Dying on a Budget? Try Cremation

Funeral planners are feeling the squeeze as clients request cheaper burials.

June 25, 2008 — -- It's never too late — at least not until you're dead, that is — to do whatever it takes to save some money here and there.

But even death, as it turns out, could be the final money-making scheme for those looking to cut corners financially, whether it's by opting for a cheaper coffin or even cremation to avoid burial costs all together.

"It used to be that we'd see nine or 10 thousand-dollar funerals and we'd think nothing of it," said Mike Nicodemus, a board member of the Cremation Association of North America. "But now people are scaling back and looking at [funerals costing] six or seven thousand."

"It absolutely has to do with saving money," added Nicodemus, who is also the funeral director for his own Virginia-based Hollomon-Brown Funeral Home and Crematory.

Nicodemus told ABCNEWS.com that in his 35 years in the business he has never before seen customers so eager to find a good bargain when it comes to their funerals.

"People are looking for short-cuts in services to save money," Nicodemus said. "They might decide that there's no need to embalm because they're not having a visitation or that they don't need to buy an expensive casket."

"They still want to go ahead with services but they're looking to take a cheaper way out, definitely," he added.

Funeral on a Dime? Consider Cremation

On average, cremation can cost $4,500 less than a burial service because it eliminates the need for a casket and a vault, as well as the pricey fees for opening and closing the burial site, Nicodemus said

The drastic price difference, he said, is one reason the rate of cremations has risen in the past few years.

"Right now, the national rate of cremation is 35 percent," Nicodemus said. "Ten years ago it was 20 percent at my company and now it's 45 percent."

"A lot of that change is driven by the economy," he said, adding that one family he's working with decided on an entirely different — and less expansive — burial plan for their mother than they had for their father.

Terry Robertson, the owner of American Cemetery Property in Charlotte, N.C., told ABCNEWS.com that cremation providers are becoming more prevalent nationwide as cremation becomes a more affordable option.

"[Cremation] is cheaper and people are deciding they'd rather look at a photo or a memorial archive of our loved one than walk by a casket," said Robertson, whose own business has changed in the face of the wavering economy.

Instead of operating his own funeral home, he now makes house calls to clients, cutting out the overhead costs of filling hearses with gas and keeping a viewing parlor open. Essentially, Robertson acts as a sort of funeral planner.

"The cremation rate is causing a lot of problems for those companies who now have to raise their prices for funerals, because less people want them," said Robertson, who said cremation has also become more popular as more people relocate (to areas where they do not have family plots) and as it becomes more socially acceptable.

"When most of the funeral parlors were built 50 years ago, we weren't seeing a 40 to 50 percent cremation rate," Robertson added.

Need Some Gas Money? Sell Your Burial Plot

Michael Martin, creator of Plotexchange.com, an online site that brings selling and buying burial plots online, told ABCNEWS.com that he has seen at least a 10 percent spike in business lately, one that he attributes at least partially to the pinched pockets of his customers.

"In terms of the economy, people are just tightening the belt across the board," Martin said. "And if a plot is disposable and nobody intends to use it then it would be justifiable for a family to want to sell it."

A quick search on Martin's site or even on eBay will turn up hundreds if not thousands of people looking to sell their burial plots.

One New Jersey plot for sale on eBay is advertised as being at a "highly desirable location" with "mature trees and hills." Eternal perpetual care is included and the buyer is asking $3,200, a $25 dollar discount from the plot's original price.

But that price may not be good enough, said Martin, who said that he usually recommends a 30 percent discount for those trying to re-sell plots.

So whether it's giving up the 24-karat-encrusted coffin (averaging about $10,000) for a simpler $700 casket, American Cemetery's Robertson says there are a lot of ways the funeral industry is seeing consumers cut back — right up until their very last breath.

"We're definitely seeing people who are not looking to spend 15 thousand on a funeral and instead are being much more logical," Robertson said. "They've already paid thousands of dollars in their parents' health care, the price of shopping is growing and so now the funeral homes have to deal with that."