How To Prepare So One Of The Worst Parts Of Your Life Doesn’t Put You In Debt

When I was on vacation in Shepherdstown, WV, I was introduced to an archaic secret society called the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows. The legend says they received their name from the locals who called them “odd” for wanting to help the poor. The Odd Fellows oath was as follows: “Visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan.”

As a future mortuary student, I was immediately attracted to this motto. So, in turn, I decided to set out to find newer organizations that could help families if they lost a loved one tomorrow.

Now, since it’s 2017 and death is very much a “for-profit” business, I found next to nothing. As a young adult interested in pursuing the mortician profession, I understand the need to make money and be paid for the work you do. However, I don’t agree you should have to put yourself into debt or take out a loan to give your loved ones an proper burial. Take me, for example: I am a young, single, Caucasian female who is a full-time student and part-time worker with about $50 to her name at any given time. If either or both of my parents were to die tomorrow, I would be screwed.

When you search online for this topic, you basically just get websites telling you, “It’s your responsibility to ensure you arrange a funeral within your budget limitations.” But, the average American funeral is $6,000 (gasp). These are the five actually-helpful tips I found while searching around. A lot of these are more preventative, but that’s because I know firsthand how hard it is to get help after the death of a loved one.

(Let me preface this by stating that, if you have come to this article in need of help after the death of a loved one, I extend my sincerest condolences. I hope this helps as much as possible.)

Tip 1: Ask

Okay, this is a general statement, and I get the eye-rolling you’re probably doing right now, but hear me out. Granted, if you open those conversation with your loved ones by saying, “Hey, have you thought about what you want done with your body after you die?,” you will probably get looked at like you just grew another head.

Most adults, especially the older ones, do not want to talk about death. Many people around us strive to save money for trips, emergency funds, and retirement, but oddly not end of life. So, by starting these conversations, you can help them figure out what they want, and by knowing what they want, you can help yourself.

It may be difficult, but talking to local funeral homes and asking about things like pre-planning for the funeral you want can seriously help your family when you pass. Not only will everything you want be laid out, but it will be already paid for, so your family does not have the financial burden of paying for you to be put to rest.

Tip 2: Know Your State’s Laws

There are many reasons knowing your state laws will help you. The state of Illinois has a government assistance program, where you can be awarded up to S1,100 for burial and $500 for cremation.

Noting these options or potentially donating your or a loved one’s body to science (with permission) is a great choice. I live in Tennessee, and at one of our universities, we have a special forensics program called the Body Farm. Now, before the clouds roll in and the organ starts to play, let me elaborate. The Body farm is a specific location on the university grounds where bodies are exposed to all kinds of tests and elements to see how they decompose. This study is important, because it trains police and forensic personnel to tell what happened to a deceased person to help solve their death, and know if foul play was involved.

Knowing your state’s burial and death laws is also important in the preplanning step. If your grandfather wants to be buried on his 20 acre farm or your mother wants her ashes spread in her favorite park, it’s a good thing to know if it’s legal or not before she’s cremated.

Tip 3: Budget a Little Extra 

Chances are, neither you nor will your loved ones die any time soon. So setting aside a little extra money every month for the next 30 years will be sufficient. Putting aside a little extra every month will not only give you peace of mind, but your family as well. Knowing you have that extra cushion put away in some sort of savings will definitely help you sleep at night.

Concurrently, looking into the life insurance policies for yourself (and potentially your spouse) is quick and easy. I personally took an online quiz and a five-minute phone call to be matched with a program for $100,000 to be paid out to my parents upon my death. My quote as a single, part-time worker, full-time student, making less than $12,000 a year was $30 a month for 30 years. How easy is that?

Granted, with life insurance possibilities, there are more risks and hoops than just saving on your own, but they also can offer greater rewards. If you have $100,000 opposed to $10,000, you can do more for your loved ones than just pay for a funeral, such as pay off debts and medical bills that may have occurred after your death.

Tip 4: Be Specific

This tip is all about palliative care and after-death key terms to search for to find help. When it comes to searching for grants, programs, and foundations, being a specific as possible will really help you narrow the search.

For example, the Sinai Memorial Chapel is a funeral and burial service for the Jewish religion that will not turn you away for an inability to pay. They can also help your loved ones be buried in Israel. Organizations like Childs Care and The Tears Foundation are for children from 20 weeks gestation to 16 years old, to help pay for their funerals and memorials. National Urban League can help the African American community with their expenses. All honorably discharged and active veterans have many options available to them, the most affordable being a free funeral service and burial in the national veteran’s cemetery.

Look into everything from race, religion, age, employment, diseases, anything you can think of. If your loved one was of or close to retirement age, all states can award $250 for burial expenses from Social Security, and you may even be eligible to take over their monthly checks to help ease the process of making arrangements.

Tip 5: Be Odd 

A big part of the reason that there aren’t an abundance of funds to help people is because no one is giving. So, don’t be afraid to be that person. Go to that random funeral home, and help someone pay for something. If you have a floral arrangement service, if you’re a chef, if you’re a freelance writer, if you’re a counselor, consider offering your services for free. There are very many ways to help out without using money that will save the family money. If you give your time and services, people may give back to you when you need it.

Olivia Watts is a future death professional who explores the financial side of death.

