Times Are Tough; Would You Consider A DIY Funeral?

It's never pleasant to think about death and funerals, but if there is one certainty in life, it's that we're all going to bite the dust at some point. And just like most things in life, death is an expensive business. But did you know that there are options to the usual funeral...you really can Do It Yourself, if you have the stomach for it.

The costs associated with the average funeral vary, with some costing as much as $15-$20,000. But it seems an average most professionals agree on is around $8000. That's not exactly chump change. It breaks down like this:

Professional and administrative services (embalming, funeral home staff during the visitation, and so on) ... $1,650

Facilities and equipment (preparation room, visitation room, reception room, chapel) ... $850

Transportation (transfer from the place of death, funeral limousine, and cars for the family) ... $450

Merchandise (casket, vault, prayer cards, temporary grave marker) ... $2,515

Cash disbursements (flowers, cemetery plot, obituary, death certificates, honorariums, headstone) ... $1,828

Total (not including taxes) ... $7,293

Even if you get the cheapest casket, forget the flowers and buy a fiberglass headstone, you're still looking at $5000. But there are alternatives. One extreme I read about in England, my home country, was about a guy who requested to be put on his own compost heap when he died. And somehow, his wife managed to get it done. Here in the US I can imagine it would be a lot tougher to go that far. But the DIY funeral is definitely an alternative.

An article I found interesting from Associated Content listed the following steps for your DIY funeral:

1. A medical examiner or funeral must sign the death certificate. Also if the death did not take place in the hospital, a medical examiner or coroner will have to verify death and the cause.

2. Use dry ice instead of embalming. Embalming isn't a requirement nowadays although the quick deterioration of a body will warrant a quick burial. You can help preserve the body with dry ice.

3. Make a coffin or buy one from a casket store that will sell to consumers.

4. You can use the funeral home for a few services such as help with the death certificate.

5. You will need to secure a burial permit. If you are burying on family land or anywhere other than a cemetery you will have to assure that the corpse will not spread any contagious or communicable diseases.

To some, the idea of caring for the dead, especially a close friend or relative, is a ghastly and unthinkable idea. But in other cultures, it's not only acceptable...it's the norm. I recently saw a documentary on India which showed people burning their loved ones on the banks of the Ganges and throwing their charred remians into the river. In other cultures, eating the flesh of the cooked dead body is a ritual. By comparison, popping your great uncle into a home-made coffin doesn't seem quite so bad.

There is plenty more to learn at funerals.org, and it gives you quite a lot more to thin about. So, one question to leave you with...would you do a DIY funeral? Or is it just too absurd to even consider?

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Guest's picture

Can you please submit proper attribution to your assertion that there are cultures for which eating the cooked flesh of their dead is a ritual? While being vague in this case is actually better than saying "In Africa, they eat their dead," it's still slightly irresponsible to claim that this ritual is currently practiced by certain cultures without further attribution.

I'll admit, I'm curious and provoked, which is what that line in the article aimed to do to the reader. Now I want to make sure it's true.

Guest's picture

That's not a bad idea. I don't see the problem, once you're gone you're gone so why spend thousands on a funeral if you can help it.

Isn't the guy on the compost heap an urban myth? This is interesting though.

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After I read "Stiff", I realized there is a great need for medical students and researchers to have human bodies, so I signed up to have mine donated to UCSF (the nearest medical school). If you are within 100 miles, they will pick you up free of charge, and will cremate your remains after use (without anyone getting them back). My family is not funeral-oriented, though we've had a few memorials that were little more than gatherings with family and friends.

Guest's picture

1. leave your body to science (the medical center will take care of picking your body up, assuming you're close enough)

2. have a memorial service rather than a full-on funeral (I'm having a Quaker service, so no flowers, minister, viewing, etc.)

We've turned death into a profit-making concern. Time to focus on the memories and the living.

Guest's picture

I think that funerals, as generally conducted in the United States, are incredibly wasteful and entirely unnecessary. Should my family pay $10k for me to embalmed and have my face painted up so I look as "natural" as possible? Sorry, but I've never worn blush nor eyeshadow so that's going to be quite a trick. Also, don't look now but my eyes have been replaced by glass balls, etc.

