Affordable burials

Funeral homes offer discounts and one local man makes pine casket kits at significant cost savings
Paul Firnstein, owner of Ark Wood Caskets in Phoenix, ships his simple pine-casket kits all over the country in flat boxes, ready for assembly with pre-glued dowels. Mail Tribune / Julia MooreJulia Moore

For low-income families, the loss of a loved one can mean not just loss of Social Security or job income, but a big expense for a funeral and burial. However, there are ways to lessen the burden.

Local and family-owned funeral homes often will negotiate costs downward for the indigent, something that's rare in a world increasingly full of corporate-owned funeral chains, says Rob Neff, funeral director at Conger-Morris in Medford.

Such local funeral homes may apply for reimbursement from the state, which amounts to only about $600, he says. This comes from a percentage taken from the death certificate filing fee.

Eligible low-income surviving spouses may apply for up to $255 from Social Security, not enough to make much of a dent in funeral costs.

"We get calls often from people needing help with funerals," says Dee Anne Everson, executive director of United Way. "There are a lot of people out there struggling mightily and not a lot available for this."

One thing might help. A locally made, simple pine casket costs $549, says Paul Firnstein, who has been crafting them in Phoenix for 22 years. He ships his Ark Wood Casket kits all over the country in flat boxes, ready for assembly with pre-glued dowels. They are entirely "green," with no formaldehyde or metal parts, so they completely decompose, along with the body.

Locally owned funeral homes quote casket prices in the same range but report that, in large part because of costs, about 75 percent of clients now choose cremation, a percentage that goes up each year. For some reason, cremation is much more popular on the West Coast than back East. In the Eastern U.S., the rate of cremation runs about 10 to 20 percent.

Basic cremation costs $1,195, but, says Neff, "If they only have $500, we discount it to that."

Basic burials cost about $2,100, plus the cost of the burial plot, which averages as low as $500 — more if you want upkeep.

Perl Funeral Home advises people to make pre-arranged plans and pay something monthly — as low as $5 a month — which locks in prices at that time and gets it all handled before the upheavals of death and burial, says Amy Beard of Perl.

The low end for cremations, she adds, is $995, while burial starts at $1,495.

Perl handles many burials of homeless people every year, says owner Bret Benzley, "and we just eat that cost, absorb it."

Most low-income people, he adds, choose the more affordable option of cremation.

Oregon laws allow much latitude in what happens to ashes or bodies.

"You're not required to have a casket. They can be buried with a shroud or bag, though most cemeteries require a coffin with liner or vault," says Beard. "The law is fairly broad."

Ashes can be scattered just about anywhere, though officials urge families to avoid waterways and peopled areas, says Neff.

Bodies may be buried at sea, says Neff. "You don't need to use a traditional cemetery. Some people with land want to bury loved ones there. You can wrap them in a shroud if you want. Just be sure and file the death certificate."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at

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