The Business of Dying: End of life choices and their costs

Simple Pine Box offers caskets for about $650.

Death – it’s not an easy topic to discuss. The details of dying, such as burial versus cremation or selecting your final resting place, make many people uncomfortable. But, like it or not, it’s coming for all of us someday. And with death comes many choices.  

Instead of leaving the weighty decisions regarding their arrangements to loved ones, who are no doubt in the depths of grief if the deceased has lived their life right, many people are making these choices themselves. 

Jeff Cushman, owner and funeral director for Downs Funeral Home in Superior, said cremation has become the more commonly selected option at Downs. Roughly 60 to 65 percent of the 150 decedents Downs handles each year are cremated. 

Reasons vary from financial to environmental concerns to timelines. “Many people are choosing cremation for economic reasons, but families can also wait longer to get together for the service if their loved one is cremated,” Cushman said. 

While the cost of cremation is usually approximately 40 percent less than a full burial, this can vary widely. Ancillary choices such as the post-service meal, flowers and musical talent could easily flip this percentage around. 

Conversely, at Dougherty Funeral Home in Duluth, burial is the more popular choice, coming in at about 55 percent of the roughly 350 decedents assisted annually. Dan Dougherty, owner and funeral director for both Dougherty Funeral Home and Williams Lobermeier Boettcher Funeral Home in Duluth (the businesses merged two years ago), said, “Burial is the more traditional choice, and we assist many of the more traditional types of families.” 

But Dougherty Funeral Home also assists with many cremations. Dougherty shared a tip he picked up from a grief counselor to help keep your loved ones close. “We advise people to keep some of their loved one’s ashes or bury them with a marker, so there is always a places to visit.

While it isn’t something they generally advertise or promote, Dougherty Funeral Home maintains a policy of not charging for the arrangements of those under the age of 18. “You can’t imagine the pain we go through when we have to take care of a child or baby,” Dougherty said. “My own brother died young, and two of my own children. This is a way to help a family, and it makes us feel good, too.” 

Environmental Concerns

Cremation is often thought of as the “greener” choice, compared to a traditional burial. But that isn’t always the case.  

“People can argue both sides,” Cushman said. “If you bury someone un-embalmed in a wood casket, it’s natural. But when you cremate, particles are released into the air. And cremating a person with metal dental fillings can release mercury into the air.” 

“Statistics show that about 20 percent of mercury pollution comes from crematories,” Dougherty added. 

Financials

The business of death is an expensive one. A full cremation with a memorial/visitation service can cost between $5,500 - $6,500. A full burial with a memorial/visitation service can run between $10,000 - $11,000. But again, these prices can vary widely based on all of the extras, such as a meal, music, a graveside monument and floral arrangements. 

Breaking it down further, a cemetery plot alone can cost $600. The cost to open and close a grave is $800. A marker runs about $700 and a monument can cost $2,000. An urn can cost upwards of $300. A casket can range from $800 to $10,000, and a burial vault, which is the underground “scaffolding” supporting the casket, can cost between $1,000 and $5,000. An average obituary can cost upwards of $175. 

Whether selecting cremation or burial, it all adds up to a large sum. But there are ways to save on some of the high-dollar items, such as the casket and urn. 

Simple Pine Box

Mark Coen of Hibbing is a former Catholic priest. These days, he creates handmade urns and caskets that are affordable, yet dignified, through his business, Simple Pine Box. 

From his website, he shares, “For 20 years I served the Lord as a Catholic priest. That was stressful and lonely for me. Eight years ago, I left to try to serve the Lord in other ways. I discovered an old Lutheran church and rectory that I could afford in Hibbing. That is now where I live and have my wood shop.”

Coen’s father died five years ago and his family needed to rent a casket for his wake and funeral, before his body was cremated. The 24-hour rental fee for the casket was $1,000. 

“The only casket for sale near that price was made of cloth-covered particle board,” he recounted. “Couldn’t someone make a simple yet dignified casket out of wood for less than $1,000? I felt called to be that person. I now make that Simple Pine Box casket for $650.” Coen also provides handmade urns starting at $125. 

Pre-planning

A trend that seems to be on the rise is pre-planning and pre-paying for one’s final expenses. Cushman shared that between 75 to 100 people are pre-planning and/or pre-funding their services annually at Downs. Individuals making this choice are usually around 75 or 80 years old, and often trying to lighten the burden on their loved ones. 

The death of a loved one is an incredibly difficult time, and being required to make a laundry list of decisions related to their funeral can be overwhelming. “A lot of people are saying, ‘I don’t want to put my kids through that,’’’ he said.

Dorothy McDonald of Duluth made the decision to pre-plan and pre-fund her late husband’s services, along with her own, though Dougherty Funeral Home. Initially, she made the choice because she had a friend who worked at Duluth’s Sunrise Memorial Park. The friend was selling funeral insurance, known as Purple Cross, and McDonald decided to opt in. 

While many people pre-pay for their services without funeral insurance, this option gives some people peace of mind. “I made payments for months and probably years,” McDonald said of her funeral insurance package. “But it gave me a secure feeling.” 

Over the years, as any dutiful wife would do, McDonald casually observed her husband Myron’s preferences, such as his favorite songs and flowers. And once he became ill, about five years prior to his death in 2011, she began jotting things down. When the time came for Myron to be laid to rest, most of the details had already been decided, and had been paid for in advance, though their funeral insurance. 

After 63 years of marriage, McDonald honored her husband with his favorite red roses, a family crypt at Sunrise Memorial Park, and she had even pre-selected a song that had been sung at Myron’s father’s funeral. “I remembered that song. And it really meant something to me,” she said. 

And when Dorothy McDonald’s life comes to an end someday, the details have also been decided. “My family knows that I prefer white flowers on my casket, and I will be laid to rest next to my husband. I have also started observing and clipping out the obituaries that I like and I have been doodling with my own.”

While all of this planning might sound morbid to some, for McDonald, it was a natural choice. “I’m a Christian woman, and I’m not afraid to die,” she said. “I’d definitely recommend pre-planning your services, especially if you are getting up there in age. But this decision is not just for old people. Everyone should be jotting things down. That way, your children will be aware of your wishes.” 

Whether a person is in their 40s and in the prime of their life, or in their 80s and can sense the sunset in the distance, it’s never a bad idea to think about final arrangements and share them with your loved ones. “I think it’s important for people to talk to their families,” Cushman said. “We call it ‘the talk of a lifetime.’” 

And when it comes to how to live your life today, take this well-appointed advice from Dougherty. “Whatever it is, do it today. Don’t wait. This is not a dress rehearsal.”