Thursday, March 19, 2009

Economy Hits the Funeral Industry

The Seattle Times has what I think is a fascinating article today about hard economic times hitting the funeral industry.

People are cutting back on the level of service they set up for deceased loved-ones, ornate details, things like that. Some are hosting receptions at their own homes instead of having catered events.

It makes sense. Why go into debt over a death? I can understand wanting to put on a grand last hurrah for someone you loved, but not to the point that it hurts your bottom line.

Maybe, this economy will help people question the funeral industry more.

There are a lot of unexpected costs associated with burial, funerals, receptions, etc. It can cost a lot more than family and friends anticipate it will. And I don't want to imply that those are necessarily inflated expenses, but sometimes, people are so stressed and emotional, they just sign away without really thinking about whether they want or need to pay for a certain expense. This could be a possible positive fallout of a bad economy.


Gail Rae said...

Here, here! Excellent post, excellent article! I love the last paragraph of the article, especially since it was recommended by a funeral director!
Although it was not the economy that caused my mother's funereal episode to actually cost $130 (that's right...just the cost of the death certificates), all of us sisters were extremely relieved about this. Let me explain, in case anyone's wondering or looking for hints as to how this happened and still allowed for a week long+, well attended celebration of her life and a dignified, honorable burial:
1. My mother donated her body to ScienceCare. This, in itself, costs nothing and includes cremation. Normally, in order to receive cremated remains (assuming there are any left) from ScienceCare, one has to pay around $40 for shipping. One of my sisters picked up my mother's remains at ScienceCare's Arizona headquarters, which is in her area. Thus, there was no charge for shipping.
2. My mother was a veteran and stipulated that she be buried at the same veteran's cemetery that houses my father's burial plaque. This service will take place later this year, when as many as possible are able to attend. The burial includes a ceremony with military honors, inurning and having my father's plaque inscribed with her information and is covered by the U.S. Military.
3. The urn that houses her ashes is the urn that housed my father's ashes before he was scattered at sea in a military funeral. This arrangement was a no brainer for us. It made sense to bring his urn to rest, with my mother's ashes, in the same area that houses his and her burial plaque.
4. My mother specified that she didn't want a funeral but wanted her survivors to "party on [her]". That's what we did, for a good week after her death, at Mom's and my home, the perfect place to celebrate her. As it turned out, the week previous to her death, anticipating that she would be alive for a good month longer than she was and definitely through the holidays, I'd replenished supplies, including food. Thus, although individuals occasionally provided a meal or food item here and there to their taste, it wasn't necessary for anyone to break their budget through partying and no one did. Everyone, by the way, slept at our house and used available cars to travel locally. I, personally, was grateful to be closely surrounded by family at this time.
5. Flowers were courtesy of my mother's friends and relatives who heard about her death and were moved to have them sent.
6. There were minimal travel expenses for certain relatives, which everyone had already figured into their budgets because these people had intended to visit over the holidays in order to help make what we knew would be Mom's last Christmas really special.
7. Since Mom and I had, over a month before she died, ordered excellent holiday food to be delivered between Thanksgiving and Christmas for holiday visitors and feasts we were anticipating and much of it showed up while family was here after her death, we even had extraordinary, special meals and the pleasure of knowing that we were eating exactly what Mom selected for the holidays. In addition, over Christmas I traveled down the mountain to one of my sister's homes where we enjoyed the bulk of the official (and scrumptious) Christmas meal exactly to my mother's taste...and had a true holiday celebration of her life (paid for well in advance of her death by Mom and me), which was distinctly appropriate, considering that my mother was Mrs. Christmas.
8. Since she left a will, a trust and there was no disagreement about division of her estate, no lawyer was needed to conduct probate. All death business was (and is being) handled at almost no cost by us sisters.

The four big cost cutters, obviously, were my mother's decision to donate her body to ScienceCare, her being a veteran, her specific instructions regarding celebrating her life and that she died during the holidays after she and I had already covered the expense of holiday partying. Even if we had had to purchase an urn and pay for shipping of her ashes, though, the chances are excellent that we would have been able to accomplish this for under $200. However, there are always ways to get around expenses and honor the dead appropriately if you are determined and creative. Some years ago, when a friend of ours died, I helped the daughter arrange a cut rate cremation directly with a crematorium in the city in which she lived: $395, including urn. During our visit to the crematorium we ran into a fellow who had just arranged his wife's cremation and was picking up her ashes. In order to cut costs, since she died and was pronounced (which he'd prearranged with her physician) at home, he transported her body himself to the crematorium. His plan, from that point, on, was to bury her urn in their back yard and hold a neighborhood memorial service/celebration which he arranged on his own and with which his neighborhood enthusiastically helped. In years-early anticipation of my mother's death (I was already her companion at this time), I asked the crematorium director if delivering the remains of a relative or friend under one's own steam was legal. He assured me that, at that time, in this state (Arizona), it is. He added that he provides body bags for this purpose. My mother and I used to joke about the possibility of me transporting her body to the crematorium after her death. My mother's preference was to have her sitting up and strapped into the passenger's seat, next to me, in the body bag. We would occasionally wonder if this would qualify me for using the HOV lane.
I, too, am relieved to hear that people may find, during these economic hard times, that if we cut to the chase when it comes to death it is possible not to experience any financial pressure or hardship as the result of honoring someone's life and signifying their death; and to be able to honor the deceased's wishes and satisfy the remaining family. It was accidental, for us, but there's no reason why it can't be done purposely.
I think it would be interesting to conduct a survey regarding what people wish in regard to their own deaths. I'm sure there are those (like Delilah in the 1934 version of "Imitation of Life") who would want a funereal extravaganza. Wouldn't it be interesting, though, to discover that many more people than we imagine feel exactly the same way as Carol Sauer's grandmother and my mother. While it's true, I know, that celebrations surrounding death are for the living, perhaps it's also true that if we know that our loved ones are not interested in breaking our banks through their death, we might be more inclined to consider that honor and celebration don't necessarily have to to be spelled $$$$,$$$.

Jessica Knapp said...

Hey Gail,

I have never even heard of that angle of donating your body to science. That is fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing that personal detail.

It sounds like you and your mother were very open about getting a lot of the details figured out in advance—which I guess I already know from reading your blog. But it's great that you were able to openly keep cost in mind. I know when my grandfather died, the cost came as a surprise to a lot of us. My mom has spend her career in health care, so many of the end-of-life issues, we had some guidance with. However, the funeral planning was all new territory. And it is overwhelming and expensive. Sounds like you guys used some real ingenuity!

Funeral Homes said...

It is really so bad? I know for sure the flower business is 20% down but people cannot stop dying.