San Diego, California

Low Cost Funeral Tips for San Diego

The average cost of funeral and burial in San Diego County -- and it's surprising how many people don't realize, or perhaps forget, that burial costs as much as a funeral -- is $15,000 to $20,000. That's not for a Cadillac version, says a local with 50 years in the industry, that's for Ford or Chevy version. Whittle away costs with these ideas:


With a global life expectancy of nearly 70 years -- between 77 and 80 in the United States -- it would stand to reason most people have time to make decisions about death, demise and final arrangements -- if only to plot how to pay for them. Still, many of us don't. Not an embraceable topic. Plenty of time. Heck, even 70 percent of lawyers die without wills. But when we don't make the effort to indicate our preferences to loved ones, they face a dilemma. Funeral or graveside service? Burial or cremation? Ashes scattered or left in an urn on the mantle?

Luckily for procrastinators, we offer the perfect, free tool to help. It's called MY FUNERAL. It is your online funeral planning tool. It's free.

As for the paying part, this section is devoted to ideas to help trim costs. Consider, too, that funeral directors, who will welcome your wisdom in planning ahead, have options for helping you choose within your budget. It pays to ask.


Funeral home directors are legally obliged to give inquirers a printed list of services and prices. It's called the General Price List (GPL), and it is one of the most important tools you can use to understand and to control funeral costs. The GPL lists package deals, their components and prices, and it lists the costs of services if selected separately. (Many funeral home web sites display this information.) By gathering GPLs from various funeral homes, you gain insight not only into the variety of services on offer but into pricing policies and variances. 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. The funeral director must give you a copy to keep. Acquainting yourself with the law on these matters will go a long way to helping you feel you have found prices and services that meet your needs and budget. As in any transaction, you can negotiate. Keep in mind that funeral directors at funeral homes belonging to large chains probably will be more constrained -- read: not authorized -- in deal-making than would be the director/owner of a family-owned funeral home.

Look homeward

If hanging around mortuaries shopping for services fails to strike the right note, you have an option. Increasingly popular home funerals take the "assembly-line" feel out of traditional funerals and replace it with familiar and comforting surroundings. Home funeral guides are trained to help a family to prepare, preserve and present the body for viewing, to personalize rites and rituals, to secure and complete necessary forms, and to help the bereaved with the grieving process. Home funeral guides can help with finding a casket, transporting the body, and witnessing cremation.

Ranging from $400 to $2,000, home funerals are cheaper than mortuary funerals. For one thing, no one mentions embalming. Thresholds is the San Diego pioneer in family-directed arrangements. Thresholds offers funeral planning, consultation and referral, patient rights information, personal and legal rights, and a plethora of other assistance with consideration of cultural, spiritual and economic situations. People who choose home funerals find the procedures of care offer opportunities to say personal and meaningful farewells. They are surprised to learn the simplicity and the flexibility home funerals can provide.

Home funeral guides offer planning ideas. In West Los Angeles, she's a little farther away, but Olivia Bareham of Sacred Crossings offers home funeral services. Funeraria Aztlan Mortuary in La Mesa, east of downtown San Diego, will conduct a funeral service in your home -- or anywhere, come to that -- if you choose. Company owner John Rodriguez said his firm accommodates family involvement, especially with dressing the deceased.

Be direct

Efforts to cut costs of disposition have led to the term "direct" coming into the lexicon. A direct burial leaves out embalming, viewing and funeral service. Direct cremation is similarly absent these amenities. For instance, embalming is not a legal requirement. Funeral directors urge its use for presentation purposes if you choose viewing or an open-casket funeral. Those steps adds costs. A no-frills approach to disposition allows for memorial services that in many ways can better appreciate and remember the individual.


California's cremation rate is reckoned at 52 percent. San Diego County's cremation rate two years ago, the latest date for which data are available, was 63.7 percent. For good reason. Cemetery plots might be the only real estate not losing value of late. Unless you ferret out an unusual situation, cemetery residence is spoken of in terms of thousands of dollars. With burial go costs for opening and closing the grave, for a grave liner -- typically required by cemetery owners to keep the lawns level -- for headstones and markers ... costs keep on coming when ceremony adds to ritual: flowers, motor escorts, remembrances.

Cremation remains the least expensive means of disposition. In cremation a body is reduced by burning to a grainy substance officially called "cremains" but often referred to as ashes. Direct cremation, that is, absent ceremony, lowers even those costs. San Diego has five crematories and offer rates of less than $700. You'll pay $12 for a death certificate, $11 for a cremation permit, and $8.50 for a state fee newly reintroduced by the Department of Consumer Affairs. One mortuary owner has seen his firm's cremation rate go from 35 percent to 60 percent in the past year. Crematories allow loved ones to view the process and will work with survivors to meet wishes. As with most businesses, you can ask about services and negotiate costs.

Try Society

People power can save you money. The willingness of volunteers to operate a cooperative to negotiate rates for direct burial and direct cremation -- see previous entries -- translates to savings.

Incorporated in 1958, the San Diego Memorial Society advocates turning the focus from convening for a death to celebrating a life. Memorial services with a celebratory theme can be held anywhere, not necessarily in the presence of remains at a church or in a funeral home. Shifting the approach can save money. The society enrolls members, then negotiates with area service providers for reduced fees. Membership, open to all, is $40. Individuals who wish to transfer a membership from another, similar society can do so for a $20 fee. San Diego Memorial Society is affiliated with Funeral Consumers Alliance and works to give consumers a voice in what it calls "the after-death industry" by lobbying at local, county, state and federal levels.

