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Families face a host of options about final decisions


Sean Collins
The Adams Memorial, 1885, by Augustus Saint Gaudens.   (Sean Collins)

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Rhea McCandliss never expected to live to age 91. Nor to die with only $25 left in her savings account.

As one of the last remaining charter members of St. David's Episcopal Church in Topeka, Kan., the former landscape designer had been a beloved personage. So when she died, and her few remaining friends learned that, despite a prepaid funeral plan and plot, there was no way to cover the $550 needed to inter her ashes, they turned to the church.

St. David's was ready. Its beautiful, new, outdoor grass and brick columbarium, completed in 1991, received the never-married Miss McCandliss gladly, waiving the usual $250 contract fee.

"It was so important," says Ceil Marshall, a St. David's member who had befriended the aging Miss McCandliss. "Rhea had seen the churchyard and she thought it was wonderful." After "a sweet service," Rhea McCandliss was buried "in a white paper bag inside a white box" just as all the other residents of "St. David's Churchyard" have been, said Marshall. "It cost absolutely nothing."

After death decision

For Rhea McCandliss, church friends were there to step in when she died. In most cases after a death, it is the family who must make those arrangements. They face four key sets of decisions:

  1. What to do with the body
  2. What services and merchandise to purchase
  3. What ceremony or ritual will best acknowledge the death and celebrate the life
  4. How to memorialize the life

The Funeral Information Project (FIP), conducted in 1996 by the Center on Aging at the University of Kansas Medical Center, describes how and at what cost each of those decisions might be made. Information from the project's study, described in "A Guide for Families," is incorporated in what follows.

The body

There are four choices about what to do with the body: burial, entombment, cremation and body donation.

Burial means that the body, in some sort of casket, will be placed in a grave plot, perhaps with an outer burial container. The average cost reported by families in the FIP study was $6,500 and included both funeral home and cemetery costs. The range was from $730 to $14,000. Costs will be higher now, four years later, and will vary widely across the country.

Entombment, placing the body in a casket and then in an above-ground crypt, costs about the same as burial.

Cremation, dehydrating the body by extreme heat, then crushing the remaining bones and fragments, is an option chosen by 23 percent of Americans today, according to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA). The average cost reported to the FIP study was $2,300, including funeral home and crematory costs, and ranged from $640 to $6,275.

Working directly with the crematory, not through the funeral home, can reduce costs considerably. There are 1,366 crematories in the United States. To locate the one closest to you, call CANA at 312-644-6610. Local cremation societies, like memorial societies, can help advise consumers. Unlike the memorial societies, however, they are not non-profit.

Donating the body for teaching or research purposes is possible through local medical schools. Most, but not all, medical schools pay for nearby transportation as well as embalming and final disposition. At the conclusion of use, the school will cremate the remains and return them to the family if requested. The cost of donation can be the cost of transportation from the place of death to the medical school. Families in the FIP study reported costs of $145 to $500.

Organ donation for transplant is also possible. The state of the body will determine usefulness. Some conditions, like contagious diseases, obesity, trauma, recent surgery or emaciation will make it impossible. Corneas, even of elderly persons, are welcomed. It is important to remember that a body from which organs have been removed will not be accepted for medical study, however, and the family will have to arrange burial or cremation.

A list of U.S. medical schools that accept bodies is posted on the internet. If there is no medical school in your state, call the National Anatomical Service (800-727-0700), which will transport cadavers for various medical schools.

The services

Most families choose to work with a funeral home and purchase services and merchandise, such as a casket, through that home.

The average cost of this today is $5,000 with an additional $2,000 to $4,000 or more for cemetery costs. There are other options, however. Families can choose to handle all details themselves, dealing directly with crematory or cemetery, using church, home or other venue for visiting hours, personally obtaining a death certificate and permit to move the body. Or they can use funeral homes for only those services they prefer to have handled professionally, such as embalming. Embalming is not required for cremation or direct burial in most cases.

Fran Miner, an Episcopalian in Billings, Mont., handled everything herself when her mother died in 1995. It was not an easy process. All along the way people questioned whether she was "allowed" to do it. The nursing home said she couldn't move the body. "The funeral people said I couldn't do it." Even the coroner's office, at first, said "Forget it." The County Records Office refused her a death certificate.

"I called back the coroner's office and a different man said 'Sure you can do it'" and helped her. He then said the same to the nursing home and the county offices who gave her the blank death certificate to have filled out. Finally, Miner and her sons were able to transport her mother to the crematory in a cardboard box that Miner lined and decorated herself with pink satin.

"I beat the system and I took care of my mother ... I stood up to everybody ... I was so determined to do this," said Miner, who had spent the last days holding and singing to her mother and wanted to finish her task.

The merchandise

Individuals may buy caskets from local carpenters, the major manufacturers or over the Internet and have them shipped.

