Death be not proud. Death be not cheap either. That's what retired Naval Reserve Cmdr. Kent Yoke found when he moved to Bethesda in March. The bare-bones funeral he had arranged back in West Virginia was going to cost $500; the same deal here was $900.

Questions of price aside, though, Yoke is pleased to have everything ready. "I wanted to take care of it myself, rather than leaving it up to my family," he says. "I figure it's my responsibility."

The process was simple. He called the nearest funeral home, a representative came by, and in 20 minutes all was done. "I said I don't want a golden urn, I want a cardboard box. They can give the ashes to my daughter to take out and pollute Chesapeake Bay."

No hard-sell tactics were used on him, no urgings to buy a more expensive service. Actually, Yoke isn't going to have any service at all. "They'll pick up the carcass and cremate it."

The carcass?

"That's what it'll be, buddy."

By paying in advance, the 71-year-old Yoke is in the vanguard of a trend: You still can't take your money with you, but you can use it now to decide the exact way you wish to go. According to one independent estimate, a million so-called "pre-need" contracts were sold last year. By the end of the decade, that number is expected to double. But the fastest growing method of payment -- insurance policies -- also is the most controversial.

"Some of these insurance companies are selling to the 35-to-40 age group. I can't understand why anyone would want to buy something they're not going to use for 40 years," says a Maryland funeral director.

"Most of this is done through telemarketing. My philosophy is, if I have to be telemarketed for anything, I don't need it," says a Michigan funeral director.

There's an uneven amount of regulation, a market worth billions and some concern about just how much consumers really need this product in the first place. Last year an industry newsletter, the Funeral Service Insider, reported that "numerous members and observers of funeral services expect harsh developments, perhaps outright scandals, to erupt over the Preneed boom." It then quoted an anonymous industry executive: "There are too many greedy people chasing too many bucks."

Tight close-up on a middle-aged couple:

Wife: "It just makes sense to let your children know about important decisions."

Husband: "Your parents told us about Trust 100."

Wife: "So we prearranged our funerals, too."

Husband: "So the kids don't have to worry about it."

That's the beginning of a TV commercial aired by a company named Trust 100 for a national group of independent funeral homes. This spot, or a slight variation, ran 29 times last week alone on WDCA, WUSA and WRC. Each time, at the end, there was a listing of the half-dozen participating homes in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

The effect? Pumphrey's, the funeral home that Yoke chose, says it gets 10 to 15 responses a week from a combination of the ad and some direct mail solicitations; two or three people might end up prepaying, too.

"We don't see the need for the prefunding as much as preplanning," says general manager Robert Bremerman. "It makes {a funeral} simpler if you just talk about it."

While the pre-need business is full of debate, and while everyone who has a critical opinion of some aspect of the field is also accused of having his own particular ax to grind, this is the point at which all agree: the importance of discussion beforehand.

Cremation vs. burial? Flowers vs. donation to a charity? Burial here or elsewhere? Ornate casket or something plainer? Viewing of the body? Do you want to involve a memorial society? The time for this to be decided is now, not when you have no say in the matter and your loved ones are distracted by emotion. Discuss it, write it down, and make sure your family knows where to look.

The second step, which nearly everyone also agrees on, is slightly more complex: Visit several funeral homes. Price the material. Explore different services. Weigh the choices.

This probably doesn't sound too radical. And the funeral industry wholly supports it -- even when they might earn nothing more than good will from your visit. Yet there was a time when the business was dead-set against making prearrangements. Listen to Howard C. Raether, then the executive secretary of the National Funeral Directors Association, at a convention three decades ago:

"It is good for those who survive to have the right and duty to make the funeral arrangements. Making such arrangements, having such responsibilities, is essential. It is part of the grief syndrome, part of the therapy of mourning ... If funeral directors insist on soliciting pre-need funerals, they are in fact prearranging the funeral of their profession."

Critics responded that so-called "at-need" arrangements too easily resulted in funeral directors taking advantage of the grief-stricken and putting obstacles in the way of attempts to economize. ("Oh, all right, we'll use the {cheaper casket}, but we'll have to cut off his feet," ran a memorable passage in Jessica Mitford's "The American Way of Death.")

