At 2 a.m. on Oct. 17, Helen Ramos tried to wake up her son, Michael Bowen. Something about the 37-year-old looked strange.
Ramos, 65, uses a wheelchair, and running errands can be a struggle. The day before, Bowen had gone grocery shopping for her. Later, Ramos pleaded with him to spend the night at her house in Milford, Connecticut. It was raining heavily and she wanted him to be safe, but now she couldn't get him to rise.
Bowen had died in his sleep, from either medical or drug complications. He had suffered from drug addiction since he was 13.
Bowen's death threw his family into grief — and a financial problem. Neither his four older siblings nor his parents had enough savings to come up with the $10,000 it would cost for a funeral and burial at Keenan Funeral Home in West Haven, Connecticut.
Still, Tina Middaugh, Bowen's older sister, was determined to give him a meaningful memorial service. "I couldn't imagine people walking in and not knowing people loved him," Middaugh, 40, said. And so, like an increasing number of mourners, she turned to crowdfunding.
Oft-cited research by the Federal Reserve shows 40% of Americans would struggle to cover a $400 unexpected bill. Deaths, of course, are often unexpected. And expensive. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the median price for a full funeral and burial in 2019 was $9,135.
"Memorial is one of our top categories," said Rob Solomon, CEO of GoFundMe. Crowdfunding platforms designed specifically for funerals are on the rise and include Plumfund, Ever Loved, Social Funeral Funding and Fund The Funeral.
"It's steadily growing," said Jeremy Spiering, co-founder of Fund The Funeral, adding that more than 100 funeral homes around the country are signed up with the company.
Donations to Fund The Funeral campaigns go directly to the funeral home. The company keeps 5% of donations for itself. "Five or six years ago, crowdfunding was considered a strange concept — it was uncomfortable for people to ask friends and family for money, but now there's less of a negative connotation," Spiering said.
Some campaigns fail to take off, he said, while others can rake in $18,000 or more. How much one raises can depend on the reach of their social media presence and whether or not the death managed to garner media attention.
"I think many people look at crowdfunding as a means to help a family in this situation," said Randy Anderson, the owner of Radney Funeral Home in Alexander City, Alabama. "It provides the platform for them to contribute in a dignified manner."
With the help of Keenan Funeral Home, Middaugh set up a campaign for her brother with Fund The Funeral.
Philip Appell, a funeral director at Keenan, said he expects to use the platform more often with his customers.
"A lot of families here go paycheck to paycheck," Appell said.
The fact that grieving family members need to turn to crowdfunding is a sign of a larger societal problem, said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes price transparency.
"We have turned what is an important event in family life into a commodity that we can't experience unless we purchase it from a vendor," Slocum said. "Is this really the way we want things to be?"
Families should understand they have options beyond crowdfunding, which is hard to rely on, he said. "Most people will only arrange a funeral once in their life, so they don't have practice," Slocum said.
He suggests people call multiple funeral homes and compare prices before they make a decision. People can save money, he said, by skipping embalming, opting for cremation over burial and resisting a fancy coffin. "They all do the same thing," Slocum said.
In the end, Middaugh raised $195 on Fund The Funeral. Although she wanted to bury Bowen, she went with cremation because it was cheaper. Still, it was important to the family to have a service with a viewing. Bowen's son, now 17, had been estranged from his father since he was 4 and a viewing would be his last chance to see him.
As more families come in with money issues, funeral directors say they've had to discount services more, and find other ways to bring down costs.
Jodel Vogt, a funeral director at Keenan, did the embalming, dressing and makeup for Bowen, free of charge. "I can't help financially, but I can donate my skill," Vogt said. At his family's request, Vogt dressed Bowen in his favorite sneakers and jeans. "He was the kind of guy who would be uncomfortable in a suit," she said.
The final costs of the funeral were around $4,000, which was split among Bowen's four siblings. Even so, Middaugh had to take out a loan against her house to come up with her $1,000.
The service, she said, was beautiful. Her brother's ashes are in a urn, and she is waiting to bury it at a family plot. She just needs another $850.