Death of the Poor

After the recent passing of my grandfather, everyone in the family was struck with one thing: the incredible cost!

He did not want a big funeral, but the cheapest wooden casket still cost several thousand dollars and the cemetary charged fees not only for the plot itself, but also for a vault to put around it so that the grass could be mowed, a fee for digging up the earth, a fee for putting him in the ground and so on. It ended up being something along the lines of six thousand dollars.

Since then, everyone in the family has been wondering… what do they do with people who can’t afford all this? Drop 'em in the landfill?

My father signed up pre-need with a Cremation Society. No casket, no vault. I forget the actual cost, but I know it was under $1,000. I assume there are similar plans for the indigent.

I suspect that part of the problem is that when someone dies, you’re not about to go comparison shopping. Usually the first thought is to get it over with as quickly as possible. So the people involved can charge pretty much what they want, as long as the cost isn’t astronomical.

Anyone know what a mortician actually pays for a coffin?

My brother buried his son on their land in Colorado. I haven’t the nerve to ask him about the logistics or cost of that, but it should’ve been cheap.

Paupers’ graves are usually unmarked, except for a small index marker so that they realize that someone is buried there.

On a related point, my grandmother recently died and the family had long agreed on cremation. I was amazed that it cost $1,700. The urn was $300, I’m not sure if it was included or not (actually, I’d have paid $300 for it just as an objet d’art).

There’s been a lot written on consolidation in the funeral industry, and resulting price increases. Salon did a series of articles alleging near-bribery of then-Gov. Bush in Texas by one of the two funeral megachains, Service Industries.

Makes we wish we could just plant 'em in the back yard. I wouldn’t mind that for myself.

You know how poor people used to leave their unwanted baby on the doctor’s porch?

Well, just wheel that cadaver to the undertaker, ring the bell and run…and leave a little note: “Hello, my name is harry and I am dead and unwanted. Will you please bury me?”

Things like that make me glad I’m a retired veteran. I get buried at government expense. I wonder if cremation is an option – it’d save 'em some money and I want to be “parted out” before we go anyway, so what the heck?


The caskets are often purchased wholesale for around 1/3 of the selling price. The cheapest are the steel ones. Most funeral homes capitalize on your grief to stick it to you. My aunt buried her husband and paid up front for the costs, having carefully had them worked out before hand, because he’d been ill for a long time. Right after the funeral, with a few days, she was sent a $300 additional bill, for things like the use of the limo – which drove her and the family 200 feet from the ‘chapel’ to the plot.

We told her to send the bill to her lawyer, but she was so wrapped up in her grief that she did not want to hassle and paid it. These places count on things like that.

Just today, listening to the radio, I heard something about a funeral home being brought up on charges because they disposed of their garbage in the caskets of the dearly departed. Instead of paying the usual trash fees, they stuffed the stuff in the coffin after final viewing, when no one was around and the attendants were getting the casket ready to take to the grave site.

Last year, some exposure program disclosed how funeral homes rip people off by tagging on unneeded services and how they buy a lot of the caskets cheaply from overseas and sell them high to local consumers. One funeral home dealing with minorities was caught cutting costs by watering down the embalming fluid or just flushing the body out with straight water. People got suspicious when one funeral was delayed a day or so and the body began to smell.

Those brass urns for ashes are cheaply purchased for under $50 and sold to the bereaved for around $200. Ashes, being human remains, are not allowed to be shipped via regular post or courier, but require special handling which costs more. A lot of funeral homes ship ashes and urns via Federal Express or Airborne Express by not marking the boxes as human remains and saving a bundle in costs. You can imagine that the shipping cost, doubled, gets tagged on the customers eventual bill.

There was (and still may be) a retail casket store in Norcross, GA, just a few miles from my house. IIRC, most of their caskets were in the $300-$500 range.

If you’re really interested in how the funeral business operates, check out The American Way of Death, by Jessica Mitford. It was published back in the 60s (or was it 70s?), but much of it still pertains today. ISTR that it was updated in the early 90s.