Simple pine boxes can cost $200 to $300 and be air-freighted by next-day service anywhere in the country for $200 to $250. It will cost less if there is more time. The cardboard box that Fran Miner used for her mother's cremation cost $75 from the funeral home. Similar boxes -- "two-piece, Kraft-colored, double-walled corrugated cremation containers" -- are available by mail for $25 from Jack Frediani Products in Twain Harte, Calif., 209-586-4116.

Peter Hill at the Frugal Yankee Coffin Co. in Sunapee, N.H., who believes "the expensive casket money should go to the kids," makes a sanded-finish, native white pine box with rope handles for $350 -- $450 if it's "coffin-shaped" (wide at the shoulders, tapered at the feet).

"A lot of people" are buying coffins well in advance of need, using them at home as "coffee table, blanket chest, linen closet, book shelves, stereo cabinets," said Hill.

The federal Funeral Rule, as amended in 1994, prohibits funeral homes from charging a fee for caskets purchased elsewhere or from requiring consumers to buy certain funeral goods and services as a condition for furnishing other goods and services. To find a discount casket retailer near you, call the National Casket Retailer's Association at 847-662-4664.

Cemetery merchandise and services are not yet regulated by federal rules, though there is a move to extend the Funeral Rule to cover cemeteries. "Cemeteries have enormous flexibility in setting their own policies and prices," according to the Funeral Information Project. They can require burial vaults or liners to prevent the earth from sinking around the grave, and these can range in price from $400 for a simple unsealed liner to $15,000 or more for a bronze vault. Costs for a "plot" can range from several hundred dollars to $1,500 or more. Opening and closing a grave in "a typical city cemetery" ranges from $200 to $800, according to the FIP. Granite markers or monuments will cost from $500 to $15,000.

The ceremony

A well-planned funeral or memorial service should meet two important goals: It should "deliver the dying into God's hands with care and dignity ... and assure that those who are left behind are able to carry on without unnecessary emotional damage because their grief has been glossed over." Associated Parishes, an organization of laity and clergy focused on liturgy and mission, makes that observation in its booklet "The Burial of the Dead: A Commentary".

Those goals can be met whether the body is present for the service or not, whether it is to be donated for science, cremated or buried.
As Lisa Carlson explains to families who call seeking guidance from the Funeral and Memorial Societies of America (FAMSA), "Two events usually happen at a time of death. One is the timely disposition of the body. The other is the commemoration of the life that was lived. If you can separate these two events, you have a great deal more flexibility in the timing and planning for the commemorative event."

"When you are dealing with a body-present funeral, everything happens within just a few days. If you plan a memorial service without the body present, you can plan it on a weekend and out-of-town guests [could be present.]" Carlson suggests "having a visitation with no casket. You can hold that in the social hall of the church. You could have an open house at your home. You could have it at an art gallery, as one of our members did."

By separating body disposition from commemoration, families may not need the involvement of the funeral home for any services and could, instead, plan the memorial service with their clergy and with their family.

Associated Parishes, in its "Burial of the Dead" commentary, reminds Episcopalians that "according to the rubrics [of the Book of Common Prayer], the church expects the funeral service to take place in the parish church 'at a time when the congregation has opportunity to be present.' A service at a funeral home or a service at an hour when most parishioners are at work offends the church by preventing it from celebrating."

The Associated Parishes' commentary points out that the vigil or "wake" can be an important time for friends and family, combining "elements of prayer, mourning, social reunion and sometimes even frivolity." The vigil can take place at the funeral home, the home of the deceased or the church. The parish church "is superior to all other places" for the wake, according to the AP commentary and "offers parishioners the chance to minister to the family in their grief and provide food and drink for visitors." Food and drink are not permitted in funeral homes.

Marion Nentwig, Episcopalian and president of the Funeral and Memorial Society of Chattanooga, Tenn., also feels strongly about church involvement.

"The church is where the people should have memorial services ... or funerals. The church should reassert itself in terms of aiding and helping people to make decisions," says Nentwig. "I don't think the priests do enough to dissuade people from paying these enormous prices, to suggest there are alternatives ... I think the church should come in and make the funeral directors stop calling the process they use traditional. It isn't. It's for their profit. ... [They say] 'We take care of everything, one package deal' ... and the church is left out of it. Very often."

Memorializing the life

The Funeral Information Project notes that although some people spend a great deal of money on final arrangements out of a sense of guilt or love, there are many ways to keep the memory of a loved one alive that cost very little. Project authors offer these suggestions:

  • Write a detailed obituary (a gold mine for genealogy researchers).
  • Compile a detailed funeral program (consider including photos).
  • Make a video, including photos or slides of his/her life.
  • Donate money or time to a favorite community group, charity, religious institution or research organization.
  • Plant a tree or a rose bush at a local church or park.
  • Establish a scholarship or book fund at a local school or college.
  • Write a story summarizing how the person has affected your life and share it with family and close friends.

Associated Parishes' commentary points out that the liturgical calendar provides several days for remembering loved ones. "For a Christian the most important of these is Nov. 1, All Saints Day, the feast of all the people of God, known and unknown."
Families may also want to observe the following day, commonly called All Souls', as another appropriate time "to pray for the familial dead."