If the funeral industry has changed its tune, there's a good reason. When your business depends on the dead but there aren't enough people dying, you've got to look to the living. The death-rate has been and is expected to remain relatively flat in absolute numbers: a little more than 2 million a year. But at the same time the baby boomers are aging. The result is more potential clients in a funeral frame of mind.

Remember the scene in the 1951 version of "A Christmas Carol," when Scrooge visits the dying Marley and finds the undertaker already there?

"You don't believe in letting the grass grow under your feet, do you?" Scrooge asks.

"Ours is a highly competitive profession, sir," the undertaker replies.

The pre-need aspect of the business is still that way. On one side there are trusts. Say you choose a $3,000 funeral. You then write a check, which ends up in a financial institution earning interest. The funeral home guarantees your price, whether death occurs in one year or 20, because, it is presumed, the interest your money earns will cover any inflation. In the meantime, however, you'll be paying taxes on that interest.

In some states, such as Maryland, trusts are the only form of pre-need financing allowed; pre-paying then tends to be a low-key matter that is often done a relatively short time before death. But in other areas, including the District and Virginia, you also can pay for a funeral through an insurance policy. These are available in a half-dozen major competing brands. The two industry leaders are the Guardian Plan, which was just sold by its founder and consequently is in flux, and The Forethought Group, a division of Hillenbrand Industries.

Forethought insurance is sold through 3,000 funeral directors in 35 states. You can either pay for the policy up front, or spread it out over as many as 10 years. Each year, the value of the policy is increased by the implicit GNP price deflator, a measure of inflation akin to the Consumer Price Index. Currently, it's 4.5 percent a year. If there are any funds left over after you die and your funeral is paid for, it goes to your survivors.

This plan is tax-free. In an ad that appeared in Associated Funeral Directors Services magazine, Forethought made much of this.

The company gave the example of a $4,000 funeral trust, paid for all at once, by a 65-year-old. "If we assume a life expectancy of 17 years and a 15 percent tax bracket," the ad said, "you could be asking a family to pay an additional $2,033 in taxes -- over and above the original $4,000 investment in a trust." No such problems with Forethought, the ad proclaimed.

This ad was critiqued in the April issue of the Michigan Funeral Directors Association Journal. David Techner, president of the MFDA, accused Forethought of leaving out several important facts.

After those 17 years were up, he wrote, a $4,000 Forethought insurance policy would be worth $8,454. (This, remember, also is presumed to be the cost of a funeral in 17 years.) But that same money in a trust locked in to current market rates of 8 percent would reach $15,515. Even if you were in the 15 percent tax bracket all those years, your heirs would have $4,213 extra.

Techner, who owns a Michigan funeral home but is still critical of many aspects of the industry, puts it this way: "It doesn't take a brain surgeon to realize the money a trust invests on behalf of the family is invested by the insurance company on behalf of itself. That's how they make their money."

This point is explained more fully in an investment analysis prepared by Oppenheimer & Co. last July. The lengthy report on Hillenbrand concluded that Forethought insurance was a great deal -- for Hillenbrand.

The reinvestment of the premiums at high yields was one reason; another involved the company's Batesville subsidiary, the country's largest casket maker. As the 1989 Hillenbrand annual report notes, "Batesville Casket Company will benefit from the high percentage of Forethought insurance contracts specifying Batesville caskets."

Hillenbrand stock, Oppenheimer concluded, belonged on its "Recommended List." (The stock has since appreciated from $37 to $48.)

Critics are less sure of the value of the insurance. For one thing, when a funeral home sells both Forethought (which generates an immediate commission plus future business) and a trust (which only provides future business), wouldn't it naturally encourage the first option more?

Not surprisingly, most of the funeral industry employees who were quizzed on this point disagreed. For instance, Joann McElmurray, executive director of the Virginia Funeral Directors Association, says: "Funeral directors have the interest of the consumer, or client, in mind. I don't think they would in any way let a commission entice them to provide one program or another."

Techner was less positive. "If you've got a funeral director that's in a cash-tight situation ... I don't think it's an unnatural question." Furthermore, adds George Gonce, a South Baltimore funeral director: "If someone's commission is based on the size of a sale, that would give rise to the possibility of him trying to upgrade the cost of the funeral."

Alan Creedy, president of Trust 100 -- which in addition to promoting prearrangement through TV ads, also has an insurance program -- says he believes most of those who prepay with insurance don't care whether they're losing money over the long-term.

