Enjoy this guest blog post from Gary Newman, maven of finances related to end-of-life issues.
“Just as talking about sex won’t make you pregnant, talking about funerals won’t make you dead. Both you and your family will benefit from the conversation. So, let’s get the conversation started” -–
— Wisdom from nationally-acclaimed thanatologist Gail Rubin, heading up her website, www.agoodgoodbye.com.
President Kennedy received a multi-day celebrity-studded and ceremony-rich world-class state performance. Contrasting, Beloved’s family faithfully honored her father’s wish: “When I die, just wrap me in a blanket, stick me into the old station wagon, and drop me into the family plot at the church down the road from the farm, without any speeches.” Several of Doctor R’s vital organs live on in others’ bodies, the rest of him cremated and enshrined in an urn on the family home’s mantlepiece. When his young son died, Howard created a memorial “celebrating-life service” simply by welcoming all the attendees who felt inspired to rise and speak their heartfelts.
Those were unique extremes. So, where in between will yours or Loved One’s be? What’s the plan?
Yes, let’s do get the conversation started. And, as our life insurance agents remind us, since we all know our dates of birth but not our dates of death, we’d better start now.
Cheers to you if you’ve already done this, but stay with me in case we discover a new idea for you.
In this and the next two columns, let’s have a look at some of the realities about making the decisions and carrying out the plans.
Will you or Loved One create your plan or your own, with or without the family contributing their sensitivities? Or, will it all be relegated –- or procrastinated — for the family to do when the need arises, maybe even without advance guidance via the ethical will, the testamentary will, or even (sometimes deathbed) verbal? Who will make decisions? Will family dissention arise if decisions are left to them?
Might it be helpful also to consult the spiritual advisor, family elders, friends who’ve recently dealt with funeralities, and the many commentators on the Internet and in the library?
ABOUT FUNERAL, CREMATORY, AND CEMETERY COMPANIES:
If the end-of-life person hasn’t pre-selected at-death services, and there are no testamentary directives, known preferences, or pre-need contracts, the family, in coordination with the appropriate fiduciary(ies), must select them. Usually, of course, they are traditional ones, rooted in the family’s ethnic or religious community. But they don’t have to be. Many “outside” providers can handle your ethnic’s customs and needs competently. Some even specialize in areas such as inter-city shipment of remains, military rites, other-than-burial disposition, and religious practices.
We know that we can expect the funeral company to think of, to suggest, and to handle, “all the little details,” and to help us arrange the disposition of the remains. Some of these peripherals:
- Draft and submit obituaries.
- Obtain certified copies of the death certificate.
- Arrange for chapel and officiator.
- Make arrangements with the cemetery, crematorium, or other disposition provider.
- Arrange transportation for attendees.
- Provide prayer books and other implements.
- Engage an officiator if you don’t have one.
- Notify Medicare, Medicaid, and government retirement systems of the person’s death.
- Arrange catering for gatherings, such as the wake, viewing, or shiva.
- Provide driving instructions to the events.
- Arrange financing for their services.
Only two national companies now own many local funeral companies, cemeteries and other death-related disposition facilities, and they’re merging into one. But the local firms that they’ve acquired still operate and compete as individual independent one-on-one community-based businesses. Others remain independently locally owned and operated by families or religious institutions.
Competitively, pricing for various services and merchandise varies, and it has become aggressively competitive as we opt for less and less elaborate funeralities, thus reducing their opportunity to sell some of their services and products. If the deceased, and sometimes the family member making the deal, served in the armed forces, police, fire-EMT, or clergy, or if two or more sets of services (for present and/or future use) are negotiated, the price can be discounted sharply. No longer is pricing rigid, nor is negotiating about it uncouth, so go ahead and invoke your car-buying skills.
Customer referrals are vital sources of business. Quality and pricing reputations are precious, and providers nurture them assiduously. We’re smart to regard other customers’ experience and recommendations as valuable guidelines.
Do ascertain whether the providers that you are negotiating with require you to purchase merchandise, such as vaults, monuments, shrouds, urns, caskets, and florals, directly from them. You might find much more attractive prices elsewhere, including on the Internet.
What a blast, buying your coffin on Amazon!
And, of course, do apply deliberation and level-headed objectivity to their encouragement to upgrade and to add-on services and merchandise at the time when you are emotionally vulnerable. After all, death-industry companies, however honorable and respectful, legitimately are profit-seeking enterprises.
Let’s not be critical of providers and their people. Sincere compassion, respect, empathy, and ethical conduct are of paramount importance to them and to their precious reputations. Funeral directors even are becoming warm, smiling, ingratiating, human beings, just like us!
- Caskets, vaults, and urns made of biodegradable material.
- Cremating, scattering the ashes on the earth (“dust to dust”) instead of preserving remains in earth-invasive and chemicals-leeching concrete and stone vaults on it or under it. “Green” or not, cremation is an ancient practice that’s again growing in popularity, say some observers. After all, there are no cemetery plot, interment and monumental hardware, hearse, or grave-digging expenses. But because of that, you’ll pay a hefty fee for the cremation service and the receptacle for the ashes.
- Embalming, superfluous with refrigeration and prompt disposal, only when compellingly necessary, or legally mandated.
- Graveside funeral services, eliminating the hazardous, traffic jamming, and fuel-guzzling and polluting (especially hulking and expensive hearses and limousines) funeral processions through and around town.
“Green” can save some “green,” too. A February, 2010, media-published feature article says that “green” burials cost less than conventional ones, ranging between five and ten thousand dollars, considerably less than non-green at that time.
ABOUT OFFICIATORS AND PARTICIPANTS:
In addition to the family’s congregational minister and the long-term-care facility’s staff pastoral counselor, for-fee (licensed where required) funeral conductors of all kinds, affiliated or not, are available. Affinity groups, veterans’ groups, fraternals, social service agencies, burial societies, religious and ethnic brotherhoods and sisterhoods offer officiators to their members without charge, as well as financial aid, burial sites and markers, and ritual assistance. You find them via your funeral director, religious practitioner, long-term care institution’s social worker and its pastoral counselor, the Internet, membership organization leaders, family and friends, or the yellow pages.
However, did you know that anyone, clergy or layperson, licensed or not, even simply an articulate friend or family member, is permitted to conduct a funeral or memorial service, leaving the legalities and paper work to the licensed practitioner or funeral company? It’s merely traditional to have a clergyman.
And, if your person was an armed forces, law enforcement, firefighting, or similar service veteran, don’t overlook the available ceremonial offerings sponsored by their agencies and fraternals.
Stay tuned — More next time. Meanwhile, your ideas and comments?
Gary Newman is an actively retired life underwriter and practitioner of related family and small business financial security disciplines. He holds degrees from the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania and the American College of Life Underwriters, and is an emeritus member of the Washington, D.C. Estate Planning Council and several other professional societies. You can reach him at [email protected]