Funerals for Less: 7 Ways to Save Money and Help Mother Nature and Humankind on Your Way Out

Failure to plan for funerals will always cost our relatives, when we leave them with the overwhelming task of answering multiple-choice questions under a state of shock and grief. Preparing your final exit is a team effort and it's a lot more satisfying than you think.

After reporting on the resuscitated art of caring for our dead at home, and questioning why embalming is a standard practice in the United States, I decided to end my three-part series on a high note: how to dispose of our dead bodies at a low cost. If trips to the cemetery haven't been on your schedule in a long, long time, then why not consider this selection of non-traditional alternatives that will cut down on your overall funeral expenses. They will get you more than what you pay for, and you may not have to pay anything at all. Here are seven alternative methods to dispose of our bodies.

Note: There are two forms of body donations: organ donations and whole-body donations. Since this story is focused on economics, we are only looking at whole-body donations because, in the case of organ donations, the body is typically returned to the family after the organs have been removed and they will have to bear the cost of either cremation or burial. Keep in mind that organ donations are just as vital as whole-body donations.

1. Donate Your Whole Body to Science

Cost: $0. Most universities and research centers will pick up the body and transport it to their facility at no cost to you within an amount of designated mileage.

Type: This one is for the altruists. Even though we're past the time when cadavers had to be snatched from cemeteries at night for the advancement of medicine, universities and research centers still want you under their scalpel.

Pros: "A leg can be sent to an orthopedic researcher, for instance," writes Tara Parker-Pope in the Wall Street Journal, "while a head can be studied by a neurosurgeon."

"The vast majority of the public has no sense of the breadth of uses for cadavers," says Mary Roach, author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. "The nitty, gritty reality is the body goes where it's needed, and sometimes that means you have to cut it into pieces. It's part of the respect of the person that you make the most of it."

"Some research doesn't involve cutting the body," adds Parker-Pope, "but rather studying how a body endures a car crash or whether safety equipment can protect a body from an explosion or fall."

Whole-body donations also help find cures. "Areas such as colon cancer, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, cervical cancer, women's health care studies and spinal studies can only be advanced through the study of the human anatomy," notes LifeQuest Anatomical, a private company matching whole-body donors with research centers. "In the U.S.," adds LifeQuest, "950,000 people die every year of heart disease, 547,000 of cancer and 100,000 die from Alzheimer's disease."

Cons: To leave the unflattering realm of cadavers and be transformed into an anatomical gift, you have to meet high standards of admission: "Anything that destroys or distorts the normal anatomy of the body extensively can make it difficult to conduct meaningful anatomical study," states UCLA's body donation program, i.e. don't show up after an autopsy, if you died of a violent death, you weigh more than 250 pounds, you've already gifted your organs to other programs or you're in an advanced state of decomposition, among other disqualifying criteria.

If you're a pacifist, you will want to make sure the program you are choosing will not use your body for military studies. If you're lucky, you will find an institution that will divulge what your body will be used for and where. High demand has led to the creation of a black market for body parts. Make sure your program's employees are subjected to the same high criteria of admission that your dead body is. However, in the case of past scandals, "while there were certainly ethical lapses and administrative mistakes," writes Parker-Pope, "all of the bodies were nonetheless used for legitimate medical research."

Since your body might not pass the admission test, whole-body donation shouldn't be the only option listed in your will. You also have to make sure your family members agree to it. Your loved ones will have to be prepared and willing to let go of your body within 24 hours of death. Unlike with organ donations, the body in the case of whole-body donation might not be returned to the family.

2. Donate Your Body to Help Catch the Bad Guys

Cost: $0 if you live within approximately 100 to 200 miles of a Forensic Research Center aka body farm and your corpse is in a hospital, funeral home or health facility. If you die at home or in a nursing home, you'll have to bear the cost of transporting the body to them.

Type: This one is for crime show fanatics who lived vicariously through forensic experts and crime scene investigators. In death you can do more than just watch; you can become an active participant in solving crimes.

"Through the study of skeletal remains, forensic anthropologists can help law enforcement officials determine the time of a person's death, which is a vital step in determining the cause of death," says John Williams, director of the forensic anthropology program at Western Carolina University.

