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January 5th, 2009
Freethought San Marcos: Saving on the inevitable during hard times

Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR HANKINS

Beginning a new year facing an extraordinary economic downturn has caused many of us to think back to the Great Depression, which formed the character of my parent’s generation. Perhaps the most famous lyrics to come out of that depression were written by Yip Harburg:

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

A dime is not worth what it used to be and times are hard financially for many of us now. This is especially so if you have to pay for a funeral. Although death is inevitable, spending a small fortune to be interred, cremated, and/or memorialized is not. If you think it’s hard to pay an $800 mortgage, imagine facing an $8,000 funeral and cemetery bill. Nationally, the average cost of a full-service funeral is running between $6,500 and $7,000. Graveside fees can easily tack on a few thousand more. Now, more than ever, the way we care for the dead can have a serious impact on the living.

Because Americans don’t like to talk about dying, they are generally ill prepared when it comes time to make funeral arrangements. Many of us of feel “cheap” if we balk at the price on a casket that costs more than our last set of living-room furniture. Surely this is no time to skimp?  It’s time to break such taboos if we want to keep the cost of dying from bankrupting the living.

Fortunately, we have more control over funeral costs than many people realize. A few simple tips can help grieving people maintain control and ensure bereavement doesn’t break our bank accounts.

1. Instead of a “full-service” funeral, choose immediate burial, a graveside service, or direct cremation followed by a religious or secular memorial service held almost anywhere people can gather together. This choice can reduce funeral costs by 75%. Or choose a reasonably-priced funeral home for 50% savings over average costs. If all services are held at a facility available in the community (i.e., church, community center, park, home, lodge building), the funeral home does not need to be in one’s neighborhood, or even in one’s town or city.

2. Avoid embalming and viewing of the body in the funeral home’s “slumber room,” a practice promoted by many funeral directors as essential to the grief process. Instead, display pictures and mementos of the deceased at a gathering where sharing and visiting can occur that focuses on the memories of the deceased, rather than on an elaborately displayed body. (Embalming is not required by Texas law for any reason, and it has no public health benefits that have been recognized by any public health authority. Although the industry uses embalming to increase funeral costs dramatically by appealing to a person’s desire to preserve and protect the body, it merely slows natural decomposition. Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005, was not embalmed, but his body was viewed in public and private – though not at a funeral home – during the six days before his burial in a wooden coffin.)

3. If you need a casket, choose the least expensive available and cover it with a flag, the deceased’s favorite quilt, a religious shroud, or other cloth. The looks of the casket will be unimportant and the money saved can be put to a use significant to the deceased and survivors. (Remember, consumers can buy a casket from any source or supply their own homemade one without incurring any additional funeral home fees or charges.)

4. Don’t be led to believe that the more spent on the funeral or the casket, the greater the love felt for the deceased. Most funeral directors have always been sales people. Often, funeral directors appeal to feelings of guilt, family pride, and social status to persuade consumers to spend lavishly.

5. Become informed consumers now. The funeral industry has depended on the fact that most consumers avoid thinking about death and its trappings until they are in the throes of grief just after the death of a loved one. Such feelings can make anyone vulnerable to exploitation. If faced with this situation, take along a trusted friend for assistance–one who is able to be less emotionally involved with the dozens of decisions to be made and who can give sound advice and help.

6. Check out religious questions with your minister, priest, rabbi, pastor, or other religious leader, rather than with the funeral director.

7. Shop around — funeral costs can vary by thousands of dollars in the same city. The last funeral cost survey compiled by AMBIS, the local affiliate of Funeral Consumers Alliance, showed full-service funerals in the Austin area range from $3,050 to $9,604, while simpler burials range from $1,050 to $3,725, and cremations range from $725 to $3,015. The complete 2008 survey can be viewed at: http://fcaambis.org/docs/2008_AMBIS_Survey_11x17.pdf

8. Exercise your “last rights” —  federal and state regulations require funeral homes to give prices over the phone, and to give you a detailed price list the minute you ask about funeral arrangements. Don’t wait. Pick up several price lists today and compare them at home before a death in the family.

We’re facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and a lot of us recall the wisdom of our parents and grandparents when they told us how they survived. When cost clashes with reality, it’s an opportunity to remember we can’t put a price tag on the important things in life, or death. Whether we spend one dollar or 10,000, we don’t love or mourn our dead any more or less. A potluck memorial service at home or at church can be just as comforting, and honor the dead just as fully, as visiting hours at the funeral home.

Another consumer-friendly organization, the AARP, has this to say about making funeral arrangements. Some providers may try to:

  • shame you
  • make you feel guilty
  • make it hard for you to choose a lower-cost alternative

Buy only what you planned. The amount you spend on a funeral is not a reflection of your feelings for the deceased.

Funeral costs don’t have to be the third — or fourth — largest expense of your life unless that is what you want. You may not be facing a bread line in today’s economy, but you may need to cut back. It’s good to know that you can do so on life’s last expense without dishonoring your loved one.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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