The Cost of Dying
Funerals haven’t changed much in the past fifty years or so. The family of the deceased reaches out to a funeral home which then takes matters into its own hands to organize the service and prepare the body. However, many are struggling to pay for a family member’s funeral, and often, families fall into debt . The cost of the average funeral is estimated at $8,000, though they can usually be much more expensive.
The way we carry out funerals today is a somewhat newer tradition. Before the Civil War, the family of the deceased cared for the body and organized the funeral in their own home. During the war it became custom to embalm bodies, which made it possible for soldiers’ bodies to be shipped back to their homes to be buried . However, this practice did not die out with the war; instead organizing funerals became a “professional pursuit” and many started seeking these services, as we do today . Around the 1920’s, people started living in urban apartments and dying in hospitals, which led to funeral homes becoming an easier option for organizing the service. During the 1960’s, approximately two-thirds of all deaths were occurring in hospitals and the “death care process” was mainly pursued by professionals as opposed to families .
Fast forward to approximately fifty years later when, for the first in the United States, the number of individuals choosing cremation has exceeded traditional burial. Cremation used to be a highly disliked means of dealing with bodies. However, many today choose to cremate the remains of their loved one due to its cost-efficiency. In contrast with the $8,000 mentioned previously for traditional burial, the average cost of cremation is approximately $1,000. Other popular funeral practices on the rise include green burials, and home funerals, both of which are much cheaper than traditional funerals and help support certain causes. Green burials represent an effort to limit our negative impact on the environment while home funerals represent an effort to bring back intimacy to funerals .
With cost being one of the many considerations in trying to organize a funeral, it is disturbing to learn that one in four funeral homes fail to disclose the cost of its services. In fact, there have been several cases of funeral homes taking advantage of grieving families by spiking their costs. Moreover, many have come to criticize the manner with which the funeral industry sells its services. For instance, in The American Way of Death Jessica Mitford highlights the words of a former president of the Funeral Directors of San Francisco who states that “the cost of a funeral varies according to individual taste and the niceties of living the family has been accustomed to” . Yet, Mitford argues that buyers, who are often dealing with organizing a funeral for the first time, will rarely feel as though they have much choice or be able to shop around for the best prices. Additionally, backlash against the funeral industry isn’t new. In fact, it quickly showed after a 1961 article by Roul Tunley titled “Can You Afford to Die?” was published, resulting in approximately six thousand readers writing back to express concerns about the industry .
The financial burden of funerals on families, specifically those lacking sufficient funds, leads many to look for other creative ways of raising the cash quickly, such as starting GoFundMe pages. In the United Kingdom, where many also struggle with the high costs of funerals, there are options where one could choose to become an organ donor and guarantee a fully funded funeral when his or her time comes . This idea raises many concerns as to whether or not the incentive to become an organ donor could lead to a slippery slope where the offer only attracts those who are in need of saving money, as opposed to attracting those who are merely interested in becoming organ donors.
The practice of saying goodbye to our loved ones has become unnecessarily burdened with the high costs inflicted by the funeral industry. While there are relatively cost-friendly ways of carrying out funerals besides the traditional burial we’ve come to know, such as cremations and green burials, the matter at hand becomes an issue of concern when grieving individuals are more concerned with the debt they will incur than with paying their respects to a loved one.
Vanessa Quirk, “We’ve Mastered Weddings - But the Funeral Needs a Lot of Work: Inside the New Death Industry,” Quartz, April 4, 2017.
Wendy Rogers, “Free Funerals for Organ Donors: Are Donation Incentives Unethical?,” The Conversation, October 17, 2011.
Jessica Mitford, “The American Way of Death,” Greenwich: Fawcett Publications, 1963.