October 27, 2013

Savvy Senior: Cremation can save survivors money

Funeral homes and websites can provide information about affordable services.

By Jim Miller

DEAR SAVVY SENIOR: Can you offer any tips for finding low-cost cremation services? I don’t want to stick my kids with a big funeral bill after I die. – Still Alive

DEAR ALIVE: Cremation is definitely one of the most affordable ways to go, when you go. Costs usually run between $600 and $3,000, which are significantly lower than the average full-service funeral that averages around $10,000 today.

Cost is also one of the big reasons the popularity of cremation is soaring. Roughly 40 percent of Americans now choose cremation, up from 27 percent just a decade ago. Here are some tips for locating low-cost services:

Because prices can vary sharply, start by calling the funeral homes in your area (most funeral homes provide cremation services) and ask them how much they charge for a “direct cremation,” which is the least expensive option.

With direct cremation, there’s no embalming, formal viewing or funeral. It only includes the essentials: picking up the body, completing the required paperwork, the cremation itself and providing ashes to the family.

If your family wants to have a memorial service, they can have it at home or your place of worship after the cremation, in the presence of your remains.

To locate nearby funeral homes, look in your local yellow pages under “cremation” or “funeral” or visit cremation.com.

You may also be able to get help and referrals through your nearby memorial society or local funeral consumer alliance program (see funerals.org/affiliates-directory or call (802) 865-8300 for contact information). These are volunteer groups that offer a wide range of information and prices on local funeral and cremation providers.

If, however, you’re not up to calling around, there are also a number of free websites – like funeraldecisions.com and efuneral.com – that you or your family can use that can do the work for you. With these sites, you just answer a few questions, and your nearby funeral homes will provide estimates based on your request.

The urn is another item you need to be aware of that can drive up costs.

Funeral home urns usually cost around $50 to $300, but you aren’t required to get one.

Most funeral homes initially place ashes in a plastic bag that is inserted into a thick plastic box. The box is all you need if you intend to have your ashes scattered.

But if you want something to display, you can probably find a nice urn or comparable container online. Walmart.com, for example, sells urns for as little as $25.

Or, you may want to use an old cookie jar or container you have around the house instead of a traditional urn.

If you can’t afford your cremation costs, there are a number of places you can turn to that may help. For starters, many towns or counties provide assistance through their social services department if you or your family can’t afford to pay.

Your family should also be able to get some aid from Social Security, which pays a survivor a one-time death benefit of $255.

And if you’re a veteran, the VA provides a burial benefit that includes a free burial at a national cemetery and a free grave marker. But it doesn’t cover funeral provider or cremation costs.

Another option to consider that provides free cremation is to donate your body to a university-affiliated medical school. After using your body for research, they will cremate your remains for free, and either bury or scatter your ashes in a local cemetery or return them to your family, usually within a year or two.

To find a medical facility near you that accepts body donations, the University of Florida maintains a directory at old.med.ufl.edu/anatbd/usprograms.html. Or call the National Family Service Desk, which operates a free referral service at 800-727-0700.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC “Today” show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.

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