By David Wilkening, Contributing Writer
BOSTON – The Boston-based Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts ― which has a lot of credibility because it is a non-profit, all-volunteer, educational consumer organization ― offers a nicely rhymed pamphlet titled, “Before I go, you should know.” And yes, it’s about a subject almost everyone tiptoes carefully around—our own demise.
Its subject, of course, is “everything” family and friends should know when planning a funeral. It also addresses the issue of prepaid funeral plans. Should you have one or not?
Pros and cons
There are arguments for it. Mainly made by representatives of the industry, such as the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). “You know what it’s going to cost. You are paying for your own funeral. So, you know what services you want, and that you’ll get them,” said Linda Earl, a spokesperson for NFDA and a funeral director with 38 years of experience.
There are other reasons as well. Pre-paying offers inflation protection. The cost will not go up. The money can go into an account only accessible on an individual’s death, available with a minimum of formalities.
Another important reason: sparing a family from hard choices during a difficult time.
“It also helps those who are left behind to grieve and to heal. They have so many decisions to make in a very short time period such as even finding a funeral home, and others,” Earl said.
Of course, there are disadvantages. Consumer groups cite them.
“We definitely suggest people not pay in advance but to plan in advance,” said Paula Chasan, membership secretary for the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts. The organization cites other issues, such as funeral homes going out of business prior to a planned future funeral date, among other reasons. Instead, it recommends practices such as an interest-bearing bank savings account for a funeral in lieu of prior payments.
Family care used to be common
In the history of funerals in early day America, they almost always involved care by families. Most people died at home. All that changed dramatically during the Civil War when hundreds of thousands of men died at unexpected young ages, often far from home. Smaller funeral parlors emerged, followed by national companies. But there were some instances of consumer abuses, sometimes endured by relatives using poor judgment and distracted by their losses. Funeral expenses also mounted.
A recent cost figure for a standard funeral home service was set at $7,000 to $12,000. Customary services included embalming, caskets, viewing and service fees, among others. That figure did not even include costs for a cemetery, monument, marker and other expenses such as flowers.
The NFDA reported that the national median cost of a funeral with a viewing and burial in 2021 was about $7,848. NFDA median figures for a funeral with cremation: $6,971.
Due to cost and environmental considerations, cremation numbers last year in the U.S. were projected to be 57.5 percent, while the burial rate was 36.6 percent, according to NFDA’s 2021 “Cremation and Burial Report.”
Cremation, while costing less, also offers greater flexibility. Cremated remains may be buried or scattered at a family’s convenience. They may also be incorporated into various art forms, placed in coral reef balls or even shot into space. On the other hand, cremations at temperatures of up to 1700 degrees also create a variety of air pollutants.
The so-called “Green burial” has gained a significant toehold as another choice. It uses only biodegradable materials. There is no embalming. Instead, a body is placed in a biodegradable container, such as a cardboard container and placed directly into the earth rather than a concrete outer burial container. The practice helps protect land preservation and restoration. In fact, it goes back to the Civil War days as a common practice.
Funeral homes offer all types of services
“Times are changing,” says the website at Boston’s Casper Funeral & Cremation Services. “While full, traditional funerals will always be sought and available, more and more individuals and families are turning to pre-planning a combination of cremation and a meaningful celebration-of-life ‘service’ or an eco-friendly green burial.”
Owner Joe Casper’s facility is similar to others in offering all types of services, but he said cremation has been growing in popularity. He offers what is believed to be the lowest cremation price in the state: The “simplicity” service for $1395. “There are no other costs, and no hidden or other fees,” he said. It is illegal for funeral homes in Massachusetts to operate crematories, so the price also includes the use of licensed crematories in the state.
Planning for your own funeral to maintain control, get lower prices and not get cheated is not an idea expressed just by consumer groups. It’s almost a universal notion.
“More and more people today are choosing to pre-plan their own or a loved one’s funeral as an alternative to having others make the decisions for them,” said the National Funeral Directors Association on its web site.
But other consumer groups, such as the national Funeral Consumers Alliance, make the point that not paying beforehand is a good practice in part because of another reason: possible dishonest practices.
Jim Couchon, a trustee and vice president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Western Massachusetts, can cite various abuses, such as a Boston man whose pre-paid funeral cost several thousand dollars. When he died, the funeral home could find no record of it. But the issue was resolved when a cancelled check was found.
“No. that’s not common. But the family was upset about it. And you don’t want it to happen to you,” he said.