What to Do When There's No Money for a Funeral

What’s worse than dying? Maybe dying broke.

A coffin about to be lowered at a funeral service in a cemetery.
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It's also a good idea to be upfront with the funeral director about your finances. "Every funeral home sees a variety of families, some who have just a little bit of money or virtually nothing," Robinson says.

[Read: 5 Things to Remember When Your Finances Are Falling Apart.]

In other words, if you're low on funds, funeral directors get it, and the best of them will steer you to inexpensive alternatives. Marty Strohofer, vice president of marketing at Aurora Casket Company, says there are cheaper caskets than the many that go for $2,000 or $3,000 and higher. He says you can opt for a 20-gauge steel casket, which is priced closer to $1,000, or a cloth-covered casket, which can be found in the $500 range.

The elements of a funeral service don't have to be expensive, Robinson says. You could bring in your own flowers rather than buying them through the funeral home, for example.

Donate the body to science. Like pre-planning a funeral, this is a decision best made before death. It may sound creepy to some, but there's no question that people who leave their body to medical science are doing a service, and most medical research facilities that accept bodies handle all of the transportation and burial costs. In fact, many research facilities offer an annual memorial service for those who have donated their body to medical science, and if you prefer not to receive an urn of ashes, many will put the body in a repository for bones or bodies of the dead.

But do your research first. For starters, donating your body to science is different than donating organs (since the organs are taken but the body sticks around for the funeral), and if you donate your body, you can't also be an organ donor (researchers don't want your body without the organs).

Family members may get your remains fairly quickly. MedCure, based in Portland, Ore., will send the cremated ashes to family members four to six weeks after death. Science Care, based in Phoenix, returns them three to five weeks later. But many facilities won't return the remains for two or three years, which may bother some family members who are looking for the closure of scattering ashes.

You could not claim the body. Nobody is suggesting you don't claim a loved one. But if you're low on funds and you can't see any other option for a distant relative or acquaintance, unclaimed bodies are taken care of by the local or state government.

[See Get-Out-of-Debt Resolutions for 2013]

If you go that route, "you'll never know what happened to them," says a pained-sounding Mannix.

Often, unclaimed bodies are cremated by the local government and the remains are held until something can be done with them. Every year, Los Angeles holds a mass funeral for unclaimed bodies; last December, mourners, chaplains, and county officials said goodbye to 1,656 people, most of whom died in 2009. It's also common for an unclaimed body to be offered to a medical school for research or perhaps sent to a body farm, where human decomposition is studied.

In which case, you may be better off not knowing what happened.

Corrected on 02/21/2013: A previous version of this story incorrectly referenced Medicaid. By pre-paying a funeral, low-income individuals facing late-life health issues can reduce their assets, allowing them to become eligible for Medicaid. The story also misstated how Sandra Beckwith paid for her mother's funeral. After she paid for the funeral with her mother's money, her mother's assets were low enough to qualify for Medicaid.