How to Avoid Unexpected Grave Opening and Closing Fees

Mom did everything right. She bought a cemetery plot years ago and prepaid for her funeral, selecting all the floral, music and catering details herself. The funeral home said everything was paid for, but when the time came, your family learned they needed to cover $1,800 in "cemetery professional service fees." You were shocked. You thought your mother had everything paid for. You turn to your funeral director and ask, "What is this?"

It's a question that comes up often. This article explains:

The days after losing a loved one can be a hard time. Financial surprises can make it even harder. Here's what to know about a matter that catches many families off guard.

What are opening and closing fees?

Cemetery professional services fees, also called interment and recording fees or grave opening and closing fees, cover the costs of the people, processes and equipment required for burial. The cemetery charges these fees, though the funeral home may act as a go-between if a loved one doesn't have a prepaid end-of-life plan, collecting the money from a family and paying it to the cemetery.

Opening and closing fees for traditional burial typically range $1,500-$2,300. They can be more, depending on the cemetery and location, or less if you choose cremation. Opening and closing fees in New York City will be higher than in Des Moines, Iowa. These costs may also be higher for burials that take place on weekends or holidays.

What expenses do opening and closing fees cover?

You might assume when you purchase cemetery property ahead of time that you've taken care of burial expenses. But here's the thing: You don't actually buy the property, you buy interment rights. The land still belongs to the cemetery, but when you've purchased interment rights, you get to decide who can be buried in that grave, crypt or niche. You also get to decide what type of memorialization should be placed there. Those decisions are yours—or an heir's—forever. The cost of interment rights doesn't include a vault (if needed), a marker (if desired) or opening and closing fees (aka cemetery professional service fees).

The cemetery professional service fees are (but more involved than) what a funeral home charges for "basic services of the funeral director and staff and overhead."

To put it simply: Before a loved one can be buried or entombed, a number of things must take place at the cemetery. Likewise, there are things cemetery associates must do afterward. It takes people, time and other resources to get those things done.

However, many families assume that these fees cover only the work of opening and closing a loved one's grave. The phrase "opening and closing fees" is a bit of a misnomer.

In reality, those steps are only part of the many aspects of preparing for a service, and the charge covers much more—including cemetery administrative expenses, such as building and grounds maintenance, office equipment and furniture, utilities and insurance.

Groundskeeper in hardhat arranges white memorial flowers.

More closely related to a loved one's service are expenses for tasks such as:

  • Meeting with a family to determine their needs and do paperwork
  • Researching and verifying cemetery property ownership records
  • Surveying, measuring, marking and preparing the burial site
  • Filing for burial permits
  • Delivering equipment to the gravesite prior to excavation
  • Removing sod and uninstalling grave markers that could be damaged during excavation
  • Excavating the gravesite, transporting and storing soil
  • Installing the vault, vault lid and casket-lowering device
  • Cleaning nearby walkways and streets, pruning nearby trees
  • Setting up canopies, chairs and artificial grass
  • Staffing the burial service, from flower placement to directing traffic to assisting pallbearers
  • Removing canopies, chairs and artificial grass
  • Backfilling and tamping the grave, relandscaping the area
  • Reinstalling moved markers, vases and flowers

Granite private family mausoleum holding eight crypts.

The fees for mausoleum entombment or cremation may be different. For example, there's no grave to excavate or landscaping to restore when opening and closing a mausoleum crypt or columbarium niche. However, even if your family doesn't have a graveside service, comprehensive cemetery services incur costs related to maintenance, insurance, governmental compliance and more. In other words, even though the actual opening and closing of a grave is different from that of a mausoleum crypt, the cemetery overhead remains the same.

Read about types of cemetery property and costs.

Are opening and closing fees included in a prepaid funeral plan?

Opening and closing fees are not included in a prepaid funeral plan that locks in prices for some products and services, and that can come as a surprise to a family. Sometimes there has been money set aside for these expenses as part of the plan, but that money goes toward the fees charged at the time of need.

In other words, even if cash is set aside for cemetery fees in a prepaid funeral plan, the cemetery fees are not guaranteed. The fee at the time of need may exceed the available funds. If that's the case, the family must make up the difference.

There is, however, a way to lock in the price.

Is it possible to avoid being surprised by burial fees, such as grave opening and closing fees?

If you're working through a prepaid plan with a planning advisor and wish to set aside money for opening and closing fees, be sure to mention it.

Some prepaid funeral plans have a line for third-party items, such as a newspaper obituary, clergy fees and opening and closing fees (which are paid to the cemetery). If you do choose to set aside money for opening and closing fees, you will at least know that your family won’t have to cover the full cost at a later date.

Even better: Dignity Memorial® cemeteries allow families to plan ahead, pay expenses in advance and lock in prices. This lets you get the cemetery space, services and merchandise you want for items not covered by a prepaid funeral plan. Read all about prepaid burial plans.

Have you already purchased cemetery property from a Dignity Memorial provider but have questions about your opening and closing fees? Contact your cemetery.

Understand funeral and cremation costs.

Download our Guide to Understanding Funeral & Cremation Costs.