Image via Unsplash

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  • Adriane

    Thank you for this post! The first time that my parents brought up what they wanted to be done with their bodies, I was appalled. (Basically, my parents are never going to die.) But as I grew older, I very much appreciate all the things they have set in place such as plans and money for cremation costs, ideas for the memorial, and most important to me, a living will. As an only child, I don’t not want to have the sole responsibility of deciding any of these things. Do yourself, your parents, your children, your dog a favor and have something in place.

  • Ruth Curcuru

    If your parents died tomorrow, do they have assets worth enough to bury them, or life insurance in that amount? If not, then it might behoove you to either buy an insurance policy for them, or put enough away in a special account so you will be able to handle it. If they have assets, then no problem, the funeral home will wait for their money.

    As a young single person you need enough life insurance or assets to provide a burial for yourself, if you don’t want to burden your family. Don’t worry about the student loans or any other loans–unless your parents co-signed, the loans expire when you do. The only exception is a secured loan like a mortgage or car loan. With those the lender can repo the property, but unless there is a co-signor, they can’t go after for family, only your estate.

  • I’m a bit older than most of the readers on this blog so I’m hoping you guys have a bit more time before this is an immediate issue. My mom passed in February and my dad was not able to be present at the hospital (he was going through his own medical issues) so my sister and I had to make decisions. It made an awful situation a little bit better knowing what she wanted. You don’t want to second guess yourself later.
    One thing we hadn’t discussed was what type of funeral/burial to do. We wound up choosing cremation and a later memorial in no small part due to budget. Plus, I felt strongly my mother would have wanted something more celebratory or her life than a wake. It turned out very well, but at first, we did 2nd guess ourselves early on.
    Also important as your parents age is to know their financial resources and where they keep important paperwork. You’ll need original copies of things and there are ways to work around probate a bit. Suze Orman goes into good detail about things like living revocable trusts. It feels morbid, but it’s so much better to deal with these things when you’re clear headed instead of mired in grief.

  • Shelby

    This is one of the best articles TFD has shared. I am definitely going to research The Body Farm, see if I can find a local equivalent (that I hopefully won’t need…for a long, long time)

  • Girafe

    A little while ago the topic came up with my Father, and he reassured “us girls” (my sister & I) that we wouldn’t have to shell out any money to bury him. I don’t like to think about his death, I’m relieved that he took responsibility and has taken care of it.

    • Kate

      If you haven’t already, please have a further discussion with him as to where you will be able to find the documentation of his policies or financial accounts and make sure the coverage is there – don’t just take his word for it. When my father passed away we were shocked to find out that despite assurances over the years he had severely underestimated how much he had (and didn’t obtain the appropriate life insurance commensurate to his salary because he felt that would have been jinxing himself – cannot stress enough when I say DO NOT DO THIS). Not to mention it took months to sort out the documentation because he had files everywhere – his office, our home, the trunk of his car – and didn’t have everything readily accessible.

      I now know where all documentation is and the nature of the policies and finances in the event something happens to my mother so that I can manage the estate without all the additional chaos (which believe me, is not something anyone needs on top of grieving).

      • Girafe

        Good advice. I’m sorry it turned out to be unexpectedly additionally stressful for you, on top of dealing with grief.

        I have good faith in my dad who is insanely organized (we call him anal-retentive. to his face. he agrees. lol) and financially savvy. But you’re right that nobody should assume – I shall pursue the conversation with him soon.

  • Febe

    Thank you for sharing this information. It’s very helpful. I hope to have this conversation with my family sooner than later.

  • Andrea

    Anybody who’s looking for super helpful how-to-navigate-death resources should definitely check out the Order of the Good Death, and the Ask a Mortician channel on youtube, run by Caitlyn Doughty, alternative mortician and funeral director. She has several videos outlining how to prepare advanced directives, plan for your own death or the death of a loved one, how to advocate for yourself when dealing with funeral homes and other death-related service providers while grieving, and even discusses the going market rate of the least expensive mortuary option; direct cremation, in the ballpark of $2000. Overall, it’s a terrific resource for all kinds of death-related content!

  • Lauren Howard

    Thank you for writing this!!!
    I grew up with a banker father (small town bank, only one branch) and one thing that he always told us about was families coming in after a loved one passed and having no idea what the deceased had (money wise) or what they wished for after they passed. It can make an extremely emotional time even more difficult.
    When my mother passed away four years ago, my dad didn’t shield my brother and I about the process, we were right in the thick of it (we were adults, both in our twenties, but still, extremely difficult). We knew what my mom wanted and were asked to help make decisions, I learned so much through what was the toughest time in my life.
    One of the best things my dad has ever done was write up an “unofficial” last instructions document. It just explains what is important to him, where is retirement savings and investments are, location of important documents, etc. He reviews it about once a year and gets my brother and I a new copy. It is tough material to talk about, but very important to know.
    My husband and I have a document like this as well. It is not nearly as in depth as my dad’s just because we don’t have the same life experience, but it does list some important things like investments, life insurance info, internet passwords, etc. We each contribute, then our fathers and my brother know about it too.
    Just start the conversation with your loved ones, even if it isn’t a huge discussion, little bits at a time add up.

  • Caitlin

    This is tough to talk about, but incredibly important, and I’m glad TFD published this article! Re: life insurance, I will also add that the younger you are when you start your policy, the better. I talked to my insurance agent when I was an extremely in-shape 24-year-old, meaning that I’m locked into only paying $150/year for $250k of life insurance until I’m in my 50s. I have friends who waited until they had kids to get life insurance, and they’re paying MUCH more for a similar plan.