What is the cheapest way to (legally) dispose of a body?
August 4, 2022 2:40 PM   Subscribe

A person in the United States is planning for their death. Their primary stipulation is that as little money be spent on the disposal of their body as possible. Ideally, their survivors will not have to pay anything at all. Presumably, state or local governments have plans for what to do with the remains of, e.g., a homeless person who is found dead and whose body is never claimed or identified. Can anyone take advantage of these programs on request, or will the survivors be stuck forking over thousands of bucks to somebody?
posted by Faint of Butt to Law & Government (22 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The cheapest way to legally dispose of a body is to donate it for medical training/research. This is something that the person themselves must initiate prior to death; it's not something that the survivors can do unilaterally afterwards.

Here's what Mayo has to say about it. Most teaching hospitals have or can refer you to a similar program: https://www.mayoclinic.org/body-donation/overview
posted by toxic at 2:45 PM on August 4 [14 favorites]

Least Expensive Death Option from Ask a Mortician

(Which notes, donation for science can be cheaper, but is more complicated.)

I don't know the circumstances, but finding a way to game the system to take advantage of programs of last resort is.... not great, IMHO, assuming the person planning their death isn't actually indigent.
posted by buxtonbluecat at 2:46 PM on August 4 [5 favorites]

A super-basic direct cremation doesn't have to cost "thousands" - it's possible to get this done for under $1000 in most states. Still in the high hundreds but that doesn't feel outrageous to me. Someone has to come and physically pick up your dead body, and crematorium fuel isn't free.
posted by mskyle at 2:53 PM on August 4 [8 favorites]

The Body Farm?
posted by joycehealy at 2:57 PM on August 4

NB, programs for donating one's body to science regularly fill up, have a back-up plan.

My friend's dad's remains went to to the "body farm" at University of Tennessee for forensic research when his first choice of institution wasn't available.
posted by momus_window at 2:59 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]

We used one of the funeral homes listed at the Order of the Good Death (which Ask a Mortician runs, I think). Pricing was completely transparent, and under $1000 for a simple cremation.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:05 PM on August 4 [7 favorites]

Not all counties and states have medical donation as an option. All of them however do have provisions for IB, or indigent burial. If you don't want the ashes the state will typically reimburse a county's contracted funeral home a flat fee and the ashes are interred in a mass burial once a year or so. In some cases they will donate to medical schools depending on size of educational system and need. The time from death to unclaimed status varies wildly; in Florida it's about two days. Less if the body is significantly decomposed.

Still working in decedent management, AMA
posted by Ardnamurchan at 3:05 PM on August 4 [5 favorites]

Look into if there is a Neptune Society in your relative's area, they often have negotiated rates for low-cost pre-planned cremations. Or at the very least have price lists and contact information for stand alone crematories.
posted by muddgirl at 3:08 PM on August 4 [4 favorites]

Don't hang around too long after donating your body to the nearest medical school. My 99 y.o. mother was not wanted and we reverted to plan B.

You might want to check out the possibility of DIY burial in your area. In Maryland you need to establish a "family burial plot or other area allowed by a local ordinance". Advice from a friend who laid out her husband at home and buried him in the orchard: 1) you need a lot of cotton-wool 2) a stout plank is a really useful adjunct to a simple shroud.
posted by BobTheScientist at 3:19 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]

My Dad donated his body to his local medical university (Toledo Ohio). There were some challenges, the body had to be picked up very soon after his death and everybody into the house was shown the big phone number on the fridge to call ASAP when he died, but I think it was net neutral money-wise, and the family got the ashes back afterwards.
posted by straw at 4:06 PM on August 4

There is a lightly regulated market for human tissues where bodies can be sold for profit. I don’t know what local regulations may impact the feasibility of this where you are.


Non-transplant anatomical donation seems to be the term you may want to search for.

posted by forkisbetter at 4:24 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]

If ScienceCare is available in your area, I can recommend them as courteous, kind, and easy to work with. The program is totally free.
posted by blnkfrnk at 4:33 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]

Look into if there is a Neptune Society in your relative's area

Be careful with this organization. Locally, there was a scandal a few years back when it was discovered that the Neptune Society charged for services that they didn't provide. Buyer beware!
posted by SPrintF at 4:34 PM on August 4

Seconding mskyle. When my mom passed away last year, basic cremation (with a little extra: dividing into three portions) was 600 USD in Connecticut. Having seen too many bad depictions in media I was dreading getting some kind of upsell etc from the funeral home. Nope. We got plastic bags in cardboard boxes and that was it. Would seek out a good local funeral home first for advice, or to at least eliminate them.
posted by Gotanda at 4:54 PM on August 4 [5 favorites]

