The Absurd Cost of Dying

The funeral industry has evolved to exploit the poor and working class. But does death have to be so expensive?

by Princess Patoine

Capitalism is so rampant in our lives, that even in death, we cannot escape its destructive grasp. We cannot even afford to die. Imagine you just lost a loved one, and now you have to make arrangements for their funeral and burial. You call your local funeral home, and the prices they give you are outrageous. A basic service fee for $2,000, $2,000 for a casket, $8,000 for funeral and burial services, $725 for embalming, $325 to transport the body to the funeral home, and the list goes on.

You simply cannot afford all this. So you call another funeral home, and another, and maybe another, until you’re so worn down you’ll agree to just about anything, even if it means putting yourself and your loved ones in debt. It’s painful enough having to deal with the grief of losing a loved one, but now you have to endure the grueling process of arranging a funeral, and worrying about the outstanding expenses that come with it. This is the reality for many of the poor and working class communities in Connecticut, and across the U.S.

It wasn’t always like this. In fact, before the rise of common cemeteries in the 19th century, people used to have funerals in their houses, some even burying their dead on their own property. They took on the responsibilities of caring for their dead, arranging a funeral and viewing, burials, and other services that modern funeral homes take care of now.

This changed when communities began to grow and expand, causing old church burial grounds, where most of the deceased were buried, to become immensely overcrowded and deemed dangerous. Thus, there was a need for larger plots of land to bury the dead, and later on, funeral homes to aid families with the responsibilities that come with the death of a loved one. In the 20th century, funeral homes then began to evolve, slowly taking over all death-related responsibilities that the families previously held. This was the start of the modern funeral industry in the U.S.

The funeral industry is just that, an industry. A twenty billion dollar industry. One of the most natural, peaceful, and sometimes beautiful events in our life (or in this case, afterlife) is tainted by the extra pain our loved ones go through to put us to rest, in the form of absurd fees—some of which are not even necessary, like embalming. There is no reason for body preservation unless the deceased needs to be moved long distances, or kept somewhere for a longer amount of time for one reason or another.

Caskets are also not necessary. Why should you pay a ridiculous price for a metal casket, when all you’re going to do is decompose like all other organic matter does at the end of its lifetime? Of course, if you want that casket, that’s perfectly fine, but do you really think you should be paying thousands of dollars for what is effectively an upholstered box? Certainly not.

Photo by Brett Sayles

With the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, and the lack of financial support from the government during this time, more and more families are struggling to come up with enough money to be able to cover the expenses that come with the sudden loss of a loved one. In Connecticut, the average cost of a funeral is between $7,368 and $9,914. As of April 25, 2021, the total number of Covid-19 deaths in Connecticut was 8,047.  That amounts to upwards of $79.7 million being spent on Covid-19 funerals in Connecticut alone. 

There are programs that can assist with these expenses, but they only do so much. According to United Way 211’s website, the Connecticut Department of Social Services will pay up to $1,350 to those who need help paying for funeral services, but any assets the deceased may have can offset part or all of the benefit offered. The Social Security Administration offers recipients a whopping $255 to those who collect Social Security, but the deceased is only eligible if they have a surviving spouse, or if their children are under the age of eighteen.

If a resident was a veteran, the Veteran’s Administration offers $2,000 for burial services for service related deaths. The deceased’s loved ones may be partially or fully reimbursed for transportation of the body, if the deceased is buried in a VA cemetery. They offer $796 for funeral and burial services for non-service related deaths if they were hospitalized by the VA at the time of their death, and $300 if they were not. They also offer a $796 plot-interment allowance if they are not buried in a national cemetery. These programs can be helpful, but in most cases, they are not nearly helpful enough.

In April, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began reimbursing eligible families for Covid-19 related funeral expenses incurred after January 20, 2020. They were originally offering up to $7,000, but it has now been expanded to up to $9,000, which is far more than any of the other assistance programs are offering. Applicants may receive more for multiple funerals, but no more than $35,500. According to FEMA’s website, in order to be able to receive assistance, the death must have been attributed to Covid-19, and there must be a death certificate as documentation. But some people may be left unaccounted for, as there could be situations in which Covid-19 deaths are undercounted, such as when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office purposely withheld data about Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes.