Also, instead of sending $100 flower sprays, send the money to my family. They'll need all the money they can get to pay the guy for stuffing me and preparing my grave to hold a preserved corpse for decades.

Dust you are and dust you shall return... or not.

I think people who pay for elaborate funerals have bought a bill of goods. I think many people do it because they view it as a sign of respect to the dearly departed. Not sure how though. For one, if you wanted to show respect to someone, it helps that they are alive when you do it. For another, unless that person's mission in life was to waste money, I don't see how you doing so honors them.

Give your respect, and you flowers, to the living.

After I'm dead, please don't dress me up in a suit and slap makeup on me then let everyone walk by and have a look. Bury me simply or burn the body; it really doesn't matter to me at that point and it shouldn't to you. I'm gone.

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Overall I wouldn't recommend it with the zombie uprising so close at hand, but it would save a few bucks if you remember to destroy the brain. MFZAR.


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Guest's picture

While it's not cheap, or DIY, there is a company in the Chicagoland area that manufactures diamonds from carbon. You can use creamated remains or hair (from the living).

It doesn't take a lot, so one could satisfy the last request of an individual to be scattered in a special place and also generate some lasting memorial items for immediate family, etc.


There seems to be a growing interest in alternative uses of cremated remains with artists and artisans using the material in glass blowing, painting, and even tattoing.

One artist mounted a show (not using the real thing) wherein she showcased ceramic orbs, hung by thin twine in an abstract garden setting in a gallery. Conceptually, the orbs would contain creamated remains, be hung outdoors in a real garden setting and act as a decorative knetic element in the landscape until the weathering finally wears out the twine, and it falls to the ground, breaking open and allowing the remains to settle into the earth.

Also, NPR did a series on the end of life which included this program on the increasing interest in DIY.


Guest's picture

Arvin: I'm not the author, but there are several cultures that practice endocannibalism (eating dead members of one's family/group). One of the most notorious previously endocannibalistic tribes were the Fore of Papua New Guinea---kuru, a prion disease, resulted from eating the brain and nervous tissue of the dead. Luckily in that case, the practice stopped and the disease was eradicated. Google kuru or endocannibalism for more info.

I'm with the rest of you on this. There are several religious groups in the US (Muslims, for example) who practice simple funerals as part of their faith---family or community members prepare the body, etc; I think they have the right idea. Actually, I'd prefer a simple shroud over an unnecessary box, if regulations permit.

Guest's picture

Oh, how times have changed. Taking care of your deceased family member yourself used to be the normal chain of events. Although I cannot find the source, it's been reported that some magazine (Vogue??) coined the word "living room" in order to change the view of the family parlor that was associated with death.

Best idea was already mentioned, though. Please consider donating your body to help others: organ donation, medical research, medical schools.

Guest's picture

My father recently passed and we cut down the costs as much as we could while still staying pretty traditional.

He was cremated and we got permission to bury him in the box the hospital delivered the remains in. You can't do this in every cemetary so make sure you check first. Urn costs were crazy.

We also had a memorial instead of a flat out funeral. We did our own photo DVD that the home ran during that time...they wanted $150 to do it for us and we knew we could do it ourselves - plus we didn't hand over priceless photos to strangers.

We did not have a minister or preacher at either event. My mother asked my husband to say a few words at both. Luckily he did rather well for being put on the spot.

I think we were able to keep the costs below 4K...maybe it was even under 3k...its kind of fuzzy at the moment.

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When my husband died two years ago, I had him cremated and the ashes shared among family members. No public funeral -- we had a family get-together to remember him instead. Total cost: $2500 including death certificates. None of us -- including my husband -- could come up with any reason to do otherwise.

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When my husband died, I donated his remains to Biogift (www.biogift.org). At no charge to me they came and got him - at 3 in the morning! Any part that could be used for research was used, the rest was cremated and scattered. (I could have had the ashes returned if I wanted to.) So my only cost was for death certificates. More important, I hope some good came out of my loss.

