What To Do When You Can't Afford a Funeral
-Josh Slocum, FCA executive director  

The most important thing to remember is that a meaningful, heartfelt memorial doesn't need to cost more than your family can afford. Whether you spend $600 or $10,000, you'll love and miss the deceased just as much. It's the coming together of family and friends to laugh, cry, and love each other that makes a funeral meaningful, not the amount of money it costs. 

And this is crucial: there is no charity or government organization that will pay off any debt you've accrued if you arrange a  funeral that's beyond your means. It's your family's responsibility to spend within its budget. Funeral homes are not required to let you pay in installments; many these days are asking for payment upfront. While this might seem frustrating, it's a responsible business practice and it prevents many grieving people from falling into a financial trap when they're not thinking clearly. Sweating the monthly bills six months after the death because the funeral payments are high does not, I assure you, help lift the burden of grief. 

Here are some suggestions for creative ways to economize without giving up the essential value of a final send-off. At the end of the article are links to a few organizations that may help contribute for the funerals of children in certain circumstances. It pays to call several funeral homes as many will do a service for a drastically reduced price if the deceased was a child. 

1. Whether there’s government money to bury the poor (euphemistically called “indigent”) depends on the state. Some states have a budget for this. Others leave it up to the local county, city, or town. There is no rule of thumb. If a family has no money, the first thing they should do is call the department of social services (or whatever their state calls the welfare office) to see if there’s an indigent burial/cremation program. 

Click here for a chart showing what states and counties offer to help low-income families with funeral expenses.

2. If your state or county offers help it’s not going to cover a full-service funeral with embalming, a public viewing, and associated ceremonies. The family is going to get a direct cremation or immediate burial at most. Some states won’t allow a family to add any of their own money, reasoning that if they can afford to do so, they don’t need the state’s help. Other states will allow families to add money for optional ceremonies up to certain limits.

Remember that you can organize a memorial service later at home, at church, in a social venue, etc. 

3. You have the right to pick and choose only the funeral goods and services you want and can afford. You don’t have to buy an elaborate package. Sure, you may want a public viewing of the body and then a Mass of Christian Burial at the church afterward, but if you don’t have the money for it  you alone are responsible for the bill.

4. Consider body donation to a medical school. You’ll be helping train the next generation of doctors who will be taking care of you, and depending on where you live, the cost could be minimal (transportation) to free. Most medical schools will return the cremated remains in one to two years after study if you request this beforehand.

5. There are many meaningful ways to say goodbye to someone that have nothing to do with cost. I often tell callers the story of my grandmother Edith Slocum’s funeral. She had wanted cremation, but the daughters opted for the full embalming and formal ceremony at the request of a sister who hadn’t seen grandma in years. Looking back, I found the made-up-body-lying-in-state extremely artificial and uncomfortable. But the family reception afterward? One hell of a good party. We went back to Aunt Mary Ellen’s house where the grandkids made food while 70 people milled around telling stories about grandma’s legendary cheating at gin rummy. Most of them were getting tipsy off her favorite cocktail, which was no mean feat considering she liked the dreadful sloe gin fizz. My fondest memory is of mixing up tuna-pea macaroni salad with my cousin Kelly, crying and giggling at the same time.  

6. Consider a home funeral. In most states it’s perfectly legal to complete the death certificate (with the doctor’s or medical examiner’s certification), file it, care for the body at home, and take it to the cemetery or crematory. Most families in this country did so routinely until the turn of the 20th century. The FCA national office can help guide families, or you can turn to the new book Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death for specific requirements in your state.

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