Gary Newman is 88 years old. He’s had a long career in financial and estate planning and insurance, with credentials like Certified Life Underwriter®. He’s taught Osher Institute classes on end-of-life planning. He’s written newspaper columns on planning ahead. So why, in 2020, did he decide to undo his funeral plans, put in place years ago?
Here’s Gary’s story, in his own words:
Now, at 88, un-prearrange and un-prepay my funeral? — Huh???!!! Why???!!!
Despite Certified Thanatologist Gail Rubin’s quip, “Despite great advances in medical care, humans do still have a 100% mortality rate,” do I fantasize that I’m immortal?
Rather, consistent with the Pennsylvania Dutch proverb (or is it Yiddish, or both?), “Mit alt cumt schmart! — With age comes wisdom!” — now that I’m “alter“, maybe I’ve mellowed into “schmarter.” You, too?
Besides that, the counselors and the psych docs also would tell me that late-lifers are especially vulnerable to life’s changing realities, inevitably evolving and mutating over time. You’d tell me that, too, right?
Can we admit that, as we grow “alter” (older) we become change-averse “rigider”? We don’t have much remaining tolerance or time to adapt to change, to re-shape our hide-bound rigid mind-sets, to deal with unwelcome new developments. Re-structure our rosy-bubble change-resistant superannuated comfort zones? — Who, us?
A decade ago, I pre-arranged and pre-paid — the whole feel-good package:
- The bundle of customary traditional sacred rituals, observed by countless generations, despite my religious non-observance, but out of deep respect for my people’s heritage.
- A full-featured main-chapel traditional service, to heart-throb the scores of sure-to-attend family, friends, associates, clients, even creditors.
- The customary and expected memorable and philosophical eulogy-sermon by the family’s and community’s revered rabbi.
- A convoy of mourners-filled limousines chapel-to-cemetery.
- Then, nearly the whole thing all over again at graveside.
- And then, the return convoy.
Another feel-good: I chose the small, respected, home-town one-of-us funeral director that our family and many other multi-generation local families traditionally had engaged many times, rather than one of the many funeral companies absorbed by the dominant impersonal national chain.
Why Gary Changed His Plans
After a lifetime of degreed, credentialed experience with estate affairs, you’d figure that my own plan would be clairvoyantly infallible. Well, here’s a real-life “However”: After that decade’s mellowing, learning, introspecting, and life-living, I now realize that my feel-good clairvoyance actually has decomposed.
I’ve outlived most of those family, friends, clients, and creditors. And, most of the still-living have joined the 21st-century metamorphosis away from religious ritual, and away from family togetherness.
Many have abandoned home-town living and working, migrating hundreds or thousands of miles away. Even my revered Rabbi couldn’t be there, either; he’s retired, on a multi-year study residence in Israel, and grounded by the pandemic travel lockdown there.
It seems to me that feel-good foresight can decompose into feel-guilty hindsight for one reason alone, even if nothing else: the Covid-19 pandemic!
We’re catching on to its realities, aren’t we? Even the most cherished and magnificent pre-plans can’t perform well, indeed if at all, now and for the foreseeable future.
We’re realizing that it will prevent and severely limit travel and group-togetherness for a very long time. Self-isolation and social distancing are paramount. Those who feel compelled to attend a “wouldn’t even think of missing it” funeral pageant that’s regardlessly being held, must risk painful and fatal infection. And, at least in my age group, most “I’ve got to be there” funeral-goers are among the most vulnerable and already-impaired elderly.
I should continue to mandate that funerial exposition for myself during this pandemic? Wow!….Speaking of feeling guilty!
Besides, picture this: A masked/gloved/goggled/robed surrogate officiator, looking like the Grim Reaper, presiding over a nearly-alone ritually-anointed funeralee in a virtually unattended auditorium and cemetery, and a parade of nearly empty limos, all while the cost meter for all of the pageantry keeps running!
Traditions and Changes in Funerals
Tradition(?): Besides, aren’t we discovering that, like many “right thing to do” traditional mores, at-death practices continue to mutate away from traditional full-featured funerials? Now there’s more direct burial or cremation, perhaps with unstructured, heartfelts-intimate, quiet gatherings at home and at graveside.
Numerous families now prefer simple, eco-friendly “green” funerals, alkaline hydrolysis, or whole-body donation, with or without ceremonials. Some opt for other new ideas, such as online virtual observances, simple or elaborate, traditional, innovative, “green” and what else have you and your folks thought of?
Many of us welcome the alternatives’ cost-savings, too, desirably re-directing the precious thousands of dollars to help cover the estate-devouring cost of the mid-21st-century’s longer and sicker late-life.
Wisdom: Funeral directors, family counselors, and thanatologists can be knowledgeable, compassionate, helpful members of our professional estate planning and administration teams.
