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How much does a funeral cost? Here's how to pay for it

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MoMo Productions/Getty Images

Planning a funeral can be taxing. Making time-sensitive decisions while grieving the loss of a loved one, along with managing the costs, can leave anyone feeling overwhelmed.

How much does a funeral cost? As of 2021, average funeral expenses added up to $7,848 for a burial and $6,970 for cremation. With additional services, many families pay even more for their loved ones' funeral services. Typically, funeral homes want payment up front, which can add stress.

However, you have options to manage these expenses.

What are typical costs when planning a funeral?

Do you know the wishes of your loved ones when they die? The more you understand up front, the smoother planning can be. Also by understanding the typical costs associated with planning a funeral, you can create a sound plan that allows you to focus on your loved ones rather than finances. How much does a funeral cost with these elements of planning included? Consider this median funeral cost breakdown from the National Funeral Directors Association.

1. What are average burial costs?

A traditional burial may include a visitation and memorial service before burial or entombment. The biggest expense with this type of funeral is typically the casket, but it also costs money to preserve and prepare the body for viewing.

Cemetery expenses can include the burial plot and the gravestone or grave marker that rests on top. These may be purchased in advance to spread out your costs. Cemeteries may require a grave liner or vault to keep the ground from caving in. Also there may be additional charges to open and close the grave.

2021 median cost of burial funeral with viewing: $7,848

  • Nondeclinable basic services fee: $2,300
  • Removal/transfer of remains to funeral home: $350
  • Embalming: $775
  • Other preparation of the body: $275
  • Use of facilities/staff for viewing: $450
  • Use of facilities/staff for funeral ceremony: $515
  • Hearse: $350
  • Service car/van: $150
  • Printed materials (basic memorial package): $183
  • Metal burial casket: $2,500

2. What are average cremation costs?

Cremation funerals often are less expensive than a burial. Instead of purchasing a casket, you can rent one and then buy an urn to house the remains. Or you don't need a casket at all if that was your loved one's wish.

A visitation and memorial service are still possible with a cremation burial. Some families will have a visitation or viewing before the cremation process. Or you can have a service, after the cremation, with the urn present.

You'll also need to consider what happens to the remains after the cremation. Scattering the ashes or keeping the urn in your possession can decrease your cemetery costs. But some families opt to bury the urn in a cemetery plot or house it in a columbarium, a room where urns are stored.

2021 median cost of cremation funeral with viewing: $6,970

  • Nondeclinable basic services fee: $2,300
  • Removal/transfer of remains to funeral home: $350
  • Embalming: $775
  • Other preparation of the body: $275
  • Use of facilities/staff for viewing: $450
  • Use of facilities/staff for funeral ceremony: $515
  • Service car/van: $150
  • Printed materials (basic memorial package): $183
  • Cremation fee (if firm uses a third party): $368
  • Cremation casket: $1,310
  • Urn: $295

3. What are average funeral provider fees?

Any time spent at a funeral home or cemetery typically will incur service fees. Funeral providers often charge for services such as handling and transporting the body. Workers who greet and direct guests or work behind the scenes also are covered under service fees. Fees can vary significantly across funeral providers, so if you can preplan your funeral you may find the best price and care.

4. Additional funeral costs to consider

In addition to the above costs, consider the following common funeral expenses, which can be taken care of prior to death.

You'll also have to pay for securing death certificates and writing obituaries. Your budget also might include travel, lodging and catering if necessary. Many experts recommend rounding up funeral expenses to $10,000 so that you have some room in your budget.

4 tips for keeping funeral costs down

1. Plan ahead

Whether you're planning your own funeral or arranging for a loved one, try your best to approach funeral expenses like other significant purchases. Understand what matters most, then begin prioritizing.

Funeral providers must provide an itemized list of their goods and services and the associated costs. Consider comparing two to three funeral homes to ensure you receive a fair price.

2. Know the required vs. optional expenses

Funeral providers also must identify and explain required or nondeclinable fees. You only have to pay for products or services that you choose, unless they are required by law. A funeral home cannot force you to pay for an optional product or service simply because it is part of a promotional package.

