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5 Ways to Reduce Funeral Costs

You have lots of options, from caskets to cremation


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In TV’s Frasier, Great-Aunt Louise, a nasty person, has died. Frasier Crane is stuck with giving her eulogy. His brother, Niles, is supposed to dispose of her ashes. Frasier can’t think of a nice thing to say about her. Niles accidentally dumps the ashes and sheepishly hides his ineptness.

It’s dark comedy. But it raises some questions. You’re nice and your relatives like you. But once you’re gone, will they know how to eulogize you? Have you told them what kind of funeral or ceremony you want? Or, what to do with your ashes? No? You’d be wise do so some planning now.

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It’s the kindest thing to do

Morbid as it may sound, planning your funeral in advance may be the best thing you can do for your loved ones. If you make your own arrangements and leave clear instructions that can be found easily, you’ll reduce some of the burden your grieving family feels. Planning can also help to manage the costs, and reduce the chance that you’ll saddle them with unnecessary debt.

“There’s great comfort in knowing that those decisions have been made when your loved one is gone,” says Kurt Soffe, a funeral director, owner of Jenkins-Soffe Mortuary near Salt Lake City and a spokesperson for National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). “It alleviates so much stress and confusion, especially when spouses and children are involved.”

I can attest to that. My sister, who passed away in February, left very clear instructions. It made things so much easier for my family, prompting me to write this story.

Patti Black, a certified financial planner (CFP) at Bridgeworth Wealth Management LLC, in Birmingham, Alabama, learned how important funeral planning is when her mother passed away in 2018, and her father in 2021.

“I still remember the shock of all the decisions that had to be made when my Mom died,” she says. “What kind of casket should we choose? What kind of flowers? Who should do the service? Where should it be? What songs should be sung? What Bible readings should we select? It was like planning a party that cost thousands of dollars that no one really wanted to attend.”

You can take charge of your own legacy. You can, for example, write your obituary, and let your loved ones know if you want a service, either religious or secular, traditional or unconventional. You can choose many of the details for it that reflect the life you lived, the things you enjoyed most, and the people you loved.

It can also help keep the costs in line. Perhaps you don’t want much. If your relatives don’t know that, they may spend much more than necessary, as they imagine what you would’ve wanted. And they’ll never know if they did the right thing.

Whenever her clients express concern about being a burden to their relatives, Black brings up funeral planning. While no one wants to think about the end of their lives, she encourages them to take this important step.

Current trends and costs

What are people choosing? In the U.S., cremation is the most popular option right now, says Soffe. “NFDA’s 2023 Cremation and Burial Report found that the U.S. cremation rate is expected to increase in the U.S. from 60.5% in 2023 to 81.4% by 2045,” he says.

In addition, the NFDA’s 2023 Consumer Awareness and Perceptions Survey shows that people are also considering “green” or “eco-friendly” funerals and natural burials. More than 60% of the respondents said they would be interested in exploring these options because of the potential environmental benefits, cost savings and other reasons.

As for expenses, they vary from state to state. However, NFDA’s Cremation and Burial Report indicates that, in 2021, the median cost of a funeral in the U.S., with a viewing and burial, was approximately $7,848. The median cost of a funeral with cremation was somewhat less, about $6,971. 

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Assemble your ‘funeral folder’

How do you decide what you want for your final send-off? Start by jotting down some thoughts. Once they’re formalized, put them in a folder marked “funeral” — paper, digital or both — and keep it with your living will, will/estate plan, financial and insurance documents, and other important papers.

Include the photos that best represent your life. High-resolution pictures are best. Draft your obituary, as your family may not know dates and details. Suggest the person(s) who might give your eulogy. Include your burial or cremation preferences and ideas for a service or commemoration. Indicate if you want an in-person event, or one held online so that others can view it. Don’t forget a list of attendees.

One helpful resource may be Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, a book by Josh Slocum and Lisa Carlson, two advocates for consumer rights in the funeral industry, who offer practical, state-specific information. In addition, the PBS documentary, A Family Undertaking, follows several families who choose home funerals, once commonplace in the U.S. It shows how comforting a simple ritual can be.

5 ways to keep a lid on expenses

Take notes as you contact funeral homes to learn what you need to know. You’ll want to create some budget guidelines just as you would for other expenditures, keeping the following tips in mind.

1. Prices will vary

Most funeral homes list planning options online, which make prices easy to compare. Soffe encourages people to shop online and to talk with a funeral director in person. He adds that any decisions or choices you make can be placed on file with a funeral home for future reference.

Don’t shop alone. This is a major purchase, so shop with someone who can help you stay focused on your budget and what you want. Don’t let anyone pressure you into having a traditional or lavish event if you don’t want one.

2. Doing your own thing is fine

You can have a traditional funeral service if you want, held quickly after your passing, or much later, if that works for others. Or, a celebration of your life could be held anytime, perhaps at your favorite restaurant, beach, forest or local park.

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Some alternatives may be easier for your loved ones, and cost less. Add some light or personal touches if you want; your mourners will appreciate it. “If a person loves motorcycles, they may bring that hobby or passion into their memorialization,” Soffe says.

How can friends and family take part if they live elsewhere? Technology can help. Ceremonies can be in-person, virtual only, hybrid (in-person and virtual), or live streamed online. An on-demand video can be recorded for people to watch anytime. A funeral home can advise you on these options as well.

3. You can keep burial costs down

These days, you can purchase a casket or a casket kit online for much less than you might pay at a funeral home, which must accept it without charge. Many types of caskets are available, from rough and more natural, to elegant and refined. Whatever you choose, you could specify that it be covered it with a quilt, flag or anything else that’s meaningful to you.

When it comes to things like embalming, or having a vault or container, search online to see what is — and isn’t — required by law, or by a particular cemetery.

4. Cremation and green alternatives

You can still have a funeral if you choose cremation, and display your urn, rather than a casket. If you envision those ashes scattered at an outdoor location, keep in mind that you may need permission from a local entity, such as the local park service. (You can scatter ashes in a national park if you get permission from the chief park ranger; you can’t scatter ashes in a national forest.) Funeral homes will have additional ideas for handling them.

Cemetery space for cremated remains is generally less expensive. Talk with your family about where you want your final resting place to be, and include it in your instructions. If you want a plot, buy it now, so they won’t have to.

If interested, ask a funeral director about “green options,” Soffe suggests. For example, instead of a ground burial, specify natural organic reduction; instead of flame cremation, alkaline hydrolysis.

“Natural organic reduction is the process of converting a person’s body into soil, and alkaline hydrolysis is a water-based dissolution process for human remains. Families then have the choice of the final disposition — either bury, retain or scatter [the ashes of] their loved one in an appropriate manner and place.” You can learn more at funeralocity.com, mindbodygreen.com or greenburialcouncil.org.

5. Simple can be less costly and more personal

Finally, if you choose informal memorial at a restaurant or outdoor location, it won’t be necessary to hire a funeral home or its staff. Most states will allow your family to do everything themselves; they could celebrate your life in the comfort of home, with the help of a funeral home director, consultant or a death midwife, also known as a “doula.” These experts will be there to provide helpful advice and support, as your loved ones say goodbye.

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