Woody Allen may have said it all for some of us: "I'm not afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens."
For those who want to skip the funeral, the least expensive and most socially useful method of handling the disposition of your earthly remains is to donate your body to a local medical school and then request that your survivors hold a private memorial service. This procedure won't cost a cent.
Many of us, even though we'd prefer a little more fuss, are turned off by the thought of--and expense--involved in a traditional funeral.
To determine the various options available, I recently spent some time "funeral shopping," not only for those who wish to plan ahead, but for anyone suddenly faced with the task of arranging a funeral.
It isn't easy, but one can become an informed consumer in the purchase of what Federal Trade Commission statistics indicate is the third most expensive item, after a home and an automobile, that most of us will ever make. (The National Funeral Directors Association estimates that the average funeral in 1980 cost about $2,500, excluding cemetery charges.)
The first thing necessary, of course, in planning ahead is to overcome the psychological barriers. To help in this, the 13-million-member American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has published an excellent booklet, "It's Your Choice" by Tom Nelson.
Other good news is that price information and other guidance are fairly easily obtainable in the Washington area. Also, area costs seem to be below the national norm because of the highly competitive nature of the business here.
I either telephoned or visited 10 funeral homes, representing a cross-section of area establishments:, large, small, expensive, cut-rate, Catholic, Jewish, non-denominational. Only one refused to disclose its charges over the telephone. None tried to pressure me into considering more expensive options than those I inquired about.
The least expensive funeral is immediate cremation, involving only removal to a crematory, return of ashes to survivors and no funeral-home services of any kind. Cost: about $250 to $774. The least costly burial option: removal of remains and delivery to cemetery in minimal-cost casket, again with no funeral-home service. The lowest charge quoted, $400; the highest, $989.
A "no-frills" traditional funeral, which involves transporting the remains, embalming and open-casket viewing at the funeral home, ranged from $750 to $1,616 among homes contacted. Another commonly selected option is a closed-casket funeral service, followed by either burial or cremation, which generally costs about $200 less than the traditional funeral.
This wide range of charges for similar services was found both among homes catering to particular racial or religious groups (who might require or prohibit certain practices, such as cremation), as well as others. None of the prices included cemetery costs--averaging about $1,000--which can be avoided altogether only with cremation.
Many publications and guides give help in making informed purchase decisions. Besides the AARP book, which also contains a check list of various funeral-related items available, five area memorial societies offer prearrangement information, including lists of area homes that have agreed to provide low-cost services.
One particularly useful guide: "Planning Ahead" by Susan Cohen of the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs, which discusses all elements of funeral planning and includes a form on which specific desires can be listed to guide survivors in making arrangements.
Now for the bad news. Even with price information and planning guides, most purchasers will have difficulty choosing the type of funeral service they desire.
The main source of difficulty lies with the way the funeral business is commonly practiced in the D.C. area and elsewhere. This is not to suggest that funeral directors are either unethical or out to rip you off. The majority have simply not felt it necessary to modernize their business practices to meet the needs of today's consumer-oriented society.
A purchaser is generally offered some sort of "package" of services and then must decide which are not wanted; most directors will remove major undesired items from the bill.
For example, the unit price for a traditional funeral involving burial rather than cremation includes embalming, even though embalming is not required by law in the District, Maryland or Virginia. If there is no open-casket viewing and burial will occur within 48 hours, there is no reason to incur the approximately $200 embalming cost.
Not one director I spoke with volunteered this information, although most were willing to deduct the charge from the unit price after I raised the issue.
Even the small items included routinely in the unit price (pallbearers' gloves, registration book, newspaper notices, acknowledgement cards) add up. And frankly, even I, as hard-nosed a "shopper" as any funeral director is likely to encounter, was reluctant to ask for a reduction for items I didn't want. A grief-stricken family, having to make major decisions in a short time, would be considerably less likely to quibble.
"People just don't know what their rights are," says Cohen, "and often are ashamed to complain."
Another major problem facing the funeral purchaser is the lack of legal protection against unscrupulous directors. There are no laws in the District, Maryland or Virginia, for example, which require specific permission to embalm or prohibit misrepresentation of the protective nature of caskets. (Any reputable director will admit that no type of casket material or construction will prevent eventual decomposition, yet there are "guaranteed" caskets on display for $5,000; those not bearing the label go for about $1,500.)
The District, along with 12 states, has no regulations governing the business practices of funeral homes, although the City Council is considering such legislation.
The Federal Trade Commission, after 10 years of study, has proposed a rule requiring price-itemization of services and merchandise, and prohibiting misrepresentation of legal and cemetery requirements as well as unfair practices like requiring caskets for direct cremation.
Not unexpectedly, the National Funeral Directors Association has been lobbying against the regulation on the grounds that it is unnecessary, and that the cost of compliance will be prohibitive for both the industry and the public.
"If I have to itemize, my prices will go up because I will have to include overhead on each item instead of lumping my total overhead into my unit price," claims Robert Chambers, vice president of W. W. Chambers Co., whose grandfather was the first to defy area-industry practice and advertise rates.
"It's like ordering a la carte from a menu; the individual courses always add up to more than the complete dinner."
Not so, says the AARP.
In testimony before the House Select Committee on Aging last July, the group maintained that "increased information will contribute to greater competition in the funeral industry and lower prices for consumers." No one doubts, however, that more competition could drive many smaller, less efficiently run homes out of business if they don't change their practices.
In any event, the FTC is cautiously optimistic that its rule will survive the anticipated legislative veto attempt and go into effect in mid-June, thus making consumer information about funeral costs and practices more available. Although a director will still be able to include items in a "package," the purchaser will be able to compare prices for the same services at other homes.
FTC regulation or not, the movement for alternatives to the traditional funeral service which Jessica Mittford began 20 years ago in her searing indictment of the industry, The American Way of Death, is not about to disappear.
As consumer advocate Cohen puts it:
"We spare no effort these days to educate ourselves in preparing for birth. It's time we realized that death is just as much a part of life--and we should do all we can, psychologically and financially, to prepare for it also."