Bear in mind that not all societies perform the services or offer the rates of those whose mission is to help lower costs and make death more consumer friendly.

Give to get

Donating your body to science can be a costfree way to make your exit. But using such a program requires understanding what it entails, so be clear you and your loved ones have the details. The medical school at University of California San Diego accepts bodies through a donation program. The school sends downloadable forms via e-mail. Potential donors will notice they are asked for thorough information that will identify them and alert students to physical history and characteristics. Forms ask for employment background, which can help students inform their observations, likewise medical and surgical history.

The university's program is designed to assist the hands-on education of would-be health-care practitioners, forensic scientists, anatomists and mortuary technicians, as well as the research of surgical procedures and development of pharmaceuticals. Sometimes the educational purposes to which a donor body are put are not those of UCSD but of another facility, such as San Diego's Naval Hospital in Balboa Park. Once study is complete, bodies are cremated by program staff and scattered at sea. No remains are returned to the donor's family. Program director Herb Hawley explained this policy came about because donor survivors frequently move after loved ones die and the university is left without correct addresses for returning remains. The university is not legally able to store remains.

Standard instructions apply: The program must be informed of a donor's death immediately (to delay can render a body unusable); the body must not be embalmed or otherwise prepared for disposition; a body can be rejected even if all paper work is long since logged, so a Plan B is vital. The program will arrange to transport the body and pay for the cost if a donor dies within 200 miles of the university's La Jolla campus. In fact, if an enrolled donor dies anywhere in California, the program will collect the body. The program reserves options for donors who die more than 200 miles from campus. The options are that a donor's survivor needs to transport the body per program instruction and using approved means, or the body can be transferred to another University of California Donated Body program, or the program can reject the donation. Again, be clear on the process to make the most of the opportunity.

Advantage, vets

The array of government benefits offered to military veterans is more fully explored elsewhere in this guide. Certainly, government-provided grave markers, cemetery space, and survivor benefits represent savings for veterans, but in San Diego, a haven for military retirees, private business, too, often seeks to honor military service. Ask providers of all sorts of services if military discounts are available. Such discounts typically require little more than proof of service, such as discharge papers. The county's only aerial cremated remains scattering service, Final Flight, provides free service to Medal of Honor winners.

Urn your discount

You can save money with a bring-your-own-container approach. Funeral directors often mark up casket costs up to two-and-half times. If they buy a casket for $1,000, they sell it for $2,500. Per the Funeral Rule, funeral directors cannot charge a fee if you wish to use a casket not purchased at their mortuaries. Thus, you're free to shop around. You can spot a casket at a mortuary and trim hundreds from your cost by buying it elsewhere. Of course, a mortuary owner is perfectly free to stock a lower-cost casket in dull finish that you don't like and not mention that a bright finish model you might like is available through a casket dealer. Costco Wholesale sells caskets. So do others. Gary Crowley closed his casket factory in 1981 but he continues to sell online through San Diego Caskets and Caskets Plus More. He offers the big four: Batesville, York, Astral and Aurora, among others. Prices range from $895 to $20,000. He offers discounts to families of active and retired military, police and firefighters, and he delivers throughout Southern California at no charge.

Similarly, urns in hundreds of shapes and materials are available online. Costs range accordingly. Taste and use will direct your choice.

Suss out the plot

About the only California real estate that hasn't suffered market value declines in the past year is cemetery space. Consider that plots offered by big-chain landholders start at around $4,700 -- that's with prepurchase, otherwise $5,020 at time of need -- and go up. And if you didn't know, burials are charged at different rates for different days of the week; weekdays are cheaper than weekends. But remember that burial requires not only a plot but a vault -- not a state requirement, but cemetery owners hate when the lawns collapse because holes were dug -- opening and closing of the grave, and a marker. The vault goes for nearly $1,000 and is taxed. Add a service fee of, oh, $350 to that. Even the nonmathematical among us can see figures fly. The way to trim costs is a plot broker. Plot brokers connect buyers with sellers. Brokers report business is up tenfold as people opt out of burial and choose cheaper cremation. A plot on offer from a cemetery might be $4,700 but a similar plot on resale might be $2,000. lets you search for cemeteries by ZIP code and will give an idea of prices.

Another way to lower cemetery costs is to live in a cemetery district. Cemetery districts are a form of local government and are taxing agencies like water or school districts. Districts receive a portion of property taxes so can reduce the selling prices of cemetery plots. Savings can run to thousands of dollars. The catch on cemetery districts is eligibility requirements. Basically, you need to be a taxpaying resident -- or family member of same -- in the cemetery district. Family ties are important and can be advantageous even should someone move out of the district. The only cemetery districts in San Diego County are north and east of the city. The Valley Center district covers Valley Center Cemetery; the Ramona district covers Nuevo Cemetery; Pomerado district covers Dearborn Cemetery in Poway, and the North County Cemetery District covers San Marcos Cemetery in San Marcos and Oakhill Cemetery in Escondido.

Free associate

As many people are learning, the form and the structure of the one or two dispositions we plan per our lifetimes need not be funeral home-oriented or church-anchored occasions. If we plan our own memorial services, they can be held in wide, open spaces and without charge. They can be assemblies in parks, hikes through state parks or national forests, or sunset gatherings by the shore. One ceremony distinctly connected to San Diego, because of its surfing community, is the paddle-out. A paddle-out entails assembling on a beach then paddling past the break, putting the boards in a circle and letting each celebrant remember a story, say a prayer, or speak a piece about the remembered. Leis or flower petals are scattered on the water to end the proceedings. Paddle-outs would not typically go the 500 yards offshore requred by law to scatter cremated remains.