"They're concerned with getting the funeral taken care of, paid for and going home," Creedy says. "That's the blunt truth."

Whether that will always be true is much less certain. "No one wants to feel ripped off," says Techner. "If there's a significant amount of money piled up somewhere down the road, there's going to be a lot of questions."

This brings up the issue of who pre-need funerals are being marketed to. Is this the creation of the industry to get more business, or is the industry merely responding, as it claims, to consumer demand?

This is an issue the folks at Forethought have considered: Their press kit includes a release specifically addressing this subject. "It is not," Forethought president Fred Rockwood is quoted as saying, "a need we created. In fact, we had no initial pressure or even great interest in formulating this kind of organization ... the need was so keen that we could not step back and refuse to fill it."

Techner -- who, by the way, offers both insurance and trusts at his funeral home -- takes a sharply opposite view. "Let's face it, we're talking about funerals here -- a service no one wants ... You can't convince me this is consumer-driven when mega-millions are spent on the marketing." If there were a temporary moratorium on advertising and solicitation -- which exists in the Sunbelt states to a much higher degree than here -- he believes the number of people signing up would subside "an incredible degree."

Lee Norrgard, a senior investigative analyst for the American Association of Retired Persons, agrees that "much of this interest is industry-driven ... The demographics are ripe, in the sense of the aging population, for this kind of product. The industry saw it as a way of locking in future business, given the flat death rate, and also as a way of profiting."

His conclusion: "Everyone should be very cautious about where their money is going and how it's regulated. In the main it's probably safe, but there are examples surfacing from outright embezzlement to ill-advised and possibly fraudulent investments" by those charged with safeguarding pre-need funds.

(Norrgard wrote an AARP pamphlet weighing the merits of various insurance plans and trusts. While some figures are several years out of date, the brochure still offers a useful perspective. Write AARP Fulfillment, 1909 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20049 and ask for publication D13188.)

If you decide on a trust or an insurance plan, there are numerous questions to ask. What happens if you move? If you want to cancel? If you die before being paid up? If the funeral home is sold? If you need money in an emergency? What about the excess funds after you die and your funeral is paid for?

This last one is especially relevant because the cost of a funeral is not something that soars with the regularity of housing prices. An analysis by the executive director of the Casket Manufacturers Association concluded that, after you adjust for inflation, funerals were actually cheaper in 1988 than they were in 1968. Chances are, your investments will grow faster than the cost of a funeral.

And if there is an overage in, say, Maryland? "We're legally entitled to keep it," says funeral director Gonce, who is also co-chair of the Maryland State Funeral Directors Association legislative committee. "Suppose costs go up faster than the rate of interest. It could be the funeral home is left with a shortfall. You can't have it both ways."

Nevertheless, he added that at his two funeral homes, "We give it back. For one thing, it's excellent PR." (Other Maryland funeral directors said the same thing.) Advises Techner: "You can make that part of the contract, if it bothers you. It would bother me."

As for the insurance programs: After taking into account the arguments against them, there are some cases where even the critics agree they can be a good idea. One is if you are trying to "spend down" your assets to qualify for federal programs like Medicaid. State regulations on this vary, but there are cases where an insurance policy won't be counted as part of your assets but a trust will.

A second reason is if you want a pre-need policy but can't afford it up front; 10 years of payments may be the only way. The Forethought press kit suggests a third possibility: If you are prepaying over five or 10 years but die after the second year, they will cover the whole cost of the funeral. It's probably not easy to get the timing on this just right.

"We don't like to think about dying," says Carolyn Pokorny of Rockville. "It's no fun way to spend a Saturday." But when she and her husband, Norm, spent a couple of hours at a local funeral home, they discovered something important: Neither wanted to be buried here, but would rather end up with their ancestors in New Hampshire and Iowa respectively.

"I hadn't realized," she says, "that burying my husband would be such a traumatic thing to do. That's why we decided on cremation. I know that everything we're going to do is something he approves of."

The couple is still relatively young: He's 55; she's 48. But now that they've thought about this once, they probably won't have to again. Meanwhile, they're mulling over whether to prepay through a trust.

She's in favor. "Selfishly," she says, "I don't want to have to think about anything if something were to happen to Norm." On the other hand, "He doesn't feel quite an urgency." And there, for the moment, the matter rests.