In fact, things may be even worse today – in recent years several large corporations have been buying up independent funeral homes, as xtnjohnson points out.

In DC, I believe the bodies of the unclaimed are stacked to the rafters. Probably at least a few of them are there because not-so-immediate relatives don’t want to get stuck with the costs you all descibe above. I believe after a period of time, the’ll cremate them and store the ashes for a while. I suppose when the ashes start piling up, then they take a load of them out somewhere and disperse them.

These days, from what I hear, a lot of Med schools are still short on good cadavers. I hear that many will do the pick up for free, keep it for student use for a year, and then cremate and return the ashes to the family, all at a cost of $0.00 to the family.

What? They’re franchised?[ul]**"Welcome to McFuneral! We’re deeply sorry about your recent loss and would like to help you in any way possible [sub]for a “small fee”[/sub].
Whether the recently deceased would prefer burial in a McCasket or a McCremation, we guarantee rapid, efficient service!
We also offer “Griswold Special drive-up service” for the vacationing family on the go.[/ul]


No, they ( the Mega-Chains ) go through great pains to make sure NOBODY knows that the McSweeney and Goldfarb Funeral Home has now been swallowed up by Crypto-Shippers of America Inc., or somesuch. ( Names made up on the spot to avoid offending anyone. :smiley: ) The great majority of clients do not know that their local home has been swallowed up. It’s very unusual for a name change to take place, all according to the cite below.

I heard a VERY lengthy story, might have even been over several days, on NPR last fall. This link takes you directly to the story site. It went into exhaustive detail on this very topic. Frauds, broken laws, abuse of people’s sensibilities at their most delicate hour. A grim view to be sure. Oh coolness- I didn’t count on this. If you go to the link, you can HEAR the entire broadcast story by Jim Zarroli. :stuck_out_tongue: God bless National Public Radio :smiley:

And, before anybody whose family has owned and operated a very caring, sensitive and professional funeral home for like 6 generations goes and jumps my shit for saying such a thing, I’m simply presenting the point of view offered by a carefully researched story. I’m not stating that I endorse that point of view in toto, or anything of the sort. Just offering a good source for info here.

My family and I are big on cremation. Burn me up, after gutting me like a tuna and harvesting me like a ripe tomato patch. Let the living benefit. ( minor hijack ).


My sister was disturbed and horrified by the embalming process, and had made it well known to her friends and family that she did not want to be embalmed, just cremated ASAP. After she was murdered my parents asked about it while she was still at the morgue, and was told that it shouldn’t be a problem if she was to be cremated as soon as they were through with the autopsy. They told the funeral home she wasn’t to be embalmed. We didn’t know they embalmed her before cremating her until we got the bill, and they claimed that it was required by law when my parents raised hell about it. We might have had grounds for a lawsuit, but nobody wants to think about that days after their 23 year old daughter is killed.

I personally don’t care what happens to my body, and I have told my relatives that when I die to not deal with any funeral homes, to allow my body to be disposed of in whatever manner is used for indigents without family after my organs are harvested.

I put a similar provision into my little note as to what i want them to do with my corpus. I even wrote “don’t listen to what the funeral people say.”

to hugely inflated mortician expenses is to donate your cadaver for scientific study. You can save mega-bucks and do a good deed even when you’re dead. Be sure to have this specified in a legal will beforehand and inform your loved one’s of your decision.

I was going to mention Jessica Mitford’s expose of the funeral industry, but 3waygeek beat me to it. I think it was in the wake of her book’s initial publication that memorial societies sprang up around the country. They really keep costs down. I recommend looking into them. I also recommend considering signing an organ doner card. And whatever you want re organ donation, cremation vs. whole body burial, etc., let family members know of your wishes.

It has to be easier to stand up to the funeral home people if you know the deceased was opposed to the family spending a lot of bucks. And it won’t be necessary to even discuss anything with the funeral home people if everything is planned in advance with a memorial society.

Re organ donation, over the years, I’ve come across the same thing in a number of articles: people saying that they agreed to donate a family member’s organs because they recalled that he or she once stated that they’d like it if their organs could be used to help others after they died.