The High Cost Of Dying

"Dammit! I can't afford to die!"

That was the worried admission from a sickly older friend when I told him how much I figured it would cost for my funeral. Like many other elderly persons he has suffered some serious financial reverses during and after the recession and is now struggling just to meet his current obligations.

He said they may have to dig a hole for him in his backyard. He was serious, and not alone in thinking of this. Home burials are legal and being considered by a growing number of people with limited financial resources. Nearly one of three Americans has no life insurance and one in five workers near retirement has no savings.

I had personally never given any thought to interment costs even though I am in my eighties. I thought I was in pretty good health with some good years ahead. Then I was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

My doctor didn't offer any encouragement about how much time I had left so I knew I had to get busy making final arrangements and doing whatever else I could to reduce the burden on my wife and family when the time comes.

First on my to-do list was choosing a funeral home and pricing out arrangements for what the director referred to as my "Celebration of Life", a corny-sounding term which made me suspect it would probably be a lot more expensive than a good old-fashioned funeral. That's not really the case. It's just a euphemism marketing people have dreamed up.

Whatever you call them, burials are becoming a real financial burden for a lot of stretched-out American families.

Not long ago I remember reading in a couple of places that the average cost to bury someone is over $6,000. So imagine the sticker shock when I learned it would cost at least $20,000 to put me under. None of it tax deductible!

My $20,000 estimate is not for anything elaborate and a good chunk of it is for hospitality for guests. But it's still a lot of money even though I tried to keep costs down as best I could.

For example, I specified that I wanted the cheapest casket available. My only requirement being that it be sturdy enough so that the bottom won't fall out when lifted.

Lo and behold, the basic economy model conforming to burial regulations was a nicely upholstered, sleek metallic job at $2,500. (I remember thinking at the time that my father never owned a car that cost that much.)

I also opted out of embalmment which is not required in Virginia and many other states. That saved nearly $1,000. Another savings was our decision to have just one viewing session. But the total cost for the use of the funeral home, hearse, a couple of cars, drivers and other stuff still comes to just a shade under $8,000.

As a Korean War veteran I could be cremated and buried for free in Arlington National Cemetery but my wife isn't keen on the idea of cremation so we found a relatively inexpensive $4,500 double plot in a dignified old Southern resting place close to our home in Reston, VA. Opening the grave is another $1.100. A headstone will be at least a couple of thousand more.

An indirect expense I have included was a $300 charge to "refresh" my will, which was still valid but very much outdated. (Note: those with large estates might also wish to consult someone about avoiding probate, a costly and time-consuming court procedure that can run in thousands of dollars in legal fees.)

Following the funeral we are planning a reception at a local restaurant for about 75 people. Nothing too fancy: an open bar, a steamship round for sandwiches, a salad and some other goodies. The estimate of about $4,500 should cover it because few of our friends and relatives are big drinkers (anymore) and I'm hoping that most of them won't have more than a couple of glasses of wine.

For an old-fashioned thinker like me, funerals are meant to be a time of mourning for the deceased and expressing sympathy for the survivors. But if people insist on having a "Celebration of Life" for me I hope everyone has a good time while managing to keep everything under control, especially the budget. I'm in deep enough already.

John Donnelly is a retired public relations executive who has been diagnosed with liver cancer. He has been keeping busy arranging his funeral and other affairs. In the hope that at least some will remember him with a smile on their face he has left instructions to ask that donations in his memory be directed to Smile Train.