Embalming, visitations and memorial services are examples of common optional expenses, but funeral home service fees are often nondeclinable.

3. Explore third-party offerings

You do not have to purchase funeral products such as caskets, urns, memorial service programs and flowers directly from the funeral home. Many third parties offer these products at a fraction of the cost.

4. Consider alternative or less traditional funerals

A large memorial service with a viewing is not your only option. Passing on certain services can simplify the funeral and decrease costs if you're comfortable with the trade-offs. For example, you could decide not to embalm the body and instead opt for an immediate burial or cremation. However, because the body is not being preserved, usually no visitation is allowed.

If you are a member of a church, having the memorial service there may be an opportunity to save on funeral home expenses as they often provide services at a lesser or no cost to members. You still could rely on the funeral home for the burial after the ceremony.

How to afford funeral expenses

With an idea of what you need to spend, you can begin strategizing on how to cover those costs.

Some options for paying for funeral expenses include:

  • Savings accounts where loved ones have shared access.
  • Investment accounts, where loved ones are listed as beneficiaries.
  • Life insurance contracts, where loved ones are listed as beneficiaries.
  • Prepaying for funeral expenses (although this can lead to complications if your needs change or the funeral home goes out of business).

Life insurance can help with funeral costs

A properly executed life insurance contract can ensure your loved ones will afford funeral expenses and be taken care of long-term.

Term life insurance is often referred to as an affordable life insurance option to cover a desired timeframe. Permanent life insurance offers protection throughout your entire life, no matter how long you live, as long as coverage remains in-force. Upon your passing, your beneficiaries will receive an income tax-free payout called a death benefit.2

In addition to covering funeral expenses, a life insurance payout can leave your loved ones with the funds to cover unpaid debts, college costs and any of your family's other needs. You also can designate funds to go toward charities of your choosing.

A permanent life insurance contract offers benefits that you can access while living, too. Permanent life insurance can build cash value. With time, the cash value of your insurance may grow—to the point where you can withdraw funds or borrow against it under qualifying conditions.1

When can life insurance make sense?

Maybe you'd like to leave more for your loved ones in the event of your death—either by removing the financial burden as much as possible or by allowing some months to grieve without worrying about money. Life insurance offers a path for you.

Families that include children with special needs or who anticipate high health care costs down the road also can benefit from life insurance. There are many scenarios where life insurance can be a viable option to ease the stress of a loss of life.

Depending on your goals and financial situation, it may be worth connecting with a financial advisor to see if and how life insurance may fit into your broader financial objectives.

Plan ahead for funeral costs

The best way to avoid blowing your budget or incurring debt is to know your expenses ahead of time. Use the funeral cost breakdown above as a starting point to identify what's important to you and where you can make trade-offs that help you stick to your desired outcome. Keep in mind, some items can be purchased well in advance of death. Taking this step early can allow for more time to grieve in the moment. As you look for ways to save for a funeral, also consider a life insurance contract to make funeral expenses more manageable.

Connect with a Thrivent financial advisor to fully understand your options for funeral cost planning.

1 Removing money from your contract can result in potential charges and income changes that affect your taxes. If you have a modified endowment contract, your actions may not be tax-free. Withdrawing money decreases the contract's cash value and the value of your death benefit, and can result in a closed account if you withdraw too much. If you remove money, it will take you longer to meet your contract goals. Always talk with your tax advisor and financial professional to learn about those implications up front.

2 Under current tax law [IRC Sec. 101(a)(1)], death proceeds are generally excludable from the beneficiary's gross income. However, death proceeds may be subject to state and federal estate and/or inheritance tax.

If requested, a licensed insurance agent/producer may contact you and financial solutions, including insurance may be solicited.

Loans and partial surrenders on contracts classified as Modified Endowment Contracts (MEC) are taxed on gains-coming out first and may be subject to a 10 percent penalty tax if made prior to age 59½.

Loans and surrenders will decrease the death proceeds and the value available to pay insurance costs which may cause the contract to terminate without value. Surrenders may generate an income tax liability and charges may apply. A significant taxable event can occur if a contract terminates with outstanding debt. Contact your tax advisor for further details. Loaned values may accumulate at a lower rate than unloaned values.