Too Poor to Live or Die

It sounds like the opening to a very tasteless joke, but can you afford to die in the United States?

Until a few years ago, the answer for my husband and I would likely have been no.

The Cost of Death

In 2021, the National Funeral Director’s Association said the national average for a memorial service and burial, including the plot, was $9,420. You could save a couple hundred dollars by opting for cremation, but the cost was high.

You can also save a few thousand dollars if you die in the midst of a pandemic and no one is having memorial services, but I recommend against that. As a nation, it’s like we’ve all been deprived of our grief for the last two years.

But that’s not the point. The point is that I discovered in December, 2021, how expensive death could be. My father-in-law was not in the best of health, but his death the week of Thanksgiving still came as a surprise.

My in-laws lived in poverty.

He was a Vietnam veteran, but after he left the Navy he went to work in manufacturing and the company he worked for moved out of the country in 2006. After that he went back to school long enough to accrue some student loans, but not long enough to get the degree. Then he held a couple barely above minimum wage jobs, made it to retirement age and lived on a $306 a month pension from the manufacturing job and his social security.

They qualified for Medicaid assistance and a little bit of food stamps, but the only reason there was any cushion at all in their checking account was the stimulus money the federal government sent last year.

And yet, they are among the lucky ones, the 54% of American adults who have some amount of life insurance. Without it, my mother-in-law would have had no way to pay for her husband’s cremation. In fact, it’s only because my husband and I had some savings that my father-in-law’s cremation could take place in a timely manner. The Illinois department that helps people in poverty will reimburse people for some funeral expenses, about a third of the actual cost, but you have to pay for it first.

So, if your family member dies and you don’t have the money to pay for the funeral costs, you’re out of luck.

Worse yet, that life insurance my father-in-law paid for that was supposed to cover his burial costs? To get it, you have to provide an official copy of the death certificate. To get those, we had to wait nearly a month after his death and pay $22 for each copy of it we needed.

We needed one for social security, his retirement account, the bank, the life insurance company and his student loan processor. We also sent them to the credit monitoring services because apparently some crooks target the recently deceased for identity theft. That would be the last thing my mother-in-law needs while grieving her husband of 47 years.

For those keeping score, that’s a minimum of $110 just to prove to other people that he’s dead.

The Time Cost of Death

The other part of the expense of dying that most people don’t realize is the time it costs.

I’m lucky enough to have a job that allows me to do some amount of personal business while at work. Not everyone is that lucky so I recognize the privilege.

Without it, I would likely have had to take several days off work to handle my in-laws business affairs. Every aspect of their shared lives together had to be transferred into her name, everything from the cable bill to the mortgage. Three months later, much of that is still not done. For someone who does not have the ability to make calls during the workday, the cost would have been enormous.

And then there’s the cost of bereavement time off.

Again, my husband and I lucky to have both paid time off for bereavement and vacation time available to us. That means that in April when we can finally have my father-in-law’s memorial service, we aren’t losing money to go to the service.

My brother-in-law isn’t so lucky. He will be taking unpaid time off to go to his father’s memorial.

It’s also not cheap to travel to the memorial. We will be flying, but can thankfully plan ahead for the cheapest fares. It will still cost us $900 to get there. Add in another $400 for a rental car for the week and $600 for the Airbnb we are sharing with my brother-in-law and suddenly it becomes clear that not too many years ago, we could not have afforded to go to a memorial service.

And yes, for the record, we did the math. Driving would have added significantly to the time we needed to take off, required additional hotel rooms and meals away from home, so it was about the same price while being much more stressful for us.

A decade ago, when we were young adults, we literally could not have paid for it if something happened to one of us or our parents.

The Loss of Income

Could my father-in-law afford to die?

Not really. His wife’s monthly expenses dropped very little, but her income dropped by more than $500 a month.

We were able to cut her internet and phone bill about $60 a month, mostly by sharing our cable-cutting subscriptions. She no longer has his supplemental insurance to pay for, saving about $200 a month. But the other bills, except for food which was covered by food stamps, remain the same.

Her mortgage didn’t drop because there was one less person in the house. Her very small, less than 900 square foot house, still cots the same to heat. Water and sewer prices don’t drop.

She’s going to move in with her sister to make ends meet.

To many people that may seem like no big deal, but she’s giving up the home she shared with her husband for the last 20 years, because she can’t afford to keep it. Her situation is not terribly different than most widows.

My husband and I paid for the cremation expenses and we’ll be footing the bill for the memorial service as well. If we were still poor, we would not have been able to do that. As middle class Americans, it is costing us a lot.

Without the stimulus payments last year, my in-laws were barely scraping by.

What’s wrong with a country when you can’t afford to live and can’t afford to die?

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