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Final acts

2/1/2000

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

 
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When the Rev. Vienna Cobb Anderson had to bury her mother, she did it with the same dramatic flair with which she does everything else. She put Vienna Amanda Louisa Cobb Anderson into the ground in a homemade pine box painted bright red, yellow and blue.

"It looks like an Egyptian sarcophagus," says Anderson of the coffin, which she had originally made for herself with the help of a local artist. She was working at the time for the St. Francis Center, a grief-counseling agency in Washington, D.C., which made available wooden coffins.

Anderson's desire to give her mother a beautiful casket was more than an act of love, however. It was also an expression of Anderson's unwillingness to accept standard American funeral procedures ... and prices. She wanted the freedom to create both symbol and ritual that would be individual and meaningful for herself and her family. She wanted, also, to do that at a reasonable cost.

It's a desire more and more Americans seem to be feeling as they join the advocacy organizations known as memorial societies -- more than 100 exist in the United States now -- and as they pressure the Federal Trade Commission to tighten rules governing funeral homes.

Some are ordering their own coffins from local carpenters. Others are handling all funeral arrangements themselves, relying on their churches to provide space for visiting hours and wakes in addition to the funeral. For all of them the experience of direct involvement is turning out to be positive and even helpful.

"I've never heard anyone say they regretted doing it," says Lisa Carlson, director of the national Funeral and Memorial Societies Association (FAMSA), a non-profit consumer-advocacy organization. When her husband died, Carlson handled everything; she calls the experience "therapeutic."

The colorful coffin in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Va., is still a help to Anderson, now associate rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Richmond. One of her joys, she says, "is going down to the cemetery and knowing what's under thatxx ground 6 feet is this bright, bright coffin. My mother was vivacious and it's so representative of her. So right."

High expectations

The major reason more than 500,000 people across the country and in Canada have joined memorial societies is the cost of funerals.
Thirty-six years ago, Jessica Mitford, best-selling author of "The American Way of Death," wrote: "The cost of a funeral is the third-largest expenditure, after a house and a car, in the life of an ordinary American family." Though less true today -- a college education costs far more -- funeral expenses still come too frequently as a shock to a bereaved family.

In their time of grief, the family will learn that casket, embalming, visiting hours, fees and mortuary services will total more than $5,000 even before they've purchased a cemetery plot, vault or marker. They are unlikely to start comparison shopping, nor are they likely to question their local undertaker too pointedly. They may not participate more than nominally even in planning the church services. As a result, the family may pay more than is necessary and may not receive the comfort and support they need.

Mitford, who died in 1996, before her best seller was updated and reissued, was appalled by that situation. Her vivid muckraking gave a boost to the already growing memorial society movement. Mitford viewed some of the practices of modern undertakers as manipulative and deceptive. She criticized the use of guilt as a sales tactic. She scorned the idea that what was being sold at such a high price was "a traditional American funeral." Tradition in this culture, Mitford said, was simplicity, dignity and the family's hands-on final care. She wanted to see more family involvement in all decisions.

Today, Mitford's crusade is being carried on by memorial society members across the country, many of them Episcopalians. They conduct price surveys and publish the results. They promote public education about alternatives, including cremation and donating organs for transplants or research. They provide newsletters and information about living wills and forms to name a durable power of attorney for health care. Some of them negotiate prices with local mortuaries or, like People's Memorial Association in Seattle, provide all the standard services at low cost. Memorial society members today are every bit as outspoken as Mitford.

"People don't realize what they are getting into," says Marion Nentwig, Episcopalian and chair of the Funeral and Memorial Society of Chattanooga, Tenn. "It's a mine field for the unalert consumer."

That mine field was the focus of an investigation by U.S. News and World Report in 1998. Researchers reported that funeral prices had been rising three times faster than the cost of living, that three big corporations owned 15 percent of American funeral homes (the figure is now 20 percent) and performed one in five American funerals.

Reporter Miriam Horn wrote, "[Funeral] chains often raise prices soon after acquiring an established independent home, sometimes upping fees more than 100 percent."

David Walkinshaw, spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) and owner of his own funeral home in Arlington, Mass., disputes Horn's claim. "I have not seen that," he says of the chains' price hikes. Of the rapid rise in prices, he counters that "one component may go up more than another component, but the bottom line, what the consumer actually has to pay, isn't going up over the rate of inflation."

According to the NFDA, a typical adult funeral in 1999 cost $5,020. That figure, posted on the group's Web site (http://www.nfda.org/), does not include the $2,000 to $4,000 or more for a cemetery plot, marker and vault.

The American Association of Retired Persons warns its members that prices of identical funerals can vary dramatically, even in the same area of the country. "If you live in the Atlanta area the [cost] could be $5,530 or $9,430. In Denver, it could be $6,680 to $9,972."


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