Is a Funeral Really Life's Third Most Expensive Purchase?

The myths and realities about the cost of funerals vs. other expenses

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Is a funeral really life's third most expensive purchase?. Photo © Ron Bailey/E+/Getty Images

Many books, magazine and newspaper articles, television news reports and websites state that purchasing a funeral, whether for yourself or a loved one, constitutes "the third most expensive purchase the average person will make during his or her lifetime." But is it really? This article explores the myths and realities surrounding this claim to determine whether or not a funeral is really life's third most expensive purchase.

The Claim
A simple Internet search quickly returns numerous hits from websites that include the keywords "funeral third most expensive purchase." One such website posits that a funeral is "the third most expensive purchase most Canadians will make" and adds that this is a "little known fact." Another search result leads to a funeral preplanning guide that takes a slightly more cautious approach by stating: "Generally, a funeral is the third most expensive purchase of one's life."

What these two sites, and numerous others, have in common is that they all claim or imply that a funeral is the third most expensive purchase people will make during their lifetimes, after buying a home and a car. These sites are also similar in that they tend to overlook or ignore other expenses that people typically make during their lifetimes.

The Facts
The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), a trade association representing funeral homes, funeral directors and embalmers, has compiled data about funeral expenses since 1960 and regularly calculates these results and publishes the data.

According to NFDA's most recent "General Price List Survey" (July 2013), the average cost of a "traditional funeral" is $7,045. (This does not include a vault, which cemeteries often require. Including a cemetery vault, the median cost of a funeral rises to $8,343.)

On that specific basis, it is entirely reasonable to believe that both the average new house and the average new car cost more than the average funeral.

After all, the average cost of a new home in the United States (including land) averaged $272,900 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And in August 2013, the average "transaction price" for a new car was $31,252, which, incidentally, set a record.

But is a funeral really the third most expensive purchase the average person makes in his or her lifetime, as many websites and media outlets routinely claim? Are there any other goods and/or services that a "typical person" might purchase during his or her lifetime that we should consider?

How about the simple act of giving birth? According to an article in The New York Times published in 2013, the "average total price charged for pregnancy and newborn care [in the United States] was about $30,000 for a vaginal delivery and $50,000 for a C-section." You and I and everyone else walking this planet experienced the miracle of birth, even if we don't remember it. Admittedly, not all of us were born in a U.S. hospital or subject to these average U.S. expenses, but shouldn't the cost of something as common as giving birth be included in any comparison of life's typical expenses?

How about the cost of a secondary education? In today's world, the prevailing wisdom is that a high-school diploma simply is no longer adequate and that a college/university degree is necessary. (In fact, some argue that even an undergraduate degree is not enough these days.) Thus, millions of students enter college every year after graduating from high school and, as of the 2014-15 school year, the average U.S. cost of tuition, room and board for undergraduates attending a four-year, home-state college/university was $18,943. Out-of-state students at these same schools faced a bill totaling $32,762, and those enrolled at a private, four-year, nonprofit college/university shelled out an average of nearly $45,000 for their post-high-school education.

If you attended a wedding lately, did you give any thought to the costs involved? According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 6.8% of the U.S. population married in 2012. According to TheKnot.com -- a leading website for those contemplating, planning to, or recently wed -- "couples spent a record high average of nearly $30,000" according to a survey of those married in 2013. (And this figure does not include honeymoon expenses.) Despite the fact that less than 7% of the U.S. population married in 2012 (according to the CDC), the actual number of marriages this figure represents (2,131,000) should qualify as "statistically valid" and, therefore, be included among life's most expensive typical purchases. After all, this figure is close to 2,468,435 -- the total number of U.S. deaths in 2010, according to the CDC -- which most people consider significant.

The Conclusion
On the basis of just the three common, major life events listed above, and the average cost for each in the United States, the average cost of a funeral clearly costs less relative to many other "typical" life events and is not necessarily life's third most expensive purchase when applying a reasonable sense of objectivity.

Does this mean that a funeral you purchase for yourself or someone you love will not prove the third, second or even the most expensive purchase you make during your lifetime? Obviously this varies with each individual and what he or she purchases, but the point is that you should be skeptical of anyone insisting a funeral is life's third most expensive purchase, particularly if he or she is attempting to sell you something.

Moreover, it's important to remember that the average price for a funeral shown above is for a specific type of funeral and bodily interment, which you might or might not select for yourself or a loved one. Direct cremation or immediate burial generally cost far less. Cremation usually costs less than burial, but it's merely the form of bodily disposition and does not preclude holding a full funeral or memorial service, which increases the overall cost. There are a myriad of funeral and memorial service, product and disposition options available today, so do your homework to plan the type of funeral you want at a price that fits your budget.

Related Articles:
How to Plan a Funeral or Memorial Service
What is a General Price List?
Your Rights Under the FTC Funeral Rule
Four Funeral-related Scams to Avoid

Sources:
"Whom will your family turn to when you die?" by Adrienne Snow. EverestFuneral.com. Retrieved February 22, 2015. https://www.everestfuneral.com/mrWhomWillYourFamilyTurnTo.aspx

"The Funeral Preplanning Guide Volume 2" by Miri Rossitto, 2010. Retrieved February 22, 2015. https://books.google.com/books?id=CxTu1onnO-QC&pg=PA15

"2013 NFDA Member General Price List Study." National Funeral Directors Association. Retrieved February 24, 2015. Author's collection.

"Median and Average Sales Prices of New Homes Sold in United States." U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved February 24, 2015. http://www.census.gov/const/uspriceann.pdf

"Report: Average price of new car hits record in August" by James Healey, September 5, 2013. USA Today. Retrieved February 24, 2015. http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/cars/2013/09/04/record-price-new-car-august/2761341

"American Way of Birth, Costliest in the World" by Elisabeth Rosenthal, June 20, 2013. New York Times. Retrieved February 24, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/01/health/american-way-of-birth-costliest-in-the-world.html

"Stock up on ramen: Average cost of college rises again," November 14, 2014. Associated Press. Retrieved February 24, 2015. http://college.usatoday.com/2014/11/13/stock-up-on-ramen-average-cost-of-college-rises-again

"National Marriage and Divorce Rate Trends," February 19, 2015. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 24, 2015. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/marriage_divorce_tables.htm

"TheKnot.com Releases 2013 Wedding Statistics, March 27, 2014. PR Newswire. Retrieved February 24, 2015. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/theknotcom-releases-2013-wedding-statistics-252681701.html

"Mortality Data." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 24, 2015. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/deaths.htm

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