Houston 101

A Houstonian's Guide to Dying on the Cheap

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, stardust to stardust.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, stardust to stardust. Photo by Susie Tommaney
There's a hefty price tag attached to the most important milestones in life: bar/bat mitzvahs, quinceañeras,  sweet sixteens, weddings, funerals. When it comes to the latter, we've all been scared by those TV ads for final expense insurance, but death arrangements don't have to break the bank. Whether you're planning ahead as part of your own estate planning, or grieving the loss of a loved one, you do have choices when it comes to cost.

Compare Prices

Memorial Societies sprang up out of need during the Great Depression; these groups helped educate consumers about affordable, dignified options. Funeral prices later began to escalate with the use of embalming and manufactured caskets. Today we have the national nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance, as well as the local Funeral Consumers Alliance of Houston that can help with advance planning, the funeral rule (or how not to be upcharged for services you don't want), cremations, burials, green burials, and cemeteries.

For example, a cremation in Houston can cost anywhere from between $700 and $4,000. I know many families who will always select the white glove treatment at Geo. H. Lewis & Sons Funeral Directors on Bering, but for the other 99 percent there's nothing wrong with a $700 cremation from Claire Brothers Funeral Home on Hillcroft.

For more information about the Funeral Consumer Alliance of Houston, visit funeralshouston.org.

Donate Your Body to Medical Science

Skip the burial/cremation fees altogether by donating your body to medical science. Baylor College of Medicine has a willed body program, but this is not an "after the fact" decision. Also, not everybody can donate their body: conditions like having a contagious disease, being obese, or getting mangled in an accident rule out your chances of being a "silent professor" for medical students.

But if this is something you're interested in, there's a form that needs to be filled out in advance and witnessed; you'll be issued a donor ID card and, as long as your body is within 100 miles of BCM at your time of death, they'll handle all the arrangements from there. There's a small fee if your family wishes to have your ashes returned — usually in a couple of years — otherwise BCM will scatter the ashes at sea.

For information about BCM's willed body program, visit bcm.edu/departments/molecular-and-cellular-biology/willed-body-program. The University of Texas McGovern Medical School has similar needs; visit med.uth.edu/nba/willed-body-program.

click to enlarge Think outside the box. - PHOTO BY SUSIE TOMMANEY
Think outside the box.
Photo by Susie Tommaney
Finding an Affordable Urn, Shroud or Casket

When you're shown a catalogue of urns by the funeral director, and especially during time of grief, it's hard to consider other options for storing cremains. But Ross Dress for Less actually has lovely wooden boxes on their shelves — probably designed for jewelry or other trinkets — but I can testify that they also serendipitously are the exact same size needed for storing cremains.

For full body burials, consider going green. Not only is a traditional burial more expensive because of embalming and the cost of a manufactured casket, but the formaldehyde, steel and concrete will slow down decomposition. Selecting a green funeral speeds up your natural return to the soil; the body will be placed in either a biodegradable coffin or shroud. In the Houston metropolitan area, green cemeteries include the Carmen Nelson Bostick Cemetery in Tomball and Tranquility Oaks Cemetery in Spring.

For more information about green burials, visit funerals.org/?consumers=green-burial.

Shawshank It

So many sports fans have asked that their cremains be distributed at Chicago's Wrigley Field, or at the original Yankee Stadium, that it has become a problem for major stadiums. Technically that's private property and against policy.

But maybe your deceased loved one had other favorite spots that fed their soul: Memorial Park, the Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park, or even a few riskier locations. Consider Shawshanking it, though don't say you heard it here. In Stephen King's The Shawshank Redemption and later brought to the silver screen, Andy Dufresne dug an escape tunnel for 19 years, surreptitiously smuggling the dirt out through his pants as he walked the yard.

click to enlarge Artwork by Wayne Gilbert that finds new use for abandoned cremains. - PHOTO BY G SPOT CONTEMPORARY ART GALLERY
Artwork by Wayne Gilbert that finds new use for abandoned cremains.
Photo by G Spot Contemporary Art Gallery
Get Artsy

Believe it or not, there are artists who paint with cremains. Wayne Gilbert, a local artist and owner of G Spot Contemporary Art Gallery, began his journey into the medium when he discovered that a local funeral home was storing abandoned cremains; the families never bothered to retrieve the deceased's ashes. He creates lovely, thoughtful works of art that elicit lasting memories where none existed before.

Also showing at the National Museum of Funeral History are works of art by artist Heide Hatry. The New York-based artist lost her father early on and later, after a close friend died, she channeled her grief by creating portraits from their cremains. Hatry has invented a mosaic technique that blends the cremains with beeswax and has since moved on to produce portraits of beloved animals. "Icons in Ash" is on view at NMFH, 415 Barren Springs Drive, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.

For information about G Spot Contemporary Art Gallery, visit gspotgallery.com. For information about the National Museum of Funeral History, visit nmfh.org.

Memorial Service

You won't hear it described this way, but weddings and funerals are profit centers for churches. Mega churches can go all out by arranging for ushers, printed programs, high-end floral arrangements, and a reception with fancy cucumber sandwiches — but there's a fee associated with all those niceties.

If your final months on earth are in the loving care of Houston Hospice, a nonprofit organization that shouldn't be confused with other for profit hospices located in Houston, they have a lovely chapel at their Holcombe facility that is available for free. Although our recommendation is to consider a donation to help this community-supported nonprofit continue its good works of providing comfort care in private homes, assisted living facilities, or at one of their locations.

For information about Houston Hospice, visit houstonhospice.org.

Two-for-One Special

Under the category of finding something out the hard way, we discovered that our family's cemetery would allow the burying of cremains in an already occupied plot. So when it came time to bury our father's cremains, we were told they would dig up space over his mother or father, or that he could be interred with his twin.

We ended up not going that route, but it was comforting to know that there are affordable alternatives.


I come from a long family of newspaper workers, but the one aspect of funeral planning that really irked me was in obituaries. The cost of about three or four inches of newsprint can easily surpass $700 and will soon fade from memory. My advice is to pay for the bare minimum — name, date of birth, date of death, and information about the service. Then separately, write up however much you want about the deceased — the names of the survivors, accomplishments in life, their favorite charities for donations, and as many photos as you want — and then just make those handouts available to anybody who attends the service.

We recognize that "dying on the cheap" might not be appropriate for your family, especially if it conflicts with your faith, culture or longstanding family tradition. And there's certainly nothing wrong with spending more on final expenses, especially if it's a choice that brings comfort and peace to the surviving family. But not everybody has the money for perfection and the options discussed here are still dignified and reverent; just a little bit easier on the pocketbook.
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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney