Low-Cost Funeral Tips for Greater Boston

About a quarter of the deaths in Massachusetts occur in Boston. It's the hospitals, some of the finest in the country. And a lot of them. Thereafter, as you look to the hereafter, remember that Massachusetts law does not allow monopolization. Funeral home owners cannot own cemeteries. Cemetery owners cannot have a stake in marker companies. Or flower stores. And so on. So the big-box approach gaining steam out West can't be done in the commonwealth. If you want a funeral director to assemble everything for you, you will pay for each service assembled. You might consider shopping for services yourself and, probably, saving money.

Plan, plan, plan

Planning can save money.

Luckily, we offer the perfect, free tool to help. It's called My Funeral. It is your online funeral planning tool. It's free.

Funeral directors welcome your wisdom in planning, and they have options for helping you choose within your budget. Even if savings are minimal, you'll feel better to have a chance to think through decisions, choices and desires rather than have decisions made at an emotional time. Informing yourself is your best plan.

One caveat: Planning ahead does not require paying ahead. Beware preneed plans that ask you to pay in advance. It usually isn't necessary. It can be problematic.

Know your rights

Funeral home directors must by law to give you a printed list of services and prices. It's called the General Price List (GPL). Funeral homes, especially those owned by megacorporations, have taken a big-box approach and offer everything from chapels -- built on site -- to flowers -- greenhouse in the back. The GPL lists package deals, their components and prices. It lists costs of services selected separately. (Many funeral home Web sites display this information. A Web page, like a price list, lets you study the situation on your own, without a salesman hovering.) By gathering GPLs from various funeral homes, you can learn about services and see that prices vary. The Federal Trade Commission's "Funeral Rule" requires funeral directors to give customers a General Price List at the beginning of any discussion of arrangements. Acquainting yourself with the law will go a long way to helping you feel you have found prices and services that meet your needs and budget. And that you, as purchaser, are in control. As in any transaction, you can negotiate. You'll probably find that independent firms locally owned will be able to lower prices more easily than can funeral homes owned by big corporations.

The Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs publishes a fact sheet on funerals as well as a buyers' guide to preneed arrangements. This, too, is information a funeral director is obliged to give you when you discuss preneed arrangements.

Public assistance

Being financially hard-pressed while needing to pay for a funeral is a tough spot to be in. Doing so might require cobbling together funds from various sources. Social Security pays a lump sum benefit to a direct survivor. The Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance pays up to $1,100 against a maximum cost of $1,500 for funeral and burial for persons without sufficient resources or financially responsible relatives, or for unidentified persons found dead, that is, the indigent. Funeral directors submit to the department itemized statements and indicate if any monies have been paid. The department makes a claim for any later discovered assets. The deceased person needs to have been on assistance at the time of death. Persons not on assistance come into consideration if they have less than $250 in assets. Bear in mind it can be difficult to find a funeral director willing to perform funeral and burial for $1,500. Funeral directors faced with such situations tend to prefer cremation. One change to this system is that friends can no longer commit the deceased to cremation and collect the money.

The department will pay $2,000 toward burial of veterans, which requires certification of eligibility. As described elsewhere in this guide, eligible veterans are entitled to an array of services from the federal government.

They're not public, but other groups that sometimes offer funds include unions, fraternal organizations, and mutual aid societies.

Home ties

Increasingly popular, home funerals offer familiar and comforting surroundings. They can be of great help to a family's grieving process. Additionally, they can be inexpensive.
The commonwealth of Massachusetts grants families the right to organize disposition on their own. The commonwealth outlines its requirements on its Web site, and dispenses practical advice. Big considerations are that it will be up to you to wash, dress and cool the body, then move it to cemetery or crematory. If you need to transport a body from hospital or hospice, you need to be prepared to do the entire job; don't expect institutional personnel to assist. Oh, yeah, the commonwealth requires that a crematory be licensed by the Department of Environmental Protection and a cemetery must be approved by a local board of health.

You will be required to complete paper work and obtain death certificates and burial permits. The Massachusetts Commission on End of Life Care outlines some things to consider.

Sue Cross and Ruth Faas at Morning Dove Studio offer information on conducting home funerals.

If your idea of a home funeral is to hold a service in your home, funeral homes can help. Try asking for a "private service."

Be direct

Look for the word "direct" as a quick way to find a low price. A direct burial leaves out embalming, viewing and funeral service. Many people don't realize that embalming is not legally required except in certain circumstances. Funeral directors urge embalming if you choose viewing or an open-casket funeral because embalming slightly retards decomposition. Embalming and viewing add costs. A no-frills approach to disposition allows for memorial services, that is, those without a body present. In many ways, those better appreciate and remember the individual.

Casper ($1,395) and Brady Fallon ($1,425) are funeral homes at the low end of direct cremation rates. Per a survey published two years ago by the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts (see below), the best direct cremation rate in the Boston area was $800.

Cremation itself can be done for upwards of $400 (Newton Cemetery). But that figure doesn't account for transporting the body, paying the medical examiner, arranging the paperwork, supplying a suitable container, such as a cardboard casket with wooden bottom, and so on. Massachusetts law changed to allow do-it-yourself funeral and burial arrangements in 1996. One crematory operator estimated the savings from what a funeral home charges is about $200.


