Dying on the Cheap

Dying costs more than living -- that is, if you pay the going rate to the undertaker. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a casket and funeral last year was $4,207 -- not counting the grave, vault and marker. Add another $1,500 for those fun items, and it's easy to spend $6,000. In contrast, the latest cost figures for a non-cesarean birth in the U.S. average $4,700.

But you don't have to spend six grand for your final resting place. Dying on the cheap takes a bit more effort, but it can be done. So don't be afraid to shop around. The Federal Trade Commission requires funeral homes to provide costs over the phone; a quick survey shows that costs vary by as much as $2,000 for a basic service. Casket prices also vary.

There are many things you can do without. Embalming is not required by the state, the feds or anyone else. Caskets aren't required either. You don't have to hire a funeral home, hearse, limo or anything else. Anyone can conduct a funeral service, as long as the proper permits are obtained.

Unless you have a burning desire to be buried, you could opt for cremation. One Houston crematorium (Brookside Memorial Park) gave a price of $1,690. Cremation Service International, formerly known as the Neptune Society, gave a price of $895 for direct cremation with no embalming, visitation or other services. (They also offer low-cost funerals starting at $2,500. Call 692-5555.)

Urns, which hold "cremains" (cremated remains), are much cheaper than caskets. You can get your cremains buried at the cemetery for much less than the cost of a full-sized grave. Or you can have the ashes scattered, a service which costs nothing.

If you live five miles outside the city limits, you can create your own family cemetery. But you should check with Harris County before forging ahead. If you don't have any money for a grave, the county can also help: it maintains a cemetery on Oates Road for indigents. Call 696-7900 or, on weekends, 755-5000 for more in- formation.

You may also donate your body to science. The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston will pick up bodies for no charge, as long as they are within 300 miles of Galveston. But they must get a body within 24 hours of death, and they do not want the body embalmed. Call (409) 772-1293 during business hours or (409) 772-1011 on nights and weekends.

-- Robert Bryce


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