San Francisco, California

Low Cost Funeral Tips for the San Francisco Area

Funeral directors and their employees don't even blink when the bills for funerals and burials run to $10,000 or $20,000. Not because they are cynical money-grubbers. In San Francisco, death-care costs reflect market conditions and location, ethnic diversity and concentrated wealth. Funeral directors can supply everything from flowers and flautists to escort riders and marching bands. But cost cutting can be done.

1) Plan. For the unprepared, every death is premature. And expensive if you leave survivors scrambling to make funeral plans during a time of shock, loss and grief. Uncommunicated desires go unheeded. Uninformed purchasing adds costs unneeded. An easy way to avoid overspending at a time of bereavement is planning and talking about that planning. Consider then communicate.

Consider first that we offer the perfect, free tool to help you think through the many decisions to be made. It's called My Funeral. It is your online funeral planning tool. It's free.

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.

2) Shop. A funeral home's General Price List (GPL) is one of the most important tools you have for controlling and understanding funeral costs. The GPL describes all the goods and the services a funeral home offers, along with the price of each. These prices vary from funeral home to funeral home. Like a menu in a restaurant, the GPL allows you to select items you want, and it tells how much each will cost. The Federal Trade Commission's "Funeral Rule" requires funeral homes 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.

3) Donate to science. San Francisco Bay Area residents have a choice when willing themselves to a medical school. Two institutions, the University of California San Francisco and Stanford University in Palo Alto, accept bodies to be used by medical students for learning anatomy or by doctors and researchers for developing surgical techniques or solving medical dilemmas. The schools send you forms to complete, you return them, and you're in. Well, sort of. Both schools reserve the right to refuse a body. Understandably, they want bodies in good condition. The big no-nos are Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, hepatitis, HIV-AIDS or tuberculosis. Additionally, extensive trauma at time of death, advanced decomposition, or extreme obesity will make bodies unsuitable for anatomical study.

Stanford doesn't accept bodies with bed sores, jaundice, obesity, excess fluid in extremities, severe contractions, autopsied bodies or bodies that suffered operating-table deaths so have open wounds. Understandably, the schools want bodies committed to their willed bodies programs to be sent to the school as soon after death as possible. Don't even think about having Uncle Sibley embalmed for a funeral. That's right out. Both schools offer 24-hour contact information for immediate acceptance action.

The only cost of donating one's body to UCSF is that of transportation to a facility with refrigerated units for holding the body. Mortuaries and hospitals have these. After study, remains are cremated and scattered at sea. No notification is sent the family.

Stanford University will pay transportation charges for a donor's body only within 75 miles of the university. Transport from beyond 75 miles requires the donor or family to pay transportation, and, again, we're talking refrigerated transport. The university wants prospective donors to learn what those transportation charges will be before they agree to donation. When studies are completed, donated bodies are cremated at a local crematorium. Families can collect their loved one's cremated remains from the university; they need to make the request when the donor's body is collected. Cremated remains not collected will be interred at a Bay Area crematorium. In the event family members later want a donor's cremated remains disinterred and returned, charges apply.

Willed body programs require registration in the programs and administrators really, really, really want donors to have back-up plans lest some reason for rejection arises.

Death certificates, cost of which is about $15, should be arranged for through the vital statistics offices of the county where a donor died.

4) Join a society. By choosing simple, direct actions to deliver yourself to the hereafter, you can keep costs down and cut through the falderal. Association membership can do that. But keep in mind not all societies have low-cost goals as mission statements. Some very much for-profit outfits have stuck the word society on their names hoping to lure people looking for low-cost disposition. The society you want is the nonprofit variety. Bay Area Funeral Society is one of a number of area nonprofit associations that contract with local, independent firms for price and practice. No conglomerates allowed. This keeps prices down. Many of these societies aim for the $1,000 mark, cremation falling below that figure and burial falling a little above. For 2008-09, one of the lowest direct, unwitnessed cremation rates in the San Francisco area is $575; one of the lowest embalming, viewing, funeral ceremony and body burial figures is $1,895.

In general, cemetery costs depend on location. San Francisco land is pricey. More expensive land means more expensive burial. Mortuary contracts are renewed every two years, meaning members need to contact their societies to learn if their mortuaries are still under contract. Mortuaries sign up with societies the way wholesalers line up with Wal-Mart; it's about volume. When mortuary operators decide they no longer need or want the association, they cancel the contracts. Sometimes, mortuaries go out of business. Bear in mind societies contract for bare-bones disposition. Be aware societies vary, too. Some are run on a shoestring making use of volunteer help. Some have paid staff. Some have the wherewithal to conduct surveys of funeral home and cemetery costs, which are later published to great interest by general-readership newspapers as well as senior citizen-targeted publications. Inform yourself then join up. Bay Area Funeral Society covers Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin and San Francisco counties. Funeral Consumers Alliance of San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties covers the peninsula and to the south.

5) Use your veteran’s benefits. The Veterans Administration offers a number of burial benefits to veterans honorably discharged from service. Benefits include a grave in any of the 125 national cemeteries with available space. Spouses and dependent children are also eligible for burial in a national cemetery. Tricky bit for San Francisco vets is both national cemeteries in the area, San Francisco National Cemetery at the Presidio and Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, claim to be full. Word is only a few family members can be accommodated in same-grave arrangements at the cemetery at the Presidio, where 31,576 are interred. But do a little pushing for what might be room for cremated remains, for killed-in-action soldiers in particular.

