Quick notes:

  • Cremation is the most affordable option for families 
  • Families sometimes pay off expenses over time, take out loans, or accept donations to pay for funerals
  • For those that can’t afford any funeral expenses, local governments usually provide indigent burial/cremation services

If you think living is expensive, just wait until you have to plan a funeral. The median cost of a U.S. burial and viewing (as of 2017) is $8,755, or $6,260 with cremation and a viewing, says the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). Those struggling with the price tag might be loaded with debt or could opt for a government-funded burial/cremation, which often lacks a ceremony.

She’s still paying off burial costs

Norma Velasquez of National City, California, organized a funeral for her son, Jacob Velasquez, in 2017 and says she’s still paying off costs associated with interring him. With Jacob’s death being so sudden — he was shot and killed when he was 22 years old — Velasquez didn’t have the mental capacity to pick and choose funeral homes.

“This is the first time that I had to deal with it. So we went to the first funeral home, that’s the one we got. We didn’t go shopping around,” says Velasquez. “Everybody helped me — I wasn’t in a state of mind to decide on this, decide on that.”

Donations helped pay for the funeral, which Velasquez says ended up being around $14,000. Jacob’s funeral was organized through a funeral home associated with Dignity Memorial (a brand of Service Corporation International).

Jacob VelasquezJacob Velasquez
Jacob Velasquez | Photo courtesy of Norma Velasquez

However, Jacob’s urn is at her home until she can finish paying off the site where he will be laid to rest. A space for Jacob cost around $5,000, says Velasquez, and she estimates she has $100 to $200 left to pay off. However, she still needs to get a personalized plaque for Jacob, which she says might cost $3,000.

Velasquez says that perhaps if Jacob’s death wasn’t a murder she might have had time to plan his funeral. Velasquez, who says she learned of Jacob’s murder from a YouTube video of the crime scene, says National City police are still unable to tell her who killed her son.

Cremation is always the most affordable option

Jeff Jorgenson, owner of Washington-based green funeral home Elemental Cremation & Burial, says that cremation will always be the least expensive option for families. Although rising somewhat in popularity, green burials aren’t cheaper than traditional burials.

Cremation makes up 98% of Elemental’s business and industry data reflects the rising popularity of cremation. The NFDA projects that 56.4% of individuals will be cremated and 37.5% buried in 2020. In 2025, cremation is projected to increase to 63.5% and burials to decrease to 30.6%.

For those in a situation similar to Velasquez, Jorgenson says cremation gives individuals the choice to “shop around” for the best and least expensive interment option. Burials don’t have that option.

Jeff Jorgenson
Jeff Jorgenson
Jeff Jorgenson | Courtesy of Jeff Jorgenson

“While that may not be something you want, it isn’t costing you money to have the urn at home,” says Jorgenson. “It may be costing you emotionally. It may be upsetting. It can be all those things but isn’t costing you anything.”

The best way for families to save money on funeral and cemetery costs is to plan ahead, says Jorgenson. But cases like Velasquez’s are nearly impossible to plan for, he notes.

For those that can’t plan, don’t plan, or just need the financial aid, some funeral homes offer payment plans. Companies specializing in loans for burials are another option for families, says Jorgenson.

“The interest rates are less than favorable,” says Jorgenson. “The funeral home gets paid up front. Funeral homes will not perform services without payments.”

When you cannot pay at all, there are indigent burials

Low-income families can also apply for an indigent burial or cremation through their local governments if they meet certain criteria. Programs vary from county to county, but funerals aren’t offered and cremation is preferred over burial.

Cremains might be laid to rest at sea (as was the case in San Diego, California, according to a report from 2012) or some might be buried in mass graves, sometimes called a “paupers’ cemetery,” as is the case with Hart Island in New York City, New York.

Hart Island
Hart Island
Hart Island in New York City | Adam Moss/Flickr

In Imperial County, California, the indigent used to be interred in a paupers’ cemetery often closed off to the public. Indigent interments were moved to a new plot at Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, California, says Imperial County’s assistant public administrator, Sarah M. Enz, via email.

As documented in a 2018 documentary by CGTN America, many indigent burials in Imperial County are migrants that attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Some may be unidentified and simply labeled “John Doe” or “Jane Doe” unless more information is found out about them.

Albeit not personalized, there are now ceremonies to honor the dead in Imperial County. Los Angeles also has mass ceremonies, but these have been done once a year since the 1890s. Last year, Los Angeles’ ceremony honored 1,457 people.

“Our office currently holds two indigent burial ceremonies per year, depending on how many cremains are needed to be buried,” says Enz. “Our first one was held in October 2018, and our second one was this past April.”

No matter what you can afford …

Families may feel pressured to buy the most expensive funeral packages as they want the best for their loved one. If there’s an afterlife, Velasquez says, she thinks the deceased will be grateful for whatever kind of ceremony their families can afford.

“They’re your loved one,” says Velasquez. “I’m pretty sure they’re going to appreciate it.”

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