Funeral traditions wilt as consumers consider the costs  © Erik Von Weber/Getty Images

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The bereaved go bargain hunting

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How to save on a final farewell

With a little forethought, you, too, can save thousands of dollars on a funeral or the burial of a loved one, the experts say. Here are some of their top tips:

  • Choose cremation. "The National Funeral Directors Association says the average cost of a funeral in 2006 was $7,323. That does not include a cemetery. The average cost of a cremation is between $1,000 and $1,500," says R. Brian Burkhardt, the author of "Rest in Peace: Insider's Tips to the Low Cost Less Stress Funeral" and the author of a blog about the funeral industry. "So cremation is the No. 1 way to save money on your funeral."

  • Save even more by choosing "direct cremation." The deceased is promptly cremated, without a funeral service or viewing. Direct cremation usually includes transport of the body, cremation and a cardboard or plastic container for the ashes.
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  • Skip the preservative. "Forgo embalming," says Burkhardt. "Under the law -- the Funeral Rule -- you have the right to forgo embalming. That can save you between $600 and $800 on the funeral." Want a traditional funeral anyway? Just choose a closed casket, Burkhardt says. "If the body's not viewed, it doesn't have to be embalmed."

  • Buy that box on the Web. "Get the casket online," Burkhardt says. "Do not buy it from the funeral home, because -- and they hate me when I say this -- caskets at the funeral home are marked up between 100 and 500%," with occasional exceptions, he says. No other single item is so expensive. "I got a $4,000 oversized casket on the Internet (for a friend), and it was delivered to the funeral home the next day, and I paid $1,037." Today some of the big-box stores, including Costco, sell caskets, too.

  • Shop before you drop. Seek out a low-cost funeral home -- one that forgoes limousines, fancy hearses and other trappings. "Prices can vary by $4,000 or $5,000 for a funeral," says Burkhardt, depending on the amenities offered. But many survivors don't shop around for deals because they consider bargain hunting an affront to the dead. Getting fleeced, however, is hardly a tribute. Shop around in advance, he says. Even a few quick calls to compare prices once a relative dies can be worthwhile.

But how do you find the best price? "Check and see if there's a Funeral Consumers Alliance in your area" and see if they've done a price survey of area funeral homes, suggests Lisa Carlson, the author of "Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love" and founder of the Funeral Ethics Organization. "They may have done the shopping for you."

  • Make it personal. Elaborate services held in a rented mortuary chapel can be expensive and feel awkward, say experts such as Karen Leonard, a researcher for "The American Way of Death Revisited," the update of Jessica Mitford's landmark 1963 muckraking exposé of the funeral industry. She recommends holding a memorial service, without the body, in a place that meant much to the deceased -- a Fraternal Order of Eagles hall, the family's beach house, a park or an art gallery.

  • "You can save from $500 to $2,000" by having it outside the funeral home, says Burkhardt. Instead of lavish flowers, decorate with mementos that evoke the person's life -- photo albums, Dad's golf clubs or diplomas -- and perhaps serve some favorite foods.

  • Cast your net wider. "Perhaps the biggest tip I've got is that if you are not holding services at the funeral home . . . then it doesn't matter if you call an out-of-town funeral home," says Carlson. "And an out-of-town funeral home may be considerably less expensive." After all, what does it matter if the funeral home is 20 miles away, if the survivors will never set foot in it.

Follow these tips, and more here, and you'll be well on your way to feeling good about your tribute to the dearly departed.

Published Aug. 24, 2010

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