May 24, 2022

22: How much does a funeral cost?

22: How much does a funeral cost?

A funeral can get expensive. In this episode, I break down the elements of a traditional burial funeral in the United Stages, and the median costs.

A funeral can get expensive. In this episode, I break down the elements of a traditional burial funeral in the United Stages, and the median costs.


In this episode:

2021 National Funeral Directors Association Member General Price List Study - summary in the NFDA Press Release




Picture a funeral. What comes up in your mind? Chances are that you had one of two kinds of images in your head: Either a personal memory of a funeral you’ve attended, or a Hollywood version from film or television. Even if you don’t live in the United States, our media has traveled around the world. Maybe it’s even changed some of your local traditions.

My guess is that the word “funeral” brings up images of a shiny, polished casket. The lid might be open or closed, meaning the body may or may not be visible. There is some kind of service. This might be in a funeral home, a religious building, or in the cemetery with the casket suspended over a large rectangular hole. At the end of the service, if it’s not in the cemetery, then people will carry the casket and transfer it to a hearse. Once in the cemetery, the casket is lowered into the ground. People may throw handfuls of dirt into the grave, but they probably leave before the hole is completely filled in by the cemetery workers.

There are all kinds of variations on this kind of funeral. These days people make it more personalized, bringing in elements of a person’s life or their culture. More people are choosing cremation instead of burial in a cemetery. Some changes are happening for environmental reasons. Some people might have wanted this traditional funeral but couldn’t for any number of reasons ranging from how they died to the costs involved.

In future episodes, I’m going to cover those variations and more. For today, though, I just want to focus on the standard type of burial funeral so that I can talk about what it takes and what it costs.


Hello, and welcome to Dying Kindness, the podcast for people who are going to die someday. I'm Cianna Stewart, and I'm going to die someday. I've cared for people as they died and have supported grieving friends, both emotionally and practically. I've seen the impact that death has on the people left behind and how much worse that experience is when the grief is complicated by having to deal with a messy, legal, financial, or physical aftermath. I don't want to do that to the people I love when I eventually die. And I don't want you to either, because (spoiler alert) you are going to die someday, too. So let's all do what we can to make key decisions now in order to be kinder to the people we'll leave behind. That's a dying kindness.[music out]

Hello, kind people! I’ve had a bit of a bumpy ride since my last episode. I just had a birthday (I turned 55), and I’ve been to a couple of memorials for people who were pretty close to my age, so I’ve been thinking more about how little we can predict how long we have here. And I’ve been feeling grateful that I’m still around and that my brain is in good condition. One thing about doing this work: Thinking regularly about death really does make me more in touch with how fleeting life is. It pushes me to be more alive and to make the most of what I have here now. I hope that it does the same for you! 

I’ve also been having some rather tough experiences in banking and insurance and all kinds of things related to caring for my elderly aunt. Once I’m through I’ll use this all as fuel for a future podcast episode, I’m sure.

Today I’m going to talk about the elements of what we call a “traditional” funeral. I’ll go a little into what each thing is and when it’s needed. I will also talk about some things you may not have considered you’ll need to think about if you’re planning a funeral. And I’ll touch on the median costs of these things in the United States. I’m pulling the costs from the 2021 National Funeral Directors Association Member General Price List Study. (Whew that’s a mouthful!) Anyway, I’ll link to that in the show notes.

Throughout this episode I want to focus on practical information. I don’t want to get you caught up in the emotional side of funeral planning, so for today let’s not make it personal. All of this will be relevant to your own Death Binder, but for now, for this episode, let’s not talk about you and your death, or the death of anyone you know.

Let’s imagine someone that the modern funeral system is set up for, and let’s call her Madge. Madge just died peacefully in her home with her family around her. She was elderly, white, middle-class, straight, and was married to Merle until he died a few years ago. Madge and Merle had two kids, Dana and Don. Madge was Christian in a Sundays-and-Christmas kind of way, generally pretty traditional. She told her kids she wanted a “regular” funeral with a service in her church, followed by burial in the cemetery next to Merle.

Let’s take a pause there. If this is all the information that Dana and Don had about what their mom wanted for the funeral, do you think that’s enough? Madge told them all she thought was necessary. It was certainly more information than many people get. But I’m guessing you know what’s coming: There are still more decisions to be made that Dana and Don are going to have to work out on their own.

First, knowing that their mother wanted to be buried in a casket, Dana and Don will need to choose a funeral home. Which one? Madge’s church might be a great place to start because often churches have relationships with particular funeral homes. There may also be one in the neighborhood or associated with her ethnicity that would be a good choice. Of course in this situation they just might call the one that handled Merle, however that one was chosen before. 

So let’s say they made a decision. Now they need to call that funeral home. They don’t need to be called in a big rush, but it does need to happen within the first few hours after Madge dies so that they can take her body out of the home. This is the first cost. Median cost in the United States in 2021 for “removal or transfer of remains to the funeral home” is $350.

The funeral home will arrange to pick up Madge’s body and take it to their facilities. Now there will be a series of decisions that need to be made:

Will the funeral be open casket or closed casket?

This decision can greatly affect the next big decision: Will Madge be embalmed or not?

If the funeral will be closed casket, there can be more leeway about embalming. Sometimes it’s possible to simply refrigerate a body and forego embalming. Some places still insist on embalming even if the service will be closed casket. It’s not a legal requirement but some places seem to act like it is. 

However, open casket funerals are different. In general, if the funeral will be open casket, the funeral home will push for embalming. There are some variations that I’ll cover in future episodes, but for now just assume that embalming is the way to go. Open casket also requires making decisions about clothing, makeup, and hair. 

