funerals are just like anything else; there are plenty of ways to save if you choose an inexpensive casket, vault, or service package. Likewise, there are plenty of ways to splurge, especially if you prefer higher quality materials.

Traditional Burial vs. Cremation

One way many families keep costs down is to choose cremation instead of traditional burial. The price tag for a cremation varies due to regional influences and other factors, but the average cost was around $3,000 in 2012. When a body is cremated, there is typically no need to buy a casket or vault, nor do you have to pay for burial space or a headstone. Being able to forgo some of these larger expenses is one way cost-conscious consumers can cope with high costs. Because of the savings and other factors, the U.S. cremation rate has been on an upward trend for decades:

Cremation Rate*National Funeral Director's Association, Trends and Statistics, 2013

But, choosing cremation doesn't always solve a financial crisis. The problem is, some families don't have the money to pay for the funeral they want, regardless of the cost. This is especially true when there is no life insurance in force, or the family discovers that it has unknowingly lapsed or expired.

Here's what typically happens when a family can't really afford a funeral:

  • The family decides to pay for the funeral out-of-pocket. This often causes conflict since siblings often do not have the same financial resources.
  • The family asks the funeral home if they can make payments. Note: Many funeral homes do not allow families to make payments on a funeral service since they have no recourse if payments are not made.
  • The family puts the funeral expenses on a credit card, or even multiple credit cards. Now they are stressed over losing their loved one and having thousands of dollars in new debt.
  • Everyone in the family refuses to pay and expects the funeral home to resolve the issue.

Sounds stressful, doesn't it?  Now imagine that you're the funeral home. If you choose to proceed with the funeral service or cremation, you must concede that you will probably never be paid. However, if you choose to do nothing, you are left with a lifeless body you cannot bury and a very angry family.

This happened all the time when I worked in the funeral industry, and families usually came up with some way to pay when given no other option. My old boss even took cars and guns as payment every once in a while. That probably sounds crazy, but it's true! At the end of the day, it was better to get something as payment instead of being left completely empty-handed.

The Gift of Planning Ahead

The best way to ensure that your family doesn't have to deal with this type of situation is to plan ahead. This typically involved buying a life insurance policy and putting your final wishes in writing. I've seen firsthand how relieved a family can be when they find out that their mother, father, or sibling has a valid life insurance policy. It's like the weight of the world is lifted off of them because they can stop worrying about the financial aspect of the death and start focusing on their grief.

Although no one wants to do these things, making preparations for your death makes perfect sense.  Think about it. We prepare for everything in our lives; we save for college, for weddings, and for retirement. Why shouldn't we plan for our final days and our inevitable demise?  It's certainly depressing, but not as depressing as leaving your family in a desperate situation just moments after your death.

So, force yourself to do the right thing and plan ahead for your family's sake. If you're unsure of where to start, the following tips might help:

  • Research the difference between term and whole life insurance and purchase the policy that makes the most sense for your specific situation.  Remember, your death will pose its own set of challenges.  Make sure that money isn't one of them.
  • If you don't plan on relying on life insurance to pay for your final expenses, take action to ensure your family has the cash on hand.  Also, research funeral costs in your area to make sure you have enough.
  • Put your final wishes in writing or, better yet, hire a lawyer to draw up a will and final documents for you. You may be gone when the time comes around to use them, but the effort you've made won't go unnoticed by those who love you the most.

Want to know the real truth about funerals, death, and dying?  It's that we'll all have to deal with it one day- whether we want to or not.

"The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone."
Harriet Beecher Stowe

The following two tabs change content below.

Holly Johnson is a personal finance freelance writer who enjoys writing about frugality, budgeting, and travel. In addition to working as a staff writer for Get Rich Slowly, Frugal Travel Guy, and U.S. News and World Report's My Money Blog, she also owns and manages two websites, and

Latest posts by Holly Johnson (see all)