Select Page

Post-Mortem Planning on a Budget: Skip the Funeral

Think living in New York is expensive? Try dying. Nearly a quarter of New York City’s population lives in poverty, and often can’t afford costs associated with death.

Funeral director Peter Dohanich knows this better than anyone. Dohanich runs a funeral home in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. He has been in the business since 1984, and has a reputation for offering bargain-basement prices on post-mortem services.

His website advertises direct cremation for $495 and burial services for $895. Direct cremation entails cremating the body shortly after death, without a viewing, funeral service or embalming. Similarly, a direct burial is a burial without any extra services, which can drive up costs – and profits for the funeral industry.

The modern funeral industry emerged in the mid-20th century in response to urbanization and population growth. Critics of the industry warned consumers of unscrupulous funeral directors who capitalized on the fragile emotional state of their clientele.

Dohanich prides himself on offering no-frills advice to his customers to help them separate the essential from the excessive. Rosary beads, personalized prayer cards and embellished caskets are just a few of the costs that can be eliminated if the customer is informed.

“As a grief counselor we have to give them options because they cannot see the forest through the trees,” Dohanich said.

There are several services provided by New York State and the city to offset the cost of funerals. Volunteers of Legal Service provide literature and pro-bono counsel through the Elderly Project. New York State’s Office of Victim Services offers families up to $6,000 towards burial and funeral expenses if a loved one is the victim of a homicide. Since 1985, the city has provided burial assistance funds up to $900, as long as funeral expenses do not exceed $1,700. Families may also be eligible for a one-time Social Security payment of $225.

However, these funds aren’t always easy for bereaved families to access. There is a lack of coordination among the various city agencies involved. For many grieving families, the funeral director, whose incentive is to drive up costs, is their only advisor.

Of course, not all those who die leave behind grieving families. The final destination for the homeless, unidentified, or unclaimed by next of kin is Hart Island—the largest tax-funded cemetery in the country. Since 1869, a million people, thousands of whom are stillborn babies, have been buried on the mile-long strip of land northeast of City Island in the Bronx. The Department of Corrections, the arm of the government that operates the potter’s field, employs Rikers Island inmates to dig graves for 50 cents an hour.

Dohanich rarely buries his clients in New York City proper. Most burials happen at Rosemount Memorial Park, a cemetery in Elizabeth, NJ, that will open and fill a plot for as little as $150. To maintain a reasonable profit margin, Dohanich cuts corners on the supply side.

“There is no staff. It’s just myself and two residents in training,” Dohanich said. “I’m like anyone else. I have holes in my clothes, I walk to work.” — Anna Roberts

For the Rich, a New Kind of Help: Funeral Planners

Increasingly, the wealthy don’t plan funerals. They treat funerals like they do taxes, weddings and childcare – they hire a professional.

“You only have one funeral, you have to get what you want,” said Elizabeth Meyer, a well-known New York funeral planner and author of “Good Mourning,” a behind-the-scenes look at the city’s upscale funeral industry.

The funeral planner, much like the wedding planner, is the middleman between the client and vendors. They arrange everything from flowers and catering to ash-spreading locations and funeral telecasts for absent guests. Planners are usually independent and unaffiliated with a particular funeral home, which allows them to organize custom funerals for their clients.

Elizabeth Meyer (by Cal Aurand)

There are emerging markets for high-end funeral planning in urban locales, including New York, Los Angeles, Florida and Chicago. The business requires a high concentration of rich clients without multi-generational attachments to a funeral home, a kind of bond that forms in small communities.

“Funeral planning didn’t exist when my father died in 2006,” Meyer said. It wasn’t until her father’s death that the Upper East Sider realized how overwhelming planning a funeral could be.

Seventy-five percent of people planning a funeral are doing it for the first time, and are often unfamiliar with the available options.

“I have regrets about my father’s funeral,” Meyer said. “Because the decisions I made were all emotional.”

She went into funeral planning, so that she could help people avoid making the same mistake she did.

She started at Frank E. Campbell, New York’s most expensive and elite funeral home, located on the Upper East Side. She organized five-figure funerals for the rich and famous, who were happy to spend as much on funerals as weddings.

“It’s the final party, after all,” Meyer said.

Funeral planners are putting pressure on funeral directors to broaden the scope of their offerings and deliver more customized services. Many who haven’t have gone out of business; over the last decade, the number of funeral homes in the U.S. has dropped by 10 percent.

New York-based funeral director Peter Moloney offers gifts for funeral guests, including jewellery with lockets of the deceased’s hair. Other funeral enhancements include beach services, blowing wind and grass, and ice cream trucks. “It’s whatever the client wants,” he said.

People are starting to think about the big party sooner than ever.

Increasingly, Meyer’s clients are middle-aged couples and families preparing for the inevitable.

“A lot of my generation are pushing people to address this topic, as only good comes from talking,” Meyer said. “No one could say the sex revolution was a bad thing, we are now on the cusp on a death revolution.”

— Mary Hanbury