It will also be a perfect fit for the ecologically minded who want their decomposing bodies to feed the soil and its inhabitants. Bob Butz, in his book Going Out Green: One Man's Adventure Planning His Own Natural Burial, notes that "any grave more than four feet deep is for people who aren't interested in their bodies doing anything other than decomposing into a cloud of methane and putrid sludge. Aerobic decomposition -- the thing that enriches the soil, fattens the worms and helps push up the daisies -- happens only if a body is buried in topsoil." In a body farm, bodies are buried in shallow graves to replicate a typical crime scene as opposed to backyard burials and interment in green or traditional cemeteries, where the law requires that the body be buried in at least four feet of soil.

Pros: The admission criteria are less rigid than with whole-body donations.

In addition to its Forensic Anthropology Center, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, home to the oldest body farm in the country, houses an Anthropological Research Facility. After decomposition, your skeletal remains will be classified and featured in the William Bass' Forensic Skeletal Collection. "Most of the criteria in use today for estimating age, sex, and ancestry were developed from collections of skeletons from the late 19th century, as these were the only ones available at the time forensic anthropology began," says the university's Web site. "Since people have changed over the last century, it is crucial to have access to modern skeletons in order to develop new identification criteria that reflect these changes." Added bonus: once your skeletal remains are admitted to the collection, family members get visitation rights.

Cons: There are only four forensic research centers in the U.S.: at the Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina (able to house only six bodies,) the Texas State University in San Marcos, Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. The California University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Criminological and Forensic Sciences recently received a land donation and plans to open a body farm in the future.

Tours of body farms are no longer allowed. For a wonderful peek, here is an excerpt from "Bones, Bugs and Batesville," an article written by Lisa Carlson on the Funeral Consumers Alliance Web site: "The gates swung open and I noticed the spring wildflowers beside the hillside paths We saw 15 or 20 corpses in varying stages of decay above ground as we walked the paths, some covered by tarpaulins to keep off the vultures, though we saw armadillo-like bugs busy at work when we peeked underneath The other bodies were becoming a rich sienna brown, an earthen color--'scorched' as the tissues broke down and fatty acids ran off into the soil."

3. Donate Your Body to Be Displayed in the Body Worlds Exhibitions and Become an Anatomical Work of Art

Cost: You pay to transport the body to the embalming facility designated by the Institute for Plastination (IfP.) The institute, located in Germany, focuses on the development and progression of plastination, the method "which preserves anatomical specimens as permanent, life-like, and aesthetic materials for instruction and scientific research." Some of the specimens are displayed in Body Worlds exhibitions throughout the world. In North America the only facility approved by the IfP to perform its special embalming procedure is in Upland, California.

Types: This is for "power-to-the-people" believers with a penchant for exhibitionism. This is where democratic values meet science meets art.

Pros: Forget about pickled organs floating in dusty jars and hanging skeletons. Gunther Von Hagens, the mind behind the Body Worlds exhibits and a staunch defender of human rights who endured a two-year stay in prison for trying to defect from East Germany, expects nothing less than full frontal exposure. "Revealing the features of our physical being--from its hair, skin, fat, muscles, tendons, and bones to the most intricate networks of blood vessels and nerves-- may sound revolutionary," says the body donation brochure. "In reality, however, it is merely a continuation of the scientific tradition, which is guided by the proposition that the edification of the public is the ultimate purpose of research. In a sense, therefore, the public display of human bodies represents the resurrection of the anatomical theaters of the early modern period, albeit in a completely new form."

Plastination of a body is a 1,000 to 1,500 man-hours journey that turns bodies into malleable pieces of sculpture that can be stretched and displayed in a variety of creative and aesthetically pleasing poses for the benefit of our eyes and minds. "The traditional pose of the reflective chess player," explains the body donation brochure, "is ideal for illustrating the nervous system."

Body Worlds exhibits have aroused the passions of religious leaders, professors of ethics and lawmakers around the world. To counter the barrage of accusations ranging from "pornography" to "human rights violations" (if the bodies were used without consent from the live specimens, which the Institute of Plastination denies) the body donation brochure (available for download) goes on to list, at great length, the many benefits of the controversial displays. It's a must-read for its plethora of fascinating information and its stunning photographs of plastinated specimens. Or you can see the dead live at The Tech Museum in San Jose, California, host of the latest Body Worlds exhibit: Body Worlds Vital.