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Costco sells coffins and urns as a way to provide value to customers. Not all funeral directors accept them, but you can get one. They always have them at the online store.

The Neptune Society is an organization which provides simple cremation and no funeral service. It is in 10 states, mainly out west, but also Florida, Illinois and Missouri.

I highly recommend the book "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers" by Mary Roach, as previously mentioned. It discusses a lot of options such as composting and going to the criminal decomposition lab. You just have to read it -- it is entertaining.

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I know this thread is old but as mortuary school student I know legally funeral homes have to accept caskets bought elsewhere. However make sure you get the proper delivery method of the casket. There have been instances where the family selected the cheapest shipping method possible which then caused the funeral director extra work they weren't making money on. Also don't be afraid to talk and ask questions of your funeral director. We are here to serve you. If you give us a range in which you want to spend we will make it happen. And if you ask you will find the funeral director often has nicer items for the same price as CostCo and Walmart.

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When my father died about 5 years ago, my brother and I had him cremated. My brother still has the simple box.

Cost with embalming: $1800.

My step brother requested the embalming after my brother wouldn't participate and he couldn't get a hold of me (I was in another state and it took awhile to get my phone number).

If not for the embalming, the cost would have been $300 less.

I think a lot of state regulations are in place for DIY burials. I think the restrictions are getting tougher all the time.

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In India, Hindu's do cremations, as burning their loved ones after they die, which is different compared to other thing you mentioned. Parsi's leave their loved one dead bodies in special location where vultures can eat. every culture have own things, who are we to judge?.

BTW cremations are done in western countries such as USA and is much cheaper compare to burial services hence the interest in it by more people now.

Can we be civil about all other cultures, specially when one does not understand it fully.

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My father has threatened to put a provision in his will that anybody who spends money on a funeral for him will get nothing. Which is sort of ironic I suppose, as he may have a lot to leave. He claims that in his home state (AL) that it's legal to bury your dead on your own property with no interference from the local governments or expense as long as you do it within a day or so and get a proper death certificate...

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I keep telling my husband I want a simple pine box, a no-frills memorial service (preferably at the house), and either cremate me and stick my ashes under a fruit tree in the back yard overlooking the salt marsh (and maybe a park bench so the kids can hang out with me from time to time). He's a bit taken back by it, but really, I mean it. Who else is going to come to my funeral? Our friends won't mind coming to the house, and since we're not overly religious a few simple words from anybody moved to do so will suffice. The only extravagance I'd like is to have a bagpiper play MacCrimmon's Lament when they stick my ashes under the new fruit tree (hey ... I'm Scottish).

There's a website, Simple Pine Box, where you can order a simple pine casket (they even have do-it-yourself kits).

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I don't think i'd forgo some sort of gathering or the announcements (in smaller towns, newspaper obituaries are free or really, really cheap - where I live they're expensive, but hopefully by the time I need to worry about it we can just announce it on Facebook). When my grandmother died, I wrote up a nice long announcement that mentioned every group she'd belonged to - church, social clubs, graduating class, the neighborhoods they'd lived in at various times - and we got a lot of people at the memorial (which was plain and cheap) who hadn't seen each other for decades, or were from different parts of her life and didn't realize the connection. I think it was a really good experience for my dad and his sisters to see how many people from the community remembered their mother - and themselves at earlier stages of their lives.

Also, the music she had chosen was a nice shared moment and spark for reminiscences.

The service is for the living, after all - and not all of my loved ones appreciate frugality as much as I do.

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Be aware just because you leave your body to science doesn't mean that science will take it. Read the fine print. If they have enough bodies at the moment or you died from a certain disease or accident or even if your body is just really old, these places can say "no, we do not want you". Which leaves your family scrambling to pay for services they thought were already taken care of.

Though rules vary state by state, embalming in the state of California is not required if you are being cremated. You can get a cremation (that includes a death certificate, an urn or have the remains scattered at sea, and all taxes etc) in the San Francisco Bay Area for around $900.