Page last updated at 14:21 GMT, Friday, 14 August 2009 15:21 UK

If you bury me, make sure it's cheap

By Javier Aparisi
BBC Mundo, Miami

coffin
Many are now choosing cremation instead of a traditional burial

The current economic crisis respects nothing and no-one - not even funeral services.

Americans have cut their spending on funerals considerably compared to last year, according to a survey by the National Funeral Directors Association.

The majority of undertakers surveyed said that increasing numbers of people were choosing a cheaper coffin or were opting for a cremation instead of a traditional burial.

People have also been cutting back on the hiring of chapels, the amount of flowers and the use of limousines.

"For many families, it's becoming difficult to pay for funeral services. Many people are cutting back because of the economic crisis," said association spokesman James Olson.

"Instead of a service lasting two days with a vigil the night before, they just do everything in one day in order to cut costs," said Olson, who also owns a funeral parlour in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Saving costs

Cremations at the Los Angeles country morgue have reportedly risen by 25% in the first half of this year, because of the number of bodies remaining unclaimed by families who could not afford to pay for a funeral service.

When my mother died I didn't even know what she wanted, we don't like to think it's going to happen
Gloria Rodriguez

There is also a new trend with some people buying coffins from the discount chain Costco, instead of from undertakers, although in the United States this is only permitted in 34 states.

"We have our own coffins, but if people buy them elsewhere, we accept them too," explained Ileana Bazart of the Caballero-Rivero Woodlawn Funeral Home in Miami.

For a traditional burial, a coffin can cost more than $20,000, like the Promethean model with a bronze sarcophagus used for the burial of Michael Jackson.

However, things needn't be this expensive. For instance, the charity Funeral Consumers Alliance says that simple coffins can be bought for less than $500.

Reluctance to plan

What has not changed with the economic crisis is the reluctance to prepare for the final journey, and this tends to bump up the costs.

Gloria Rodriguez
Gloria Rodriguez's mother's funeral cost more than $10,000

Gloria Rodriguez is a Colombian immigrant and has owned a florist's in Miami for more than three decades.

When her mother died recently at the age of 82, the funeral cost more than $10,000, because she had to arrange everything at the last minute.

"We tend not to think about these things. When my mother died three months ago, I didn't even know what she wanted. We don't like to think it's going to happen."

However, there are some who do have it all planned.

Cremations

The president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of SE United States, Richard Schellbach, told me: "There hasn't been a Schellbach buried in a cemetery for a long time."

His family has opted for cremation for the last three generations and has dispensed with the use of a chapel of rest for the traditional vigil.

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Mr Schellbach, 53, has already arranged his own cremation for $800 and has made similar arrangements for his father, aged 87.

"There are places that mean a lot to us. I'll be scattering his ashes in those places," he added.

According to experts like Mr Schellbach, the economic crisis and the desire to save money on funeral costs are the main reasons for the increase in the number of cremations, although some say it's because people are now considering a more ecological farewell journey.

The government estimates that approximately 2.5 million people a year die in the US.

More than 35% currently choose cremations, and the Cremation Association of North America say that could increase to more than 50% in the next three years.

Costly paperwork

"I'm very suspicious of low-cost, high-turnover cremations," said spokesman Mike Nicodemus, himself a cremations director in Tidewater, Virginia.

"I just can't understand how they make a profit with prices as low as $695."

He points out that these prices do not include the publication of obituaries, death certificates and other procedures, which could well raise the final bill to about $1,300.

Undertakers consulted by the BBC said that so far they had not been forced to reduce their prices following consumer cost-cutting.

"So far, we haven't had to do this. We are a fairly big operation, with an average of 1,700 to 2,000 services per year."

"But some of the smaller operators will probably need to take a closer look at their prices," Mr Nicodemos added.



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