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Friday, August 29, 2008

Funeral Costs: $7,323 and counting

A couple of thoughts on today's announcement by the National Funeral Directors Association that the average cost of a standard funeral in America has risen to $7,323.

First. You'll pay more than that.
NFDA's figures are from 2006, when gas prices were in the enviable mid-$2.00/gallon range. With pump prices two years later just now backing down from nearly twice that amount – and this before Gustav makes landfall -- you can be sure you'll be shelling out more than $233 to have the funeral director retrieve the deceased from the hospital and drive it to his funeral home, or $251 for use of the gas-guzzling hearse. Same goes for almost every other item on that General Price List.

Second. Seven grand doesn't bring the dead to ground.
NFDA's figures include the cost of a vault, metal casket, and basic goods and services for a funeral only – not burial. Expect to pay thousands more for the cemetery plot, opening and closing of the grave, foundation for the headstone/marker, the headstone and market itself, and perpetual care fees, among others.

Third. Modern sendoffs are de facto pricey propositions.
Yes, funeral directors sell caskets at a steep mark-up from the wholesale price, sometimes by more than 300 percent. As does every other service operator, they pad their margins. That said, outfitting even the basic American funeral -- with its embalming chemicals, metal caskets, concrete burial vaults -- demands the inputs of vast amounts of resources that are bought with hard and plentiful dollars. Next time you're in Lowe's or Home Depot, do a quick price check on construction materials (and so much of modern memorialization is just that, a construction project). Have you seen how much concrete mix costs these days?

Fourth. Value depends on who's paying.
Is a modern funeral worth $7,000? That's up to the individual family to decide for itself. My purpose in writing Grave Matters was to present a fuller reckoning of the American Way of Death -- to present the costs not just to the pocketbook, but to the environment, the corpse, and even the health of the funeral director himself. If after reading my book a family still chooses to plunk down $7,000 for the modern send-off, they'll get no argument from me.

Fifth. Green funerals and burials can be expensive, too -- and be worth it.
By skipping the embalming, metal casket, burial vault and the other goods and services that fill out the funeral director's GPL, green burial is almost always a less expensive way to go. But not always, and not necessarily.

A highly biodegradable wicker coffin can set you back $3,000. A burial plot in a woodland ground can cost double what you'd pay at the local city cemetery. And be worth every penny. Your burial fees may not only push up a tree and renew the cycle of life that supports all of us, but they may also fund the preservation and ecological restoration of a piece of threatened wild. That expensive casket may not only encourage an earth-friendly, dust-to-dust return to the elements, but it may also employ workers in a good, green business. Less is more, runs the green mantra, but sometimes more really can be better.

Note: The music video above plays Iron and Wine's "Naked as We Came," a folksy anthem to cremation.

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters (

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