On the IfP's donor form, you have to agree that your "body can be used for an anatomical work of art." Now, don't expect that your family and friends will be able to recognize you. "The body donor's own identity is altered during the anatomical preparation," the brochure specifies. "The process gives both the face and the body a new appearance on the basis of their internal anatomy."

Cons: Some states will not allow you to transport a dead body unembalmed. Since the Institute for Plastination only allows the facility in Upland to embalm bodies, you may have a problem getting the body to Southern California. Some states will authorize transportation in an "air-tight container" or "a special transportation container." Read Lisa Carlson's comprehensive guide to funeral law and more: "Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love" for state by state information. On its Web site, the Funeral Consumers Alliance -- the fiercest defender of our last rights -- lists updates to Carlson's book as changes in funeral laws occur.

The IfP reserves the right to sell your plastinated self to other non-profit institutions, but your loved ones won't get any share of that money. As you can imagine, the cost of maintaining plastination laboratories is prohibitive. Selling specimens for research and educational purposes is a way for the IfP to stay solvent.

Speaking of solvents, plastination is not for eco-types: workers handle formaldehyde (a known carcinogen,) acetone and epoxy resin. Unfortunately, there is little research available on the possible health risks caused by long-term exposure to these chemicals (read my story on embalming for more information on formaldehyde).

4. Dig Your Own Grave

Cost: $500 in attorney fees and tools, if you choose to be wrapped in a sheet.

Type: If you live in a rural state, this could be for you. State laws will often let you reserve a space in your backyard for a private family cemetery.

Pros: A great opportunity to strengthen bonds between you, your family and friends; and a minimum toll on the environment if you are buried in a sheet and without being embalmed.

Your relatives will benefit from the soothing effect of keeping you within walking distance, and visiting your grave whenever they wish (read Mark Harris' Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial for a moment-by-moment retelling of a backyard burial.)

Cons: Don't think it's between you, your loved ones and your shovel. You will need to hire an attorney to look into state, county and municipal laws. When it comes to cemetery, funeral, health and zoning regulations, these various entities can contradict each other.

Before you ask your friends to dig your grave, tell them it can't be that hard, because Bob Butz did it and he is a writer. Butz was bent on digging a grave, hoping to reap some spiritual enlightenment. It's "just a big, friggin' hole," was his ultimate revelation, along with the satisfaction of digging a 4-foot hole instead of the 3-foot mark he had set for himself. Butz was wise enough to get tips from professional gravediggers like Jerry Leisinger, owner of Bubba's Digging in South Dakota, a family of gravediggers since 1952. It's worth noting that, according to their Web site, the first member of the family to dig graves by hand to send her kids to college was Jerry's grandmother, Veronica Leisinger.

Leisinger gave Butz two important tips: "Digging a grave six feet deep keeps at bay scavenging and burrowing animals, which in South Dakota meant gophers and badgers, pesky varmints that have no reservations about making a home out of wooden coffins buried in shallow ground."

Tip two: "The width of a grave is just as important as depth. On the day of the funeral when the family is there saying their final goodbyes to the deceased, you definitely want to make sure the latter fits neatly in the hole."

5. Green Burial in a Preserve

Cost: $3,000 and up.

Types:  You want to preserve land, and you don't need a headstone to remember your loved one -- just a GPS.

Pros: From Butz: "A popular argument for those in favor of more back-to-nature green burial preserves is that as a desirable byproduct, preserves actually save land. In many American cities, cemeteries are the only open space left. But, taking emotion out of it for a second, isn't a cemetery really just a dumping ground? You can't toss a football in an urban graveyard without bouncing it off a headstone and, more likely, getting yourself arrested. There are no shady trees to have picnics under. No scenic trails for walking."

You're not only preserving land, but also preserving its natural state -- unlike traditional cemeteries which, laments Harris, "function less as verdant resting ground of the dead than as landfills for the materials that infuse and encase them." You won't find any concrete, vaults, or embalmed bodies in a bona-fide green cemetery, and only biodegradable caskets are allowed. Markers, for those who must have them, will have to blend in rather than stand out. There is something poetic about being lowered into the ground to rest.

