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Can a Funeral Home Hold a Body for Payment?

Funerals are not only expensive, but they’re an expense that often needs to be paid immediately and with very short notice. Most families don’t have the thousands of dollars in savings that they need to immediately pay for a funeral, while other families are completely unable to afford the high price of burying a family member and need access to emergency funeral funds. This leaves many people wondering what could happen if they can’t pay. Could a funeral home hold their loved one’s body?

What happens if you can’t pay for a funeral?

Most funeral homes require families and individuals to pay for services upfront, in advance. This is done to prevent families from holding services and then either refusing to or being unable to pay for them down the road. Many funeral homes have found themselves out of luck and responsible for footing the bill when customers are unable to pay for the services. Given the high price of funerals, an average of $9,000, this is an enormous cost for both the funeral home and the customer.

What happens if you don’t pay the funeral bill?

Since most funeral homes require some form of payment upfront, not paying the funeral bill would prevent you from having services. This could mean that the funeral home refuses to do services for you, refuses your business, or suggests you go to a different firm. If you were able to find a funeral home that did not require payment up front and you find yourself unable to pay for the services after the fact, you should be prepared to discuss payment options with your chosen funeral home. Some funeral directors may be more forgiving than others, and all funeral directors prefer some form of payment compared to no payment at all. Even if you’re only able to afford to pay back the funeral in very small increments, this is something you should offer to your funeral director and see what they’re willing to accept. You might be able to enter into a repayment plan that both fits your needs and satisfies the funeral home you’re working with.

In any case, you should always pay back the funeral home for any services rendered that you agreed to pay for. Failing to pay back the funeral home can prevent you from securing services in the future, should you ever need them. It might also prevent you from doing business with other funeral homes in the area if the owners know each other. Additionally, there’s the possibility that your outstanding debt will be sent to collections, which can affect your credit score.

Can a funeral home hold a body if you don’t pay?

Funeral homes cannot hold a body hostage for payment, even if you have no way of paying. The funeral home has the right to refuse services and can transfer the body to the state. If you’re still unable to pay for the burial or cremation, you’ll need to sign a release form and the body is then taken to the county coroner. If a body is unclaimed, or no one is able to pay for a funeral, the body becomes the responsibility of the state.

Steps to take if you can’t afford a funeral

There are steps you can take when you find yourself unable to pay for a funeral. Some of these solutions are time-gated, in that they might provide funds eventually, but not immediately.

Ask your community for support

Oftentimes, family and friends are in search of ways they can offer support after someone has suffered a loss. This can come in the form of flowers, words, letters, food, and just being present if needed, but it also comes in the form of donations. If just ten people out of your community donated $10 each, you’d already have $100, enough to almost cover some of the larger expenses related to a funeral. If you’re struggling to cover funeral expenses and are in need of assistance, setting up a memorial fundraiser is a fast and easy way to alert your community to ways in which they can help. You may be surprised at the amount of support you receive when you need it most.

It's also important to remember that many families struggle with funeral expenses, especially funeral expenses that aren't expected. Asking for help when you truly need it is something many families need to resort to during difficult times. If you're unable to afford an unexpected expense of $9,000 -- you're absolutely not alone and are like many other American families.

Start a fundraiser

Contact your social services department

Many counties, cities, and states offer funeral and burial assistance to families that can’t afford to pay it, especially those who are living below the poverty line. Even if you’re not sure you qualify, checking with your social services department is an easy way to find out if you can receive government assistance when it comes to unexpected funeral expenses.

Apply for Social Security death benefit

Social Security supplies a one-time death benefit to the next of kin or another qualified family member when someone passes away. This $255 payout can help cover some of the smaller expenses related to a funeral and can be applied for over the phone, at 1-800-772-1213.

Apply for veterans' benefits

If the person who passed away was a veteran, you’ll likely qualify for veteran benefits that can help cover the cost of the burial and reimbursement for transportation fees if the veteran was buried in a national cemetery. For non-service related deaths, the VA will cover up to $796 of funeral expenses, provided the veteran was in the care of the VA at the time of death. For service-related deaths, the VA will cover up to $2,000 in funeral expenses.

