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How to plan a sub-$1,000 funeral

The median cost of a funeral with a casket is more than $7,000 today, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. But if you'd rather not have a pricey send-off for yourself or a loved one, it may be possible to say a fond farewell for less than $1,000.

Arranging a sub-$1,000 funeral is a matter of planning in advance, asking the right questions and being willing to shop around.

"Most of us, even if we're really savvy consumers in other areas of life, tend to forget it completely when it comes to funerals," says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA).

You should determine your budget before you make final plans for yourself or a loved one, but don't be fooled into thinking that more money always equals a better service.

"It's easy to confuse money spent with the love and dignity shown," says Slocum. He says he's been to funerals that lasted three days and funerals that were marked by a backyard barbecue, and both demonstrated how much family and friends cared for the deceased.

If you wish to plan a more elaborate funeral for yourself, you may wish to look into your life insurance options. Final expense insurance is designed expressly to cover funeral and burial costs, and unlike most conventional life insurance policies, it requires no medical exam. Rates for this type of coverage are based solely on the average life expectancy for your gender.

But if a cost-conscious affair seems like a better bet, here are some tips for planning a dignified funeral for $1,000 or less.

Choose cremation over burial

Cremation is your cheapest choice when you're looking to save money on funeral and burial costs. And it's a practice that's on the rise: More than 45 percent of those who died in 2013 were cremated, according to the Cremation Association of North America. In 2003, only about 30 percent were cremated.

But the practice's popularity varies greatly from region to region. In the West, cremations are commonplace. In Nevada, Oregon and Washington, more than 70 percent of bodies are cremated. Cremation is far less typical in some parts of the South. Less than 25 percent of bodies are cremated in Mississippi, Alabama and Kentucky.

The least expensive alternative is direct cremation, in which the body is cremated shortly after death and the body is not embalmed. Embalming is not required by law if someone is cremated or buried shortly after they die.

Along the West Coast and in Florida, where competition is fierce, you can find a cremation for as little as $700 if you shop around, says Slocum.

Prices can be higher in other places, but shopping around is a wise idea regardless of where you live.

Don't assume you need a funeral home

While working with a funeral home may make your life easier, it may not be necessary.

The FCA says many states allow individuals, not just funeral home personnel, to obtain their loved one's death certificate, as well as the necessary permits for transporting and cremating the body. However, some crematories will work only with funeral homes.

If you use a funeral home by choice or necessity, you'll have to pay for paperwork, transportation, a container for cremation and perhaps a crematory fee. The price for this averages $200 to $400, according to the FCA.

If you need to use a funeral home or prefer to use one, you should again shop around, rather than automatically using the same funeral home that handled the last death in your family, Slocum says. You may be able to find a much better deal elsewhere.

If you're not having a service or visitation at the funeral home, you may be able to save hundreds of dollars choosing one that's not quite as close to your home, he says.

Select a modest casket

The median cost of a metal casket is $2,400, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, and more elaborate models can top $10,000. You could rent a casket for the ceremony, but even that could cost you $800.

If you're opting for a direct cremation without a viewing of the body, the funeral home must offer you an inexpensive alternative, such as an unfinished wooden box or a cardboard or canvas container that is cremated with the body, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

You also can shop online for a low-cost casket, and by law a funeral home cannot refuse to accept it. Some cardboard caskets cost as little as $200.

If you choose a simple, inexpensive casket, the FCA suggests draping it with a flag or cloth to dress it up a bit.

Opt for a modest urn

Urns made out of pewter, brass or marble to store your loved one's ashes can easily run you hundreds of dollars. But you can find plenty of options for urns online that are a fraction of the cost -- if not free.

You also can use a plastic or cardboard container to transport your loved one's cremains if you plan to spread the ashes soon after the funeral. You also may choose to inter them at a church garden for free or for a minimal cost.

You can also purchase a keepsake urn to hold a small quantity of ashes as a reminder of your loved one.

Hold a nontraditional service

There's no requirement that you have to have a formal visitation or graveside service or a traditional meal afterwards.

Instead, consider holding a memorial service at a place that was important to the deceased. That may mean arranging a backyard barbecue or remembrance at the beach or on a mountain top.

Many houses of worship will allow you to have a funeral or memorial service there at no cost, or for a minimal fee.

Seek help from science

If you're planning an inexpensive funeral for yourself, you can donate your body to a medical school, where it can be used for teaching and research. The FCA says some medical schools pay for the body's transportation and eventual cremation. The cremains may be scattered at a university plot or may be returned to the family if requested.

Another option is donating your body to a mortuary school, where students learn how to embalm the body and prepare it for viewing. The body is typically cremated and returned to the family after this.

Get your costs in writing

The FTC requires funeral homes to provide you with information on pricing so you can compare costs in advance of the service. You can get this information over the phone, but you may prefer to visit the funeral homes and obtain written price lists if you're comparing multiple options.

The FTC also provides a funeral checklist online, which can be helpful for ensuring you haven't overlooked any expenses.

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