Cons: Green cemeteries are slowly growing in numbers but they're still a rarity. Visit the Web site of Memorial Ecosystems Inc., the company that opened the first green cemetery in 1998, for inspiration, information and links to preserves nationwide. Also inquire with the Green Burial Council and the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

Traditional cemeteries are starting to offer space on their grounds for green burials. Ideally, the green cemetery you choose is more than just another for-profit enterprise, so do your research. In a preserve, fees are used to purchase, preserve and restore land.

 6. If You Must Have a Coffin, Buy One Made of Cardboard or Make a 'Quick Coffin'

Cost: $150 for a cardboard casket or $100 worth of grade 3 pine wood.

Types: You are not trying to interfere with decomposition. You can't wait to find a new carpentry project.

Pros: Your loved ones can decorate the cardboard casket during your memorial service (see my story on home funerals). The pallbearers will thank you for lightening their load. If you're buried in your backyard, you're probably not the type to spend $4,000 on a sealed casket to preserve your remains: if a simple sheet is not good enough for you, a cardboard casket is your next best friend.

If you converted your garage in a tool shed, you can go to -- a site promoting information on simpler and more family and community-centered funerals -- and print instructions on how to make a "quick coffin." If you're not the crafty type, you can put your money where your mouth is by ordering a pine coffin from a local carpenter. It will probably cost you around $600.

Cons: Don't drink and drill.

7. Cremation

Cost: offers a detailed list of low to high rates for everything involved in funerals, expect maybe dove release. Basic cremation packages start at $500 to $800 and can go up to $3,000. The low price will typically include transportation to a crematorium within a designated amount of miles, cremation, cardboard casket, plastic urn and shipping of urn back to family, if needed. That low price might be short-lived if the amount of miles allocated for transportation is exceeded, or if you weigh more than 250 pounds, among other important things to be aware of. One site lists an additional $1 "per pound zero" if the deceased exceeds 300 pounds. For those who weighed 350 pounds at time of death, you have to add an extra $350 to the basic cremation package fee.

Types: The impatient who can't wait to get back to dust. Assuming we started as dust. Check with your religious adviser. Cremation doesn't always get the holy seal of approval.

Pros: According to the Cremation Association of North America's Web site, people choose cremation primarily because it's cheaper and it saves land space.

There's something romantic about scattering ashes in nature or wherever the deceased found happiness. And you can get creative with the cremains. On the Budget Life Company's blog, you can find "12 Weird Things to Do With Cremated Remains"  ranging from being painted into a work of art to being stuffed in a teddy bear or shot into space -- all this of course for an extra fee.

Cons: There is a "drop off" and "pick up" aspect to cremation that doesn't necessarily befit the more sensitive among us. It is industrial as opposed to organic. Check with your family on how they feel about your reduction to coffee-can size. They're the ones who will have to carry it.

Some crematories will not let family and friends of the deceased be present during cremation. You have to trust that the ashes you will pick up or receive by U.S. mail will be those of your loved one. Suggested reading: "How to Inspect a Crematory for above-board operation" available online from the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

The fumes released during cremation mandate that you look into the cost to the environment. Butz notes that "the EPA doesn't regulate emissions from crematories The EPA estimates that anywhere from 600 pounds of mercury come out of crematories in the USA every year from dental fillings. General consensus is that a cremation oven used about 2,000 cubic feet of energy to incinerate one cadaver, producing as much CO2 -- about 250 pounds -- as our happily average American home produces in one week. You can find sources that will say cremation releases into the air everything from carbon monoxide to cancer-causing formaldehyde fumes from people who also have their bodies embalmed first for the purposes of a public viewing. I also found figures that said the energy required to incinerate one body was equal to the fuel needed to drive a car 4,800 miles."

And according to author Mark Harris, "Some crematories may boast filters that lower their release of pollutants, including mercury, into the atmosphere. The nonprofit Green Burial Council plans to issue a Green Certified seal of approval to crematories that have fitted retorts with emissions-scouring scrubbers."

Don't add insult to holes in our ozone layer: turn down the offer from the funeral home to buy their "dignified" -- and hugely expensive -- steel or copper casket. Mark Harris again: "A crematory will typically consume less fuel and release fewer pollutants if a body is cremated in a shroud or cardboard container. If you prefer a casket with a more traditional look, choose from among the so-called cremation caskets, which are stripped-down, quicker-burning, and cheaper versions of the standard casket."


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