If you’ve ever faced the emotional trauma of having to make funeral arrangements for a loved one, you’ll be able to empathize with this recent article from the Kiplinger website . It reminds us of something we might rather not think about: the reality of our own death. One day we will each shake off this mortal coil, and before we do, we owe it to those closest to us to plan ahead for that inevitable day.
In his Kiplinger article, Dallas attorney Ryan Sellers writes knowledgably about the pain we can cause our family if we pass away with no memorial plans in place. But even as Sellers advocates for pre-planning, he also provides a clear warning to watch out for unscrupulous operators in the funeral business. After all, as he says, there are no do-overs if a memorial service fails to go as planned.
As you plan ahead for the great adventure of retirement, we suggest you also remember to plan for that even “greater adventure” that waits at the end of this life. Let’s see what Sellers has to say – and what Rajiv Nagaich wants us to know, at the end of the article.
“Horror Stories” of Botched Funeral Plans
Sellers begins his Kiplinger with a difficult truth: that no matter the circumstances, when the death of a loved one occurs—even when it’s expected—the resulting grief can be overwhelming for those left behind. Moreover, making burial plans in the midst of that grief can feel insurmountable.
“Horror stories about unscrupulous funeral homes have been front-page fodder for more than a century,” he writes, citing Jessica Mitford’s 1963 book American Way of Death . “I have personally handled more of these cases than I care to think about,” Sellers adds. “When people are dealing with the death of someone close to them, the last thing they should be dealing with is a botched funeral.”
Are there protections in place when dealing with funeral homes? Yes, and often quite strong ones in the form of licensing and consumer protection laws. But still, bad experiences can happen. Sellers provides the following advice and wisdom to avoid the worst that the funeral industry can offer.
Preplanned Funerals Present Best Scenario
Sellers is clear in his recommendation that a preplanned funeral is the ideal. He writes, “The deceased has either made arrangements in advance or has left written instructions about how things should be handled. The directive clearly outlines the steps to be taken by loved ones, saving them from having to make those decisions following the death.”
But even with that plan in place, preplanned funerals can have their pitfalls and complexities, and these are worth knowing before you make your plans.
Sellers explains, “Family members owe it to the deceased – and to themselves – to ensure that the provider chosen by the deceased a year or a decade ago is still in business and reputable. Just because the directive names a specific funeral home does not mean that survivors are obligated to entrust the remains to that home. If the named funeral home raises concerns for the family (more about this below), it is far better to move forward with a different funeral home, despite the deceased’s wishes.”
Due Diligence When Looking for a Funeral Home Can Head Off Surprises
In the absence of a plan, or if the plan falls through for any reason (including the family’s concerns about the funeral home chosen), it’s time to shop for a good funeral home.
“It isn’t like shopping for a car,” Sellers writes. “There are no lemon laws or do-overs if they get it wrong. Once a contract for funeral or burial services has been signed and the funeral home has taken possession of a body, it may be impossible to back out of the commitment. Therefore, the more due diligence done beforehand, the better everyone should sleep.”
Where to begin? Research. Research. And more research.
“Read customer reviews,” Sellers writes. “Check for complaints with the Better Business Bureau and state licensing agencies. Look at county records to see if there is a history of lawsuits against the funeral home. The more you know up front, the fewer surprises there should be down the line.”
Once you choose one or a few to look at, meet with representatives of the funeral home to learn more about what they offer. And according to protections in place, funeral homes are obligated to provide you with a menu of choices before any agreement is signed. “If the funeral home staff try to sell you a package, or you feel in any way pressured to make a choice before you have seen their menu, leave the premises and look for another provider,” Sellers writes.
Don’t Hesitate to Ask Questions and Keep Lines of Communication Open
Sellers advises you to always remember that, despite the emotional circumstances, you are the customer, the client, and you have your right to feel completely comfortable with any arrangements.
He writes, “Ask questions before signing anything. Find out whether the home has received a death certificate for the deceased and, if not, how long it should take to get a certificate following an autopsy or medical examiner’s review. If there will be a cremation, consider asking the home whether they can preserve the body so that it can be viewed prior to the cremation. Make sure you feel comfortable that the funeral home will honor the deceased’s wishes, if preplanning was done, or that they understand and will honor your wishes if no advance directive was created by the deceased.”
It’s essential to make sure you’re completely comfortable with the home and the package you’ve chosen before signing anything, since it can be very difficult to undo things once an agreement has been reached. Once you’ve signed, the ball is in the funeral home’s court.
Sellers advises, “Even though there is nothing left for you to do other than wait for the work to be completed, expect to have ongoing communications with the home. The funeral home should continue to be available to answer your questions, and it should be keeping you apprised of its progress with your case. If you believe that something has not been done correctly, or you have other concerns about the services being performed, representatives of the home should be willing to meet with you to discuss these issues.”
Reporting Issues to the Proper Agencies
Even with the best of planning, things can still go wrong, and Sellers concludes his article with the following resources if you feel that the funeral home has not handled things properly, or has violated your trust. In those cases, the proper authorities should be contacted.
“At the federal level, this would be the Federal Trade Commission. At the state level, it will likely be the appropriate licensing board for the industry,” Sellers explains. “You can also reach out to nonprofit groups such as Funeral Consumers Alliance or the Funeral Consumer Guardian Society.”
Finally, Sellers closes his article with this important piece of advice: “If you have suffered emotional distress or other injury as a result of a funeral home’s actions, contact an attorney who has experience with these types of cases. The consumer organizations named above may be able to provide referrals.”
Rajiv’s Take: Part of the Goal Has to be Closure
We asked Rajiv Nagaich for his input on this article, and while he agrees that the basic concept of funeral pre-planning is sound, there’s an important piece missing. Your memorial plan has to include some specific instructions so your loved ones and friends will have a sense of closure.
“The great need your family will experience when you die is for closure,” says Rajiv. “Closure is what happens when your loved ones are done