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The true cost of dying

Unidentified mourners gather during a funeral service for Eric Garner at Bethel Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York July 23, 2014. Family members gathered on Wednesday evening for the funeral of Eric Garner, who died shortly after police put him in a banned chokehold as they arrested him in New York City where the death has sparked outrage and a promise to reform police training. REUTERS/James Keivom/Pool (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW OBITUARY)

Figuring out how to fund a long retirement is usually top of mind when it comes to financial planning. But how much does it cost to die?

Sure, thinking about things like cremation or burial is about as unpleasant as it gets. It’s worth building in some savings for all the expenses that accompany dying, however.

“A lot of people don’t know the costs involved,” says Kat Downey, a funeral pre-planner and licensed funeral director at Legacy Matters in Mississauga, Ont., “Let’s say it’s direct cremation. There are three mandatory associated costs with cremation.”

Those are the cost to register the death, which in Ontario varies from $25 to $50; the cost for a coroner to sign the cremation application ($75); and the cost of the cremation itself, which runs anywhere from $350 to $650. So you could be looking at close to $800 without even getting a funeral home or director involved for a service and other arrangements.

“A cremation could cost you anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000 or $5,000,” Downey says, noting that prices vary greatly throughout the country. “It’s cheaper out west than it is out east.”

A direct basic cremation package at Sidney, B.C.’s Simply Cremation and Funeral Services, for instance, goes for $1,258 plus HST. It includes fees for documentation, urn, staff services, and transfer from hospital or institution (a home pick-up is an extra $135). Mileage over 25 kilometres costs 95 cents per kilometre.

Other services are extra:

  • embalming goes for $495
  • visitation is $175 per hour
  • a register book package is $350
  • and hairdressing is $55.
  • A death certificate costs $27, while certified copies are $20.

Ontario Cremation Services, meanwhile, charges $2,295 for a complete cremation package, including HST. This includes transportation of remains ($265), an unmarked vehicle to transport remains ($250), placement of remains in a cremation container ($240), and a container itself ($190).

A burial will run much higher, anywhere from about $5,000 to $15,000, according to Canadian Funerals Online

There are ways to save on the expense of your last act, though.

“Prepay it,” Downey says.

In Ontario, according to the Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act, if money is paid under a contract for future services or merchandise and the price goes up in the future, that initial amount has to be honoured.  Plus, paying in advance means your loved ones don’t have to negotiate or shop around at a time of mourning. Keep in mind that not all provinces have similar legislation, so look for a guaranteed contract.

“The funeral home takes on the inflationary risk over time,” Downey says. “When someone dies, that’s not the time to do business. You’re not thinking clearly, you’re not thinking there are options, and you’re not thinking to ask questions so you just sign the bottom line.”

Payment plans are another option, but typically fees and interest and financing charges will apply. In most cases, you’ll save money by paying in full rather than over time, according to Ontario’s Consumer Education Guide to Funerals, Burials, and Cremations Services.

Consider whole-body donation for medical instruction

While there’s a vital need for organ donors, a lesser-known option is to donate your entire body to a medical training facility so that future doctors, dentists, and other health professionals can use it for study and research.

The body-donation program at the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine, for example, has been around since 1950. If death occurs within the Greater Vancouver Regional District, costs associated with transport of the remains are covered, as is the cost of cremation and urn. However, medical schools often keep remains for anywhere from six months to three years, possibly longer, and not all remains are accepted.

Skip the embalming

“It’s a myth that you need this,” Downey says of the process of replacing blood and bodily fluids with a chemical solution to temporarily preserve the body. “It isn’t mandatory.”

There’s a caveat, however: a public-health office may order that a body be embalmed or cremated immediately if a person has died of an infectious disease such Hepatitis B or C.

Say no to the limo for the service

“Drive yourself,” Downey suggests. If you’re feeling too fragile to drive to a funeral, ask a friend.

Consider tax breaks

The federal Income Tax Act offers some tax relief in the form of the eligible funeral arrangement (EFA) rules for funeral pre-planning. The EFA has to be handled by a licensed funeral director or cemetery operator. Accruing interest earned on contributions is not taxed to the plan contributor, the deceased, or the deceased’s estate.

The contribution limits for EFAs are $15,000 for funeral services, $20,000 for cemetery services, or $35,000 for combined funeral/cemetery services.

Think of creative memorial services

You’ll likely pay big bucks to have a service at a funeral home. Weddings take place anywhere from parks to back yards these days, and memorials can also be non-traditional.

“I know of a funeral that took place on a beach volleyball court, because that’s what this guy loved to do,” Downey says. “You can celebrate someone’s life in whatever manner they lived their life. I really encourage people to consider personalization. What were their hobbies, talents, and interests? Did they like to garden or play golf? You could gather friends at a golf club.”

Bring your own container

You don’t have to fork over the marked-up prices funeral homes charge for urns or caskets. Keep in mind that some caskets can’t be used for cremation if they’re made of materials that will not burn. For cremated remains, you may be able to use something as simple as a cookie jar, but you need to check the crematorium and cemetery by-laws for about the type and size of container allowed.

Ask for help

If you don’t have enough money to pay for funeral services, transfer of remains, cremation, or burial, you can apply to your local municipality for financial assistance.