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How to Have a Funeral for Under $200



What’s the cheapest way to plan a funeral? Don’t have one.

I’m completely serious. Funeral director Jeff Jorgenson let me in on this sneaky secret while talking for another story about ways to avoid debt from a funeral.

The American funeral home business is a $20 billion industry. And Jorgenson tells me most of the money comes from a society freaked out by the idea of death.

He’s not complaining and not pushing customers to spend money on anything they’re not willing to. Jorgenson told me about one family he helped spend less than $200 when their daughter died.

She was terminally ill at 37 years old. The woman researched every legality of her death and burial in Portland, Oregon, and learned all she really needed was a death certificate.

Jorgenson recalls she didn’t have time to fear her mortality because she was facing it, and saved a shocking amount of money with very specific and almost outrageous requests.

“I’ll make my money simply because I’m in death,” Jorgenson told me. “Death is uncomfortable and I make it less uncomfortable. There are those of us [funeral directors] around the country that are willing to help families figure out how to do what works for them. But that takes research. It takes calling funeral homes in your area, and find out who’s willing to entertain crazy – crazy by our terms – not crazy by a doctor’s terms.”

Other funeral homes had quoted her anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 to file a death certificate. He pulled a permit for $175 and “almost felt guilty taking that.”

Here is a crazy step-by-step guide to saving money on a funeral if you’re up to it. But if the idea of death makes you squeamish, stop reading now.

1. Keep the body on ice

My grandmother had died shortly before my call with Jorgenson. My initial reason was that I felt the funeral home we took her to charged us shocking amounts of money in my opinion.

We got on the topic of saving money on a funeral and I asked if a family really needs to use a funeral home. His reply threw me off guard but has stuck with me since.

“Technically no,” he replied. “In all of the states that I can think of – although I can’t speak to all the laws across the country – most will allow you to act as a funeral director. The problem is there’s effectively no way for a family to file a death certificate.”

That certificate proves the cause of death, time, and location of death. For the purposes of this article basically, it proves you didn’t murder your family member. Because Jorgensen says you can literally refrigerate your dead relative at home with it.

“In theory, you put them on the sofa with a dry ice underneath and kept them there for days while you’re trying to figure out the cemetery to take them to,” Jorgenson said. “Then take her to the cemetery and bury them.”

2. Dress them at home

I looked through the funeral home’s “general price list” after. Some of the charges were so weird to me but in retrospect make sense because I wasn’t going to any of them.

These prices are from 2018, and likely have increased since…

  • Undergarments: $25
  • Clothing: From $175, “from” implying that’s not the final price.
  • Thumbies keepsake: From $125, I had to Google this one: A type of jewelry the corpse holds.
  • Burial shroud: $150

… and the list goes on. There was a moment when the costs for these silly items made me angry.

After talking with Jorgenson I understood more. It’s not that funeral homes are ripping us off or scamming us. They provide a service to help us mourn death. It’s not a funeral director’s fault we can’t handle death. They can, and get paid well to do it.

So if you wanted to, here’s what Jorgenson told me that family did for their daughter:

“She wanted to be dressed and bathe at home,” Jorgenson said.

3. Say goodbye at home

Most funerals I’ve been to are weird. People come in all day to “pay respect” to the body. They put on nice clothes, drive to a funeral home, stare at the body and cry. But if that’s how we as people grieve, why do we need to do it at the funeral home?

Really, just because it’s socially acceptable.

It’s interesting because my parents found my grandmother dead on the floor. It’s not like the house was going to be contaminated by a corpse anymore than that.

We could’ve had all of the same funeral traditions at their home, Jorgenson said. He was pretty frank in explaining why his industry exists and I respected his blunt honesty.

“If you flashback to your situation and what you were feeling and what you knew at that time, there’s no way in hell you could,” Jorgenson said. “That was effectively a non-option.”

4. Drive the body yourself

I remember waiting with my family to pick up my grandmother’s body at my parents’ home. Two young guys wearing suits arrived in a gray Ford Cargo van.

They put on black gloves, pulled a stretcher from the back and wheeled it in the house. After throwing a white sheet over her body, they lowered the stretcher, put her on, and wheeled her out while nodding and apologizing for our loss.

It was one of those lackluster moments where you see what happens behind the curtain. You know for a horrible choice of words, you “see how the sausages are made.”

Jorgenson told me I could’ve done it if I wanted. In fact, it would’ve saved my family $500. That’s how much the funeral home charged for “removal and transfer of remains to funeral home (within a 20-mile radius).”

“There’s a lot of research that goes into that and a lot of planning. And you have to want to be involved with the process,” Jorgenson said. “You can find a funeral home that’s willing to just file the death certificate, and then you do all the transportation.”

5. Dig a hole and dump the body

This is the one part where there’s an extra expense that should be planned for. I wasn’t completely clear until listening back to our conversation that he never sold a burial plot to this woman and her family. She purchased that separately.

Some families do have family plots purchased from cemeteries years, and even, decades in advance. If a licensed funeral director like Jorgenson files your death certificate with the state, you’re within your legal right to bury the body in a cemetery.

He made mention of some rural states like South Dakota, where he planned to bury his own father on family property.

Is this conversation dramatized? Sure, but it is true and there are lessons to learn. You’re paying a funeral home to perform these services for you. You can shop around funeral homes like you would mechanics and turn down recommendations.

It’s a simple business transaction and only your grief will cause you to spend more than necessary.

Jorgenson’s lesson to everyone is to change the conversation about death. There’s nothing to fear. We should talk about it and plan for it.

“You can research death all day long, it does not mean it’s going to happen today,” Jorgenson said. “You know, you can research 401(k)s. You’re not going to get anything out of it if you never put a damn dollar in it. Unlike your 401(k), we do know death is going to happen. So you may as well have things planned out. I mean, if you’re uncomfortable with it, that’s your problem.”

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