As reported by The Hartford Courant, November 15, 2009.

'Til Death Do We Save: There Are Many Ways to Reduce Funeral Expenses

By Korky Vann

As a lifelong bargain hunter, I've always joked that I wanted my gravestone to read: "Final Sale, No Return."

But with funeral prices averaging $7,000 or more, the cost of dying is no laughing matter. Even the savviest consumer finds it tough to comparison-shop when coping with grief and loss.

I know. When my parents died several years ago (they passed away within several weeks of each other), the idea of hunting for the best funeral deals was just too hard. Luckily, my thrifty mom and dad had planned ahead. No pricey services, no expensive caskets or burial plots.

Instead, they'd requested we hold simple farewell gatherings and have their bodies cremated. We followed their wishes and, as funeral expenses go, came in under the national average.

I've since learned we could have saved more.

Across the country, people with grave concerns about the high cost of dying are exploring a range of cost-cutting alternatives. For many, it's a necessity.

In areas particularly hard hit by the recession, death is a cost some can't fit into the budget. Last month, The New York Times reported that bodies are going unclaimed at morgues because families can't afford burials, leaving the cost of cremation or interment to cash-strapped towns and municipalities.

"When you can't afford the cost of living, you certainly can't afford the cost of dying," says Joshua Slocum, director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit, funeral industry watchdog organization. "We're hearing from funeral directors and consumers that the economy is affecting choices. People are planning ahead. They're reconsidering long-held traditions for simpler, more personalized funerals."

"The economy is directing people to look for less expensive alternatives for everything, including funerals," says Luke DiMaria, owner of Abby Funeral & Cremation Service Inc. in Rocky Hill. "It's one of the reasons cremations have become much more popular."

In 2005, close to 35 percent of Connecticut deaths ended in cremation, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, which projects that number will increase to about 40 percent in 2010.

DiMaria's licensed funeral business specializes in direct burials and direct cremations. Fees start at $2,995 for a direct burial. Direct cremation costs $995. The offerings include transfer of the body, necessary paperwork and burial or cremation after Connecticut's mandated 48-hour waiting period. No embalming, viewing or memorial ceremonies and cemetery charges are included. (All funeral homes offer direct-burial funeral and direct cremation, but few advertise the services.)

Retail giant Walmart announced a few weeks ago that it had added caskets ($895 to $2,899) and urns ($150 to $215) to its website. The warehouse club Costco has been selling caskets ($924 to $3,000) and urns ($50 to $200) online for about five years. (Federal law requires all funeral homes to accept caskets purchased elsewhere.) Costco and Sam's Club stores sell "Sympathy Flowers," such as casket sprays and funeral wreaths. Prices range from $175 to $350, delivery included.

George D'Esopo of D'Esopo Funeral Home in Wethersfield, a family-owned business since 1905, says that so far, the economy has not significantly affected the types of funerals families here are seeking.

"We still find that people, for the most part, have prepared for funeral expenses, either with insurance or by saving," says D'Esopo. "When there are special circumstances or people are in a financial bind, we work with them."

But even in the Land of Steady Habits, sacrosanct funeral rituals and purchases are changing. Cremations have increased, and this year, D'Esopo's has experienced about a half-dozen families who have purchased caskets online. "So far, it's been a very small percentage," says D'Esopo. "That may change as the generation of folks more comfortable with purchasing online gets older."

Donating Your Body

For some, the idea of donating one's body to science is a preferable choice.

Dr. Bruce Koeppen, dean for academic affairs and education at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, says helping further medical research, along with the desire to cut expenses, often motivate the decision.

"More and more, we are hearing that people have chosen body donation to spare their family the trauma and expense of a funeral," says Koeppen.

It's a simple process: Individuals contact a local medical school, sign consent forms, place copies with wills, and arrange for the school or university to be notified when they die.

"When we get a call, someone is sent to retrieve the body and determine if the body can be used," says Koeppen. (Some illnesses render bodies unusable for research or dissection.) "If so, the body is taken to the school and used for study by medical students. At the end of the academic year, remains are individually cremated and returned. There is no charge to the family."

John Wiltse, deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Veteran Affairs, says those who have served in the military are entitled to free gravesites and burials.

"Veterans' death benefits can provide substantial savings to families," says Wiltse. "While we are seeing an increase in requests, some families aren't aware of the benefits available."

For those who meet eligibility criteria, a cemetery plot and opening and closing of the grave are provided at no cost. (Spouses are also eligible for this benefit.) The federal government offers a free memorial stone. Though there are no national cemeteries in Connecticut, there is a state veterans burial ground in Middletown.

"Individuals contact the department, request a plot, receive confirmation and file it with their papers," says Wiltse.

Members of the military and their dependents also can request burial at sea. The committal ceremony is performed from a U.S. Navy vessel while the ship is deployed, so family members are not allowed to be present. Information is online at bit.ly/2derfO.

Across the country, particularly in rural locations, some folks have decided that "home burials," are, well, the way to go. Families bypass funeral home services altogether, prepare the deceased for viewing at home and bury loved ones on private land. Expenses can be as little as the cost of a homemade coffin. (Some zoning laws prohibit burial on private land. Connecticut and five other states mandate that a licensed funeral home handle human remains.)

On the Funeral Consumers Alliance website ( www.funeralconsumersalliance.org), people can find consumer information on a range of funeral options, a directory of low-cost casket and urn companies, funeral planning guides and directions for building a simple coffin.

"The silver lining to the downturn in the economy may be that as a society, we move away from the idea that the best and only way to show our dead that we love them is by the amount we spend on their coffin and flowers," says Slocum. "People are learning that they have choices."