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Embalming, Caskets, and Urns

There is a popular misconception that embalming is always required by law after death. In fact, it is legally required only in some states and only in a few instances, such as:

  • when a body will be transported by plane or train from one country or state to another
  • where there is a relatively long time—usually a week or more— between the death and burial or cremation, and
  • in some cases, where the death occurred because of a communicable disease.

If you choose not to be embalmed, your body will be refrigerated until the time of burial. If you choose, you can still have a funeral or other service with an open casket.

The only effect of not being embalmed will be that if you opt to be buried, your body will begin to decompose within days instead of weeks.

The cost of embalming averages about $750, depending on your location and on the individual setting the rate. Refrigeration is usually less costly, involving an average daily charge of $75. Some facilities provide refrigeration free of charge.

Caskets and Urns

Whether you choose to be buried or cremated, you will have the option to state your wishes for a casket or an urn. You may want both—for example, if you'd like a temporary casket for a funeral before your cremation and an urn for your ashes afterward.

Choosing your own casket or urn may seem like more than you want to think about right now, but there's a very practical reason to consider your preferences and make them known: Doing so may save your survivors thousands of dollars.

First, caskets and urns carry the biggest markup of all funeral goods and services. Second, grieving survivors aren't always capable of making sound decisions. This is a setup for overspending. Your loved ones may choose something elaborate and costly, not knowing that you would have been satisfied with simple arrangements.

On the other hand, if you want something ornate and you can afford it, now's your chance to make your wishes known.

Caskets

For immediate burial, a simple container or pine box is all that is necessary. But you may prefer to have a casket—and the cemetery you've chosen may require it. If there will be a service before burial with your body present, the type of container is entirely up to you. You may want something luxurious, something economical, or, if the viewing or service will be at home or in another private place, you may not feel the need for any type of container at all.

If your remains will be cremated but you first want to have a funeral or memorial service with your body present in a casket, your survivors may simply rent one. This is not as odd as it may sound; it is done quite frequently. A rental casket has a disposable liner.

Caskets are usually made from wood, metal, fiberglass, plastic, fiberboard or cardboard and are available in a wide range of finishes, colors and styles. The inside of the casket is usually lined with cloth, which is also available in different fabrics and colors. The closure may be simple, or it may be fitted with a gasket or protective sealer—providing short-term protection from the elements—but at significant additional cost.

A wood or metal casket will cost $2,500 on average, while one made of cardboard or fiberboard will be about $600. As an alternative, a cloth burial shroud with fabric handles for pallbearers will run

$200 to $1,000. Casket rental averages $950 for viewing and funeral services. You may want to shop around and compare prices. Under federal law, a funeral home cannot charge you a fee if you provide your own casket, whether homemade or purchased from an outside source.

Urns

If your remains will be cremated and scattered, the cremation facility will provide a temporary container, and you won't need an urn. If you want your survivors to place your ashes in a columbarium or grave or to keep them at home, they will need a container of some sort.

Cremation urns are available in a wide range of materials and styles, from bronze book replicas to colorful porcelain vases. Attractive biodegradable urns are available for burial on land or at sea. If your remains will be divided, smaller "keepsake" containers are available to hold just a portion of them.

If the cremated remains will be interred or buried, the columbarium or cemetery may impose restrictions on the size, shape or type of urn that you may use.

Cremation urns start at about $50 for simple wooden boxes and can cost over $5,000 for premium materials.