Meantime, Congress has funded two new cemeteries for California, Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon, west of Sacramento, and Bakersfield National Cemetery to be located 25 miles east of State Route 99 in Kern County. Sacramento Valley, the national cemetery closest to San Francisco with space available to veterans, opened in fall 2006; Bakersfield anticipates opening to burials in early 2009. Another national cemetery with space, San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery, is located at Santa Nella on Interstate 5 in Merced County, about 75 miles southwest of San Jose. The state of California operates two veterans cemeteries, Veterans Memorial Grove Cemetery at Yountville, north of Napa, and Northern California Veterans Cemetery in Igo, west of Redding. Burial services are free to veterans; a $500 fee is charged spouses and dependents.

Services and benefits available to veterans include opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, government headstone or marker, burial flag, and Presidential Memorial Certificate -- all at no cost to the family. Some veterans may also be eligible for burial allowances. Cremated remains are buried or interred in national cemeteries in the same manner and with the same honors as casketed remains. Regardless of cemetery, a government headstone or a grave marker and a burial flag can be provided at no cost.

The Navy provides burial at sea and remains scattering from aboard USN vessels. Active-duty personnel, honorably discharged or retired, civilian marine personnel of the Military Sealift Command, and dependent family of active-duty personnel are eligible. Eligible individuals should make known their desire for such disposition in writing; vets will be surprised to learn the Navy has a form for this. Burial at sea of casketed or cremated remains is performed during deployment, thus family members cannot attend. California’s point of embarkation is San Diego.

6) Home funeral. These are starting to catch on. Or come around again. The death rituals of our forebears used to include preparing Uncle Mortimer for burial, setting him in the parlor, and giving him some several hours to determine he really had gone to the Great Beyond, during which time mourners could come by to pay respects. It was a caring demonstration, especially as no one else would do it. As time went on, enterprising types realized they could offer bigger parlors to families without proper space, and they could attend the other tasks as well. So came into being death-care businesses known as "funeral parlors" and "funeral homes." We took back our parlors, and started calling them "living rooms," but lost touch with personal sendoffs and rituals that belong to respecting and mourning our loved ones. Lately, a number of people have wanted to return to the old customs to restore a missing element of loved-one care. One of them, home funeral facilitator Jerrigrace Lyons of Final Passages in Sebastopol, about 50 miles north of San Francisco, has shown the way. Her service and others like it help Chief Mourners prepare the loved one's body, that is, clean, dress and cool it, navigate necessary paperwork, and make decisions pertinent to memorializing a life ended. What Lyons does is called "death midwifery" also know as, "death doula" or our personal favorite, "home funeral guides".

7) Supply your casket or urn. Key to keeping costs down in the death game is knowing how not to be taken advantage of. One way is to know that funeral directors must use a casket you supply without charging you a handling fee or service charge or any other charge for its use. It's your federally legislated right.

That said, if you can find a lower-cost box than the $25 cardboard number available from Cremation Products Inc. go for it. Representing a second generation of Friediani family in the death-care industry, Kate Firediani-Gorman has moved her father's business from San Leandro to the Central Coast. The warehouse is in Gilroy. For $25 and shipping, you can come up with the goods for green burial or cremation. Bear in mind the boxes are folded -- and shrink-wrapped -- for shipping so you need to shore up the bottom with plywood or some other plank. They are weight-tested to 450 pounds.

As for urns, lots of Web sites offer urns and prices vary widely, but a quick tour of the Columbarium, across the street from Rossi Playground and near University of San Francisco, will show that people's cremated remains can be stored in cookie jars, if an individual so desires. About a third of people who choose cremation are kept around the house by their survivors. That cuts dispersal or burial expenses right there.

8) Choose your cemetery plot well. Start with craigslist then go to eBay. After that, call a broker. Seriously. Finding a low-cost cemetery plot in the San Francisco Bay Area can be a matter of timing. Lucky timing. People who have taken the responsibility for plotting their disposition sometimes change plans. With Californians mobile in nature, an individual who bought plots for $800 might move away and want to sell. Say similar plots fetch $8,000 in the current market. Buying unused plots through a broker -- at rates above seller's cost and with a handling fee -- can be cheaper than going through a cemetery sales office. Nor is $8,000 considered an exorbitant amount for a cemetery plot in San Francisco; one cemetery's plots range from $4,000 to $12,000 based on location in the cemetery. Cemetery plot prices reflect the three rules of real estate: location, location, location. Downhill: cheaper, uphill: expensive. Ocean view: pricey, wall view: bargain. lets you search for cemeteries by ZIP code and will give an idea of prices. That said, another outlet for low-cost plots is a cemetery district. Cemetery districts are formed by communities where commissions are elected to administer those cemeteries. Cemetery upkeep is subsidized by local property taxes, which allows districts to restrict burial eligibility to area residents. It also means selling plots through a broker is illegal. Government-owned cemeteries require plot holders who change plans to sell their plots back to the district only.

Remember that plot price isn't all you'll pay to be laid to rest. In addition to your spot, you'll have to pay for opening and closing the grave, a liner or a vault, a marker or a monument, care and upkeep, and record-keeping.

If you're calling all the cemeteries around the Bay thinking you've found delightfully low rates, keep in mind that some cemeteries are restrictive. Catholic cemeteries usually want a priest-signed testimony that you're a practicing Catholic; Jewish cemeteries aren't keen on non-Jewish spouses or if they allow the burial they won't allow non-Jewish services or non-Jewish clerical attire. Sometimes service groups buy a number of plots in a cemetery and offer a modest price cut to members; it pays to ask if you belong to a service club or group.

9) Think Expansively. Hold a do-it-yourself memorial service in a park or on a beach or in a woods. Hire musicians. Start with the musician listed the Bay Area Funeral Guide's Musicians page. Provide your own condolence books. Create a memorial Web site. Consider a flower market or a farm market for flowers. The hands-on approach can be quite gratifying.