They contribute wisdom, such as the knowledge that pre-payment escrowed funds are exempt from Social Security and Medicaid means tests, and that prepayment protects the family from having to “front” the expenses. They advise that pre-arranging and pre-paying provide the family the gifts of freedom from conflict and argument, the burden of deciding and negotiating, and bothersome attention to details and arrangements, all at a time of deep anguish.
Family Changes Over Time
Sound, compassionate wisdom, yes? And maybe perfect for your case. But disruptive animosity pervades many loved ones’ mourning. What about the realities of conflict and friction among those who feel antagonized by one another? Will our mandates compel them to relate to each other, suffering anguish, making the stress and burdens worse, not better?
Can we bring ourselves to realize and accept that vexing, cruel reality? Can’t we instead dis-vex and dis-cruel, by specifying only the necessities — and concurrently giving everyone the freedom to have whatever other activities they want, to pre-plan or just be spontaneous, and in their own comfortable ways and times? And, our estates can cover all of the costs. Oh, how relieved everyone will be!
The Money in Pre-Planning
The money’s workplace: True it is, that pre-arranging and pre-paying lock in the costs, thus insulating us from price inflation over the remaining years until we die. Indeed, that happened — sixty percent! — in my mom’s case during the 1980s and 1990s.
But, looking back, not so in her not-so-clairvoyant son’s case in the 2010s — far, far less than sixty percent.
Objectively, let’s emphasize that prepayments are escrowed, and are in FDIC-insured bank CDs, assuring availability when needed. Thus, my $8,250.00 crept upward to a guaranteed and liquid $9,218.18 over the term. But, whoa! — that’s at a ten-year average of merely 1.05 percent per year. And, the rate’s down to a mere 0.45 percent now and foreseeably ahead.
Ironically, over that decade, almost anyone who can discipline one’s self to create a dedicated account and to keep it sacred, could have netted ‘way more in safe, diversified, liquid, investments. Even greater success, now and over the foreseeable future, could happen with the help of a financial professional. Yeah, we’ll have to pay taxes on the earnings, but we had to in the pre-pay escrow bank account, anyway.
But, let’s beware! Financial-psych gurus confirm the reality that success happens only if one is among the few investors who are mega-self-disciplined. They’re the ones who don’t yield to the temptation to invade this sacred asset for any reason, even for a retirement paradise down-payment, a “sure thing insider” stock deal, or even an uninsured hospital bill. Is that you?
Some of us prefer to pre-arrange, but to self-fund, out-of-pocket or via dedicated investments. That’ll work for those who can succeed at it.
A better idea, one that costs nothing: We don’t have to scrounge up the money for our final-expense funds, if we instead re-dedicate a part of our no-longer-needed life insurance. That beats cash surrendering it, incurring income tax on the “gain”, and losing the income tax deferment on its cash value growth, its value guarantees, its liquidity, and its probate-bypass blessings. If it’s a long-standing quality cash-value policy, its beneficial contractual options opportune us to continue it at, or nearly at, its full face value without ever paying any more into it.
Gary’s Lessons for Us All
So, yes, we can become “schmart”, and can handle the evolving realities. Agreed?
Over the decade’s time, those feel-goods and guilty-if-I-don’ts have indeed decomposed, suffering serious reality evolution that has obsoleted my package. Straight-talk reasoning with myself: “Hey, myself, now there are big, serious, ugly problems. Despite my comfort-zone rigidities, I gotta admit it. Get real! Fix them! And do it now, procrastinator!”
In light of all of that, to remedy all of the uglies, I did!
Did what? I requested, and my funeral company and the bank, both fortunately still alive and vigorous, granted cancellation and refund — expediently and graciously, even though the law’s cancel/refund chapter requires neither expediency, nor graciousness.
Then, I created a new, harmonious, simple mandate, via a do-it-myself simple letter of instruction and a legacy letter (a.k.a. ethical will). It didn’t need a legal process, although any needed attorney attention and documentary amendments or codicils would have been more than worth the time, work, and expense.
Now my fiduciaries, aided by the info and ‘druthers that I also furnish, are directed simply to plain-pine-box me away, unceremoniously and expediently, into Beloved’s and my burial plot. Equally important, everyone also is to be encouraged and funded to do whatever and whenever they’re spirited to do in memory and celebration of my life.
Gone, too, is the concern about the small home-town funeral company not being there for me at some distant future date when needed; any funeral company is OK for this, including it. Cost is minimal too, a thousand or three, even if inflation-impacted.
And, the $9,218.18 now happily thrives in a safe, designated, diversified multi-investment account that will more than cover the costs. It also will fund those subsequent observances that loved ones decide to have, whatever, wherever and whenever safe and comfortable. Incidentally, they’ll realize that the more they spend, the less they’ll inherit.
Yes, sometimes it is OK for tradition to yield to reality.
Now, surely the new plan will work well — at least, we all hope so. And, oh well, if it doesn’t, I’ll just re-clairvoyant it again.
BTW: I’ll welcome, and be honored by, your feedback: [email protected]
Thank you for your insights, Gary!