No matter the price of real estate, doing without it saves money. Unless you can find an unusual situation, cemetery residence is spoken of in terms of thousands of dollars. With burial go costs for opening and closing the grave, crypt or niche, costs for a grave liner, or its more expensive cousin, a vault. Liners or vaults typically are required by cemetery owners to keep the lawns level and to keep the backhoe from winding up somewhere it doesn't belong. To those costs, add headstones and markers, motor escorts, perpetual care, even flowers. Cremation, by which a body is reduced to ashes by burning, remains the least expensive means of disposition. Direct cremation, that is, absent ceremony, lowers even those costs. By federal law, caskets are not required for cremation, though Massachusetts wants a "suitable container" used. But the commonwealth is fine with your renting caskets, meaning you can rent a fancy casket if you wish to have a viewing then use a cheaper, say, cardboard, model in the cremation chamber. Crematory operators let loved ones view the process and will work with survivors to meet wishes.

As you can with most businesses, you can ask about services and negotiate costs. Massachussetts has a steadily rising cremation rate, up to 31 percent as of 2006. Cremation in the commonwealth requires a 48-hour waiting period and a signed statement by a medical examiner who attests that the body has been viewed and requires no further examination or judicial inquiry.

Join up

People power saves money. The Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts, also known as The Memorial Society of Greater Boston, charges a one-time fee of $30 for membership in a nonprofit, nonsectarian organization dedicated to educating the public about deathcare. They are the go-to group for info about commonwealth laws, pending legislation, and how you can become an informed seeker of a dignified, meaningful and affordable funeral. This group offers a comprehensive Web site.

Membership fees stay low because these organizations are volunteer-driven. Similar alliances have been organized for Cape Cod and the islands, Southeast Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts.

Help science

Medical science offers nobility in disposition. It also can lower costs.

The commonwealth of Massachusetts requires that persons interested in willing themselves to science be of sound mind and over 18 years of age. Arrangements must be made by the would-be donor; a key item to settle is transport. The four schools share a cemetery where cremated remains not returned to a donor's family may be interred. If you wish to have your remains returned to family or friends, make sure someone will contact that medical school with updated address information. Program operators say one of the most frequent problems they encounter is trying to return donor remains to family members only to learn the family has moved. Donor bodies are used for two to three years.

Another caveat: Medical schools reserve the right of refusal of any would-be donor. Certain communicable diseases -- such as tuberculosis, HIV-AIDS, the hepatituses -- eliminate consideration. Take the time to learn the requirements and even then make a back-up plan.

Whole body donation to medical schools is not the same as organ donation, which can be arranged by obtaining a donor card from the Registry of Motor Vehicles, which attaches to a would-be donor's driving license.

Contain costs

Caskets can be very expensive. As a rule of thumb, the markup on caskets by funeral homes is about two-and-a-half times. Sometimes more. That is, a funeral home might buy a casket for $1,000 but when you buy it, the price is $2,500. Quality Caskets and Services in Stoneham reckons their $4,000 solid cherry high-end model would fetch $12,000 at a funeral home. Don't have that? Can't spend that? Then shop at a casket retailer and have your purchase delivered.

Per the FTC Funeral Rule, a funeral director cannot refuse to use a casket you purchase elsewhere. Neither can a funeral director charge you a fee to use a casket your buy elsewhere. Another idea is to ask your funeral director if the funeral home stocks other caskets they don't display. You might find a bargain among those.

The commonwealth of Masschusetts is fine with you renting a casket. Caskets, whether plain wood, cardboard or steel and mahogany, are handy for carrying bodies to where they need to be. Massachusetts requires "a suitable container" for cremation. Forest Hills Crematory will sell you a cardboard casket with a wooden bottom for $100.
Eastern Massachusetts used to be home to a number of casket retailers Now, not so many. Try Quality Caskets and Services in Stoneham, or The Casket Store in Dover. Quality's models start at $545, The Casket Store's at $750, delivery included. Quality offers two nonsealer, nongasketed models as well as oversized caskets. The Casket Store can refer you to a supplier of biodegradable models. Costco Wholesale sells caskets, too. Look online for more options and ideas. Cardboard caskets ship flat and start at less than $100.

Similarly, urns to hold cremated remains are available in hundreds of shapes and materials, particularly online. Costs range according to materials and services, such as engraving.

Plot savings

Every cemetery opened in Massachusetts from July 1, 1936, has been mandated by law to be a nonprofit entity. Still, you should shop for a cemetery because prices vary. The thing about cemetery plots is the space in the ground is not enough. You have to pay for the labor to open and close the grave, to line the grave, and take care of the grave. If you can be convinced, you will pay for a vault, which is more elaborate than a liner. It pays to shop. Ask questions; know what you're paying for.

Municipal or township cemeteries usually offer lower-priced plots. Frequently, those cemeteries are restricted to locals. Sometimes the rules are so strictly enforced that someone who spent 65 years in a hometown then retired to Florida would not be allowed burial in the township cemetery. A large number of Massachusetts burials are of residents who left the state but choose to be buried in the commonwealth.

As with any purchase, you can ask for price reductions on cemetery plots. Family-owned -- as opposed to corporate-owned -- companies are more likely to deal. In Massachusetts, cemeteries, whether municipal or private, need approval of a local health authority.

Although cemetery plots are like real estate insofar as they occupy land, some circumstances exist under which plots can be sold. Check with your cemetery owner. Sometimes plans change, and plot holders' needs change. They turn to cemetery brokers to shift those plots. You can pick up a bargain. The Plot Exchange is one place to start. You search by ZIP code. Grave Solutions is another broker. Another place to look is Seriously. Sellers may well offer to pay transfer fees.

Invest yourself to save

You can provide thought and effort to save and maybe just commemorate a life with more meaning. Buy loose flowers and arrange as suits or make individual favors for funeral or memorial attendees. Buy plain bound notebooks and decorate them into remembrance books. Create a Web site dedicated to your loved one. Write a commemorative poem or story. Compose a piece of music. Solicit favorite phrases about your loved one from friends and combine them into a remembrance collage. Glue a photo between felt and thick glass for a perpetual paperweight.