Check out the Funeral Consumer Alliance for links to the local chapter. One of their services is a listing of the actual costs for various basic services from different local mortuaries. We need a simple cremation (2 people to pick up body, cardboard casket to take to crematorium, cremation, ashes returned in bag sealed in a sturdy cardboard box plus a couple of copies of the death certificate.) Total cost under $1000 at one of the places we found on their list. Plus while it was inexpensive, the customer service experience was good.
posted by metahawk at 5:04 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]

Outside of medical donation as an option, indignant burials in most/all states/cities require the deceased to have no estate. If the deceased has an estate, and the family refuses to collect the body and dispose of it, the state/city will just file a claim against the estate and recover the costs of the disposal. Such recovery will probably be more expensive - and, likely, more distressing - than the cost of the funeral.

If the deceased does have an estate, there really is no difference between the estate paying for the disposal explicitly, or having it be paid from the estate due to the fungibility of money. If disposal costs $1K, and the estate is $10K, then either $10K is distributed to the heirs, and the heirs pay $1K for the disposal (leaving $9K for the heirs), or the estate retains $1K for disposal, and the heirs pay $0 (leaving $9K for the heirs).

The person in this question can prepay for their own funeral / disposal - look up prepaid funeral plans, of which the Neptune Society is one. However, I've been quite skeptical of these plans. Because death is inevitable, you're paying for an expense that will be incurred with 100% probability. Hence, the place providing the plan will charge you nearly 100% of the expense anyway. Further, many (not all) of these plans are somewhat difficult to move if the person moves before their death. Also, if the prepaid plan goes under, the money just gets wasted.

When faced with this question myself, I simply request to direct in my will to have the most cost-efficient funeral/disposal possible, and then assume my heirs will determine the actual course that works for them. At the point of death, it's their money anyway, so I figure they can choose what they want to do.
posted by saeculorum at 5:51 PM on August 4 [4 favorites]

D'oh, of course I was thinking of the Funeral Consumer Alliance and NOT the Neptune Society, but since both of those are chains of local orgs it's worth looking in to both of them in your relative's area to compare.
posted by muddgirl at 5:59 PM on August 4

My parents used what was an evidently regional chain of crematoria. That place collected the body (after 'working' hours, fwiw), did the cremation, issued the death certificate, and provided the ashes (plastic bag inside a cardboard box). Their current base rate appears to be $800.

Knowing the people making the decisions, that was the cheapest simple option available. Simplicity was pretty useful at the time we needed the service.
posted by mersen at 6:54 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]

I had a family member die in Boston, and his closest kin refused to let his body be released to another relative for a proper burial, so his body was kept for awhile to see if the next of kin would change their mind, and then was buried, I assume, in what is called the "city poor lot." There was no funeral, nor any specific marking of the grave. I think the laws around this vary state to state around who buries indigent people. In some communities churches will cover burials for families who can't afford to bury their dead. In others, charitable sometimes cover burials. I think for these last two their needs to be proven financial need.
posted by momochan at 8:30 PM on August 4

As others have suggested direct cremation is likely to be the cheapest easily accessible option and usually local governments will only pay as a last resort. If the deceased had any money this will need to pay for the funeral - up to and including selling their stuff.

As an aside, I do generally think it's kinder if you give some flexibility when directing your own funeral arrangements ahead of time. It can be distressing for bereaved people either if they are not able to carry out very specific wishes or if the wishes of the deceased conflict with the grieving needs of the bereaved.
posted by plonkee at 1:02 AM on August 5 [3 favorites]

My Uncle died with no next of kin. He had cut himself off from us after my dad died. The hospital where he died had him cremated as an unclaimed body. The funeral home held his ashes (plastic bag, cardboard box) and charged us $600 to take possession and cover their fees. This was in Tacoma, WA.
posted by amanda at 6:53 PM on August 5

Re: the Neptune Society--they're no longer independent, but owned by Service Corporation International, AKA Big Funeral, AKA the largest funeral corporation in the US. There are things that aren't so great about SCI, in the way of most giant corporations, but they're not likely to go out of business any time soon, so I don't think pre-arranging with them is an unwise investment. An independent crematory will probably be cheaper if there's one locally. If the direct cremation is pre-paid, the family won't have to come up with much $$--I believe there is still a cost for the death certificates, but it's not much.
As stated above, medical/research donation is free but there are a lot of hoops to jump through, so make sure all the paperwork is lined up, and it'll probably be through a very specific organization or funeral home. Where I used to live there were 20+ funeral homes but only one that did medical embalming, which is a different process.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 7:18 AM on August 6

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