To apply for VA Benefits:

Check for pre-paid funeral plans

This may seem obvious, but there is definitely the possibility of overlooking a pre-paid funeral plan. Check through documents and contracts to see if your loved one pre-purchased a funeral plan with a funeral home. If they’d mentioned a funeral home, make sure to get in touch with the funeral home and see if there was a pre-paid plan in place. If your loved one pre-paid for a funeral, you won’t be required to pay as much (if anything) for the funeral.

Ask about installment plans

Many funeral homes require upfront payment before performing any services. Even if this is the case, it’s worth speaking with the funeral director one on one to see if they’d be willing to accept an installment plan. This can be helpful if you know you’ll have income down the line, but are unable to pay upfront. It's also worth asking if you can put a large amount of funds down at the time of services and pay off a smaller amount down the line, that way the funeral home feels more comfortable with the arrangement and that they'll be paid for the majority of the services rendered.

Take out a personal loan

Taking out a personal loan should be a decision you take seriously, especially if it’s for funeral expenses. Many personal loans have high interest rates that make them difficult to pay back in a timely manner. Personal loans can be useful, especially if you know you’ll be able to pay them off before the interest becomes a problem. If you decide to take out a personal loan, make sure you do as much research as possible. It's also a good idea to have a lawyer or financial expert look over the terms of the loans to ensure that you're not being taken advantage of and that the decision is a sound one.

How to cut down on some of the costs

While funerals are expensive, families oftentimes end up spending a lot more than they would have if they had been informed and in the right frame of mind. Many families are grieving when dealing with funeral homes and are prone to pushy sales tactics and general pressure. It’s important to keep informed to prevent yourself from paying more than you’d need to when it comes to funeral planning.

Compare funeral homes

Deciding on an affordable funeral home often comes down to the amount of research a family or individual did before landing on the funeral home they’d like to handle their services. In the past, funeral homes would ask that people come in to negotiate, sign contracts, and look at pricing. They’d often keep pricier merchandise up front and cheaper merchandise hidden from visitors. With the internet, you have the option of comparing pricing before heading into the funeral home. Consider looking up the average cost of a funeral in your state or city and see how your top options compare. You can browse funeral homes on Ever Loved, read reviews, and get helpful information around pricing.

Do a direct cremation

A direct cremation is when the body is immediately cremated without a viewing or a memorial service handled by the funeral home. The body is usually cremated in a simple cremation container and is not embalmed. A direct cremation usually starts around $495, compared to a standard cremation which can start around $3,000. Direct cremations cost less than standard cremations due to the lack of a formally arranged viewing or memorial service handled by the funeral home. You can always hold a memorial service, even with a direct cremation.

Purchase funeral products online

Even though you might find a casket already at your funeral home of choice, you’ll likely be paying much more to purchase it from the funeral home than you would pay if you purchased it online. Purchasing a casket online skips the funeral home markup and allows you to purchase directly from the vendor themselves. You can also purchase other memorial and funeral products online, such as headstones, urns, and jewelry. Any casket or headstone can be delivered to your funeral home or cemetery of choice.

Publish the obituary online

Newspapers charge around $200 minimum for you to publish a two sentence obituary in their newspaper. If the idea of summing up someone’s entire life in the span of two sentences sounds difficult to you (and ridiculously expensive, given the space), then it’s time to look into publishing an obituary online. Online obituaries are easily accessible and shareable, which makes them an effective way to alert your community of a loss. Additionally, online obituaries posted on Ever Loved have an unlimited amount of space for you to write a full obituary and stay up indefinitely.

In any case, it’s important to keep in mind that many families struggle with funeral expenses. They’re often caught off guard by both the high cost of funerals and the fact that most funeral homes expect to be paid upfront. If you’re in need of assistance, you’ll want to find out how to plan an inexpensive funeral to avoid paying high prices whenever possible. It’s also a good idea to start up a memorial fundraiser so that your friends, family, and community can help lessen the financial burden.

Start a fundraiser

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Last updated October 27, 2021
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Sarah Thomas "Hi Patti, thanks for pointing that out -- we've updated the article!"
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Patti Schara "Last time I checked 10 × 10 was 100, not 1000."
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Patti Schara "Last time I checked 10 × 10 was 100, not 1000."