I need to take a quick side bar about open casket funerals. This is one area that Hollywood has helped to create unrealistic expectations for real-life deaths. Onscreen, the role of the “body-in-the-casket” is often played by a living human actor. This means that their skin is still being fed all the blood, oxygen, and other things that keep our living tissue looking good. A real dead body doesn’t have the benefit of that internal maintenance system. Embalmers do a good job at recreating the look of living skin, but it’s never quite the same. If you’re expecting that someone is going to look exactly the same in death as they did when they were alive-and-asleep, you are probably in for a big shock, and it’s a shock that can stay with you. Dead bodies look dead. Sometimes that’s actually a good thing for helping the living accept that their loved one has died, but I still think it’s important to note that it’s not like what you see on TV.

Back to Madge. Dana and Don remember that Madge insisted on open casket when Merle died, so they decide to do the same for her funeral. They agree to embalming, which runs them about $775. They have a hard time choosing what clothes to bury her in but finally land on a pretty blue dress that she often wore for big occasions. They find a good photo of her wearing that dress and give it to the funeral home, asking to have Madge’s hair and makeup done as they were in the photo. The funeral home charges another $275 for additional preparation of the body.

Next, Dana and Don need to decide on a casket. This is where they first start disagreeing with each other. They have different memories of the process of choosing a casket for their father, particularly not agreeing on what their mother said was nice. An easy choice would have been to give her the same kind that their dad had, but that’s no longer available. So they wander through the options, not wanting to go too expensive and also not wanting to go too cheap. They want it to look nice, but not too nice. Their mom liked simple things but also liked to dress up sometimes. The caskets at the funeral home range in price from $900 to $10,000. Dana and Don work it out and end up choosing an elegant and simple casket that lands right on the median cost of $2500.

The funeral director asks Dana and Don if they’d like to have a smaller private viewing at the funeral home before transferring Madge to the church for services. They decide that would be nice. This hour or so will cost them around $450, plus another $200 in simple flower arrangements. They’ll add a big casket spray for the church service. That’ll be about $500 more.

On the day of the service, the funeral home will use a hearse to transfer Madge in her beautiful casket to the church, and then later they’ll move her from the church to the cemetery. Dana and Don can expect to pay around $350 for the hearse. Depending on how complex all this is, they might need to pay another $150 for additional vehicles.

The church won’t charge for the funeral, but a Google search said it is customary to give a donation anywhere from $150-300. They’re happy to pay this because not only is it what Madge wanted, it’s probably lower than what it would have cost to have the ceremony at the funeral home.

Oh I almost  forgot. The funeral home also has what’s called a non-declinable services fee. That’s a basic fee that is always charged, no matter what other services you decide on. The median cost for that fee in 2021 was $2300.

So Dana and Don will be spending $7150 to the funeral home, $700 for flowers, and a donation of $300 to the church. That totals up to $8150.

And we’re still not done. Dana and Don will probably want to print up some programs or other memorabilia for the service. They may want to enlarge a photo of Madge, hire musicians, create a video. Madge already had the plot next to Merle so they won’t need to buy that, but they will need to pay for a vault. This is the concrete liner for the grave that is required by most traditional cemeteries. Dana and Don will also need to order a tombstone or grave marker. They’ll need to place obituaries in the local paper and other places where Marge’s friends will look. Often those are free, but sometimes there’s a fee. These days Dana and Don will also want to create an online memorial. 

The list of additional expenses can go on and on. I’m not going to total these up, but it’s easy to see how funerals can easily cost $10,000 or more. Think about that. When you die, your loved ones are going to have to make these decisions as well as come up with that money. What can you do to help make this easier for them?

Of course the prices I listed above were the median nationwide in each category. Some states cost more and some less. Some funeral homes and florists and everything cost more and some less. But it’s useful to have a benchmark, some way to imagine the kinds of funds we need to figure out how to secure for our loved ones.

Today I was describing the most basic and traditional of funerals. Madge was a traditionalist, after all. Funerals can get more complicated if you want to customize, to make it more personal and memorable. In future episodes, I’ll go into ways that the modern funeral is changing, and options for choosing something that feels more like you if you’re not like Madge. Some of these options cost more and some less. 

If you have any questions about funerals that I might be able to help you get answered, please send an email to There are a million ways I could talk about this topic and I want to be sure that it stays useful to you. Let me know what you want to know!


Thank you for listening. If you know someone who could benefit from this episode, please share it with them. And go to to get the transcript and a free template for organizing your Death Binder. The music is by Blue Dot Sessions, and everything else was done by me. I'm Cianna Stewart, and I'm going to die someday - but hopefully not before I get to see more live theater.

[music ends]

Today’s death reading is from “Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral,” by Garden Metcalfe & Charlotte Hays.


“Southern women always want to look their best—even if they happen to be dead. Our local undertaker, Bubba Boone, understands this. We brag that Bubba can make you look better than a plastic surgeon can, though, unfortunately, you do have to be dead to avail yourself of his ministrations. He did an outstanding job on Sue Dell Potter, a retired waitress. Sue Dell expressed a strange desire to go into the ground looking exactly as she had in her long-past waitress days. We went to call on Sue Dell at the funeral home and—lo and behold—she sported a big, teased bouffant and, unless you’d known her back when she was waiting tables and flirting up a storm at Jim’s Café on Washington Avenue, you’d never have believed it was Sue Dell. But we feel certain Sue Dell was smiling down from heaven (with her now fire-engine-red lips) and thanking Bubba for his excellent work.”