Dying on the Cheap

illustration by Jason Stout

Here's a sobering fact: The third largest purchase the average person will make in their lifetime -- after a house and a car -- is a funeral. Kind of makes you want to go out and buy a bass boat, doesn't it?

But you can't get buried in a bass boat. And while some purchases in life are optional, funerals are considered by many to be a necessity, at any price. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a casket and funeral is about $4,470, not counting the grave, vault and marker. Add another $1,500 for those items and it's easy to spend $6,000.

But dying doesn't have to cost a fortune. Dying on the cheap takes a bit more effort, but it can be done. So don't be afraid to shop around. The Federal Trade Commission requires funeral homes to provide costs over the phone. Most funeral homes will also fax a price list to you.

Expenses at funeral homes are highly variable. The same casket can cost $2,000 or $300, depending on where you go. And most funeral homes have what they call their "basic services of funeral director and staff." Critics call this a "cover charge." And just like caskets, the basic service charge can vary from a few hundred dollars to a couple of thousand dollars.

Casket wholesalers like Casket Gallery Inter-national in Dallas (214/681-2929) or Consumer Casket USA (800/611-8778) will ship a casket to you within a few hours, and their prices are usually lower than those charged in a funeral home. Or better yet, build your own. Funeral homes are required by law to use caskets provided by the customer, and for a few bucks worth of plywood, you can easily build one that will be plenty sturdy. (One note from a funeral industry insider: don't buy "protective" caskets. These metal caskets have rubber gaskets which prevent the entry of water into the casket. They also prevent air from escaping, which some industry watchers believe disfigures the body.)

There are many things you can do without. Embalming is not required by the state, the feds, or anybody else. Nor is a casket. You don't have to have a hearse. In fact, you don't have to hire a funeral home, hearse, limo or anything else. Anyone can conduct funeral services. But you must do some leg work. Call the county health department (469-2031) to get a death certificate. The county will certify the death, but the certificate must be signed by a doctor.

Unless you have a burning desire to get buried, you could opt for cremation, which is usually cheaper than burial. Urns to hold cremains (cremated remains) are much cheaper than caskets. And you can get your cremains buried at the cemetery for less than a full-size grave. Or you can scatter the ashes yourself, which costs nothing. You can handle a direct cremation also, but you must get a cremation permit from the county (469-2031).

If you live five miles outside the city limits, you can create your own family cemetery. But you should check with county authorities before forging ahead.

You can escape any funeral costs by giving your body to science. The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston will pick up bodies for no charge as long as they are within 300 miles of Galveston. However, they must get the body within 24 hours of death and they do not want it embalmed. Allen Tyler, supervisor of anatomical services at UT-Galveston, advises those who want to donate bodies to call the school as soon as death occurs and to let them make arrangements with a local funeral home for storage of the body until it can be retrieved by UT personnel. Tyler also advises that the school will not take bodies that carry infectious diseases or that are "grossly obese." He requests that prospective donors call the school ahead of time, if possible, to make sure the school needs and can take the body. Call them at 409/772-1293 or call Tyler directly at 409/772-1924 during business hours, or 409/772-1011 on nights and weekends.

You can also join the Austin Memorial & Burial Information Society, which provides information to people in need of funeral services. It costs $20 for a lifetime membership. Call 480-0555. -- R.B.

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