Further requirements state that the death must have occurred in the U.S., including U.S. territories and the District of Columbia. Lastly, the applicant must be a U.S. citizen, non-citizen national, or a “qualified alien” who incurred funeral expenses after January 20, 2020. While the surviving person must meet these requirements, the deceased themselves do not have to, and it will not affect whether or not their loved one receives assistance. It is also recommended to have documentation of funeral expenses and proof of any funds received from other sources specifically for use toward funeral expenses. There are no income requirements that people have to meet in order to be eligible, and there is currently no deadline to apply.

This kind of assistance helps many people who have lost loved ones due to Covid-19, and it is fantastic that this is happening, but what about funeral expenses for deaths that weren’t Covid-19 related? As you’ve seen, the funeral assistance programs in Connecticut do not offer nearly enough to make a difference for most people seeking assistance for funeral and burial expenses.

So, what can be done to help this situation? For a start, the programs that are already in place could be improved to offer more coverage for funeral and burial expenses, and could have looser restrictions. These could be supplemented with new programs to assist with expenses as well. Low-income families or individuals could be offered much more money than current programs are offering them. Instead of under $2,000, which does little for those who are struggling, how about up to $6,000? Or at least $4,000? Why not get rid of ridiculous requirements like needing to have a spouse or young children? Some of this may be wishful thinking within the current climate, but it is not impossible to achieve.

On an individual scale, it helps to be informed of the options. Calling local funeral homes and asking each one for their general price list will aid you in making the decision of which one you will choose. They are required by law to give you that information. Of course, when you or your loved ones are grieving, this may be difficult, and you may not have the energy to go hunting for the right funeral home for either yourself or someone you love—which is why it’s a good idea to do this ahead of time. It may seem morbid, but it will be immensely helpful when the time comes.

Knowing your options goes beyond just price. Knowing what kind of funeral and burial you want, and the specifics that come with it is also important. You don’t have to go with the traditional U.S. funeral with the metal casket, the embalming, having the viewing in a church or funeral home, and all of those other things that seems to be our “norm,” especially if you cannot afford it.

Less expensive services do not mean that you care less about your loved one. For example, you can have a home funeral. It is perfectly safe, and legal in Connecticut as long as you employ a licensed funeral director or embalmer from the state to provide basic services such as filing any necessary paperwork, securing the death certificate and any permits, transporting the body, embalming (if desired), assistance in arranging cremation or burial, and other services of that nature.

You can also have what is called a green burial, where the deceased remains unembalmed, and is buried in a natural, biodegradable casket, or a simple cloth shroud. This is often done at green burial sites, though some cemeteries have sections specifically for green burials, like Wooster Cemetery in Danbury.

There is also the cheapest option, which is direct cremation. Direct cremation is exactly what it sounds like: there is no wake or viewing; the body of the deceased is taken to the funeral home or third party cremation site and cremated immediately. With this option, you can choose to purchase a casket, but it is not necessary. The funeral home is required to offer you an alternative container, which is often made of cardboard or some sort of wood (prices vary depending on material used and location). While this option is the cheapest, the average price in Connecticut is around $2,995, the highest in the country, and sometimes does not include the price of the alternative container/casket and urn (if you choose to purchase one from the funeral home). This is not an exhaustive list; these are only a few possibilities that may assist in reducing funeral and burial expenses.

All the alternative burial options and assistance programs cannot change or hide the fact that the corrupt funeral industry is a direct result of capitalism, leaving people who are already struggling just to survive in debt and/or out of options during what is often one of the most painful and vulnerable moments in their lives. These programs that are set up to help people with absurd expenses often do not give them nearly enough to make much of a difference or otherwise have such ridiculous restrictions that may exclude people who need assistance the most. There needs to be change on a wide scale, but improving existing assistance programs and creating new and better programs is a good first step to revolutionize death care and the funeral industry in order to make dying affordable for all.

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