There’s that great (and memorable) scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring film where Gandalf is doing battle with Balrog. Gandalf raises his walking stick and authoritatively shouts “You shall not pass!” It’s a dramatic scene; the other members of the Fellowship press forward without him and they believe Gandalf’s struggle with the demon has surely led to his death. (Here’s the video if you want to refresh your memory.)
We don’t like to think about death, but in contradiction to my title, we shall pass − all of us eventually. It reminds me of this eight-line poem, reproduced below.
My Beloved and I had been married less than a decade when we viewed a television exposé on the funeral industry. (This was probably sometime in the late 70s or early 80s, I suppose. A long time ago!) The exposé was a production of the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting (now Maryland Public Television or MPT) through the Public Broadcasting Service (now PBS).
After viewing the program, we sent for the Consumer Survival Kit / The Last Rights: Funerals publication they offered to viewers. (I can’t locate this publication online, but I dug my copy out of a file cabinet and it’s dated 9/27/1977.) This 24-page booklet provides additional information and resources not included in the broadcast we watched.
Now, my Beloved and I had no expectations of an early death back then. We were both healthy and fairly new parents of small children. Death was definitely the last thing on our minds! But remember Erich Segal’s melodramatic tearjerker, Love Story from 1970? (There was a book and also a movie.) Young people die suddenly all the time! Who were my Beloved and I to think we’d be exempt?
Yet here we are all these years later.
In the interim, we’ve done our homework … on death, on funerals in general, on burial regulations and a host of other subjects. I’ve talked to funeral directors and cemetery supervisors. I had a host of questions I needed answered!
May I bury a body in my back yard? No. State laws regulate burial locations … because they don’t want the ground caving in from improper burials.
Must a dead person be buried in a casket? More than likely, yes. Depends on the state regulations and the cemetery.
May I have my own container or must I use what the mortuary/funeral home sells? Yes, it is legal to have your own container; yes, funeral operations sometimes balk, but it is your right.
Must a decedent be embalmed? Usually not, if buried within 24 hours.
Containers … whoa! Now there’s a can of worms! We visited a funeral home (way back when) and asked them to show us their basic casket. Can you say cheap? Can you say hideous? Their mode of operation was to up-sell you to a “better” casket appropriate to honoring your loved one’s memory. (I don’t know how they operate today; it’s possible things may be more consumer friendly, less heavy-handed, but who can say?)
Since a coffin often ends up being the most costly part of a burial (and sometimes they want you to have a liner as well), it makes sense to shop around for alternatives. Through the years, I’ve made mental notes of the strange and mundane uses people have for coffins. Actor Jared Leto keeps a coffin in his living room. This website designs coffee tables for dual use (coffee table now, coffin when the need arises). Believe it or not, there are build-it-yourself casket kits and cardboard caskets! WalMart offers a fairly wide selection of caskets online.
Here’s what I know for sure. When my Beloved and I first started discussing this topic, I was uncomfortable about it. I didn’t want to think about the potential that one of us might be gone “prematurely.” But I worked through that discomfort and I’m glad I did.
Reading through the Consumer Survival Kit publication helped, because it offered a plan. That’s something everyone needs because we don’t always have fair warning before death occurs. If a couple hasn’t talked through the decisions required, many decisions are thrust upon the living spouse in his or her most vulnerable state of distress!
Perhaps the most important thing we gained from the Consumer Survival Kit was knowing there are national associations to assist people in their time of sorrow. We learned about Memorial Societies and their advocacy for obtaining simple and economical funeral arrangements through advance planning (a huge help).
The Funeral Consumers Alliance is a national association with local non-profit affiliates who arrange through local funeral providers to obtain a sort of “group rate” reduced price on their normal services. (Funny thing about that, too. The local funeral providers don’t like local memorial societies to advertise their existence because it affects the funeral providers’ bottom line. That’s why you’ve probably never heard of a memorial society.)
We joined our local non-profit affiliate when our children were small. I think the lifetime membership cost us less than $100. Current costs of the contracted funeral services are roughly just under $1000 (for direct cremation) and around $1500 (for direct burial). Those prices may still seem high, but compare that to what your local funeral home would charge a bereaved individual who just walks in the door!
The Funeral Consumers Alliance website offers a wealth of information that helps you get started by making a plan and answering questions now … when you’re less likely to be overwhelmed by emotion. Take a look at the website and maybe talk with a local affiliate to know what their membership requirements are.
I think you’ll be glad you did. Do it for the people you love … before you pass.