On The Road To Kingdom Come: Final Planning

Most begin the New Year almost precisely where we left the old year. Same for you, same for me. Sure we pause during that small sliver of time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. We reflect, evaluate priorities, and baseline ourselves to our’ true north.’ After much reflection, we begin where we left off. A friend’s resolution was to start anew, to ‘cease and desist’ she proclaimed. She vowed never to read another romance novel. Late evening of January 1st, I received the following text, “I failed.” Another promised to purchase all leftover 2020 calendars and burn them. Unsure if that resolution is achievable, I touted, “Good Luck. Oh. You can have mine for starters.” Then there are business resolutions. One user posted, “Put on a full outfit for Zoom calls (although business-on-top-PJs-below never hurt anyone).” Large or small, everyone has a list of to-do’s from the prior year. And that’s usually where we usually start.

A lingering to-do from 2020 was ‘funeral planning.’ I will be upfront, it’s damn complicated. Do I plan to consider any possible variable, including travel, car accidents, COVID-19, meteorites, sudden ice age, or some other weird or strange incident? Do I go for a simple funeral (cremation), with instructions to be dispersed alongside a highway ditch? I couldn’t decide. But before Christmas, I contacted a national funeral service, a so-called national cremation service. The upshot is that for a mere $3 grand, one can obtain an effortless cremation, urn (i.e., fiberglass box), a death certificate, and some potential assistance with veterans death benefit and a few other trinkets. ‘Funeral in a Box,’ I coined it. I liken it to a fast-food drive-thru, “Welcome to happy-ever-after-land. How can I help you?” “Yes, I would like funeral combo 1, extra tears, and a side order of a small band, please.” 

I found that there is and there is not a lot of information on funeral planning. When I started my research, I thought a cremation would be relatively easy, straight-forward, rather matter of fact. It isn’t. Many funeral homes fail to post services and associated prices on their websites. This makes it extremely difficult to compare prices. By law, funeral homes must disclose costs either over the telephone or in writing when customers request, but they aren’t required to post prices online. Advocacy groups say it creates problems for consumers, as issues are heightened by grief and distress families suffer. Because of the stress, only one in five consumers compare funeral services, even though funeral expenses can be significant. There’s little pressure for prices to remain low, for funeral expenses have outpaced inflation since the mid-1980s.

While some funeral planning information is available, that information is often convoluted, often disorganized, and somewhat complicated. One can have a no-frills straight cremation to cremation with wake, memorial service, and disposition at sea (or wherever) type of service. Options are endless. A simple box is included in the cremation. I have seen (via the web) urns costing thousands. I was stunned (but not surprised) to learn I could purchase an urn from Amazon. And should you wish to carry a part of your loved one with you, there are ‘urn necklaces.’ A friend once mentioned he dated someone with such a necklace. “Oh, that’s a beautiful necklace,” commented my friend. “Yes. These are a small part of my father’s ashes. He is always with me.” “Oh,” he awkwardly stated. “Well, gee. Look at the time. The afternoon completely got away from me. Gotta go.” Not claiming anything against urn necklaces, but my friend claimed to be ‘weirded out’ and couldn’t recover.

Research also took me to Amazon. They have caskets too, anything from natural wood, metal, coffins for the fisherman, caskets for veterans (with associated service emblem), caskets laced in gold costing thousands, to caskets costing less than a thousand. If both pet and loved one’ cash out’ at the same time, you can purchase a pet casket as well. Technically speaking, survivors could mix ashes of fluffy and loved one and place them in a single urn necklace or two urn necklaces, one for both. Upon being asked, “Yes,” this is Lil’ Fluffy and George (or Georgette). They are always with me.” and again, the response might be, “Well, gee. Look at the time. Gotta go.”

When first speaking to the national chain agent, he was a little taken back. I did not have a sense of bitterness, victimization, or defeatism. At age 61, I did not comment about premature death (to which I don’t believe I am experiencing). I didn’t complain about any clinician failure (which I know of). I neither discussed how educated I was about my ailments nor how I languish, seemingly trapped within a pained body. Instead, I was calm. “I’m the client,” I calmly explained. “I could die tomorrow, next month, or next year(s). Doctors told me a year. I am researching funerals and end of life planning.” The agent proceeded through a high-level set of preplanning options. I could begin with an essential service of $2,700. If you can’t prepay it, you can establish an account for as little as $50 a month until the full $2,700 is paid (54 months, which by the way, is outside my life expectancy). Sounds great, but there are caveats.

As I mentioned, research is critical. A funeral service may have issues. For instance, a 2019 State of California lawsuit claims that “the Service Corporation International subsidiaries deceive purchasers of a standard package of cremation and merchandise, typically costing $2500, by leading them to believe that all of their money is refundable.” (Patch.com references the same information.) The unfair business practices lawsuit asks for civil fines and court orders requiring the companies to put the full amount collected in the past into trusts and to stop the allegedly deceptive practices. In 2017, SCI was accused of high-pressure sale tactics and follow-up phone calls in which a salesperson seeks pre-arranged funeral services or referrals for other potential businesses. I hate to say it; a funeral is a funeral. 

In a 2015 New Yorker article, a field representative for the California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau stated, “The funeral industry doesn’t change a lot—it’s been around for a long time,” he said. “Everybody tries to reinvent the wheel. Well, let me tell you something. The wheel has already been invented. O.K.—there are little permutations that can be done to the business model, but by and large, the idea is to dispose of dead bodies.”

I have no idea if the allegations against SCI are true or resolved. I presume these matters are on hold until post-COVID. Hopefully, I can gather answers to some of the concerns expressed in these litigations and whether they’ve been resolved. My point is simply this: Research. I know the death of any loved one is torturous. It is excruciating. Just don’t sign a contract with the first funeral service you have met. Ideally, everyone should preplan. Many don’t. 

Need to perform research? You can start here:

  • AARP: AARP is a United States-based interest group focusing on issues affecting those over fifty.
  • FCA: Funeral Consumers Alliance is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral. The FCA has a sublink to find a local group (by state) and information on cremation costs (albeit 2017). Unfortunately, not all funeral businesses provided information. Some states have price surveys, and others do not.
  • Grieving Alone & Together: e-Booklet from Remembering a Life. Has up to date information on grieving and COVID-19.
  • Often, hospital social workers or hospice staff can direct families to be excellent and affordable services. However, perform that research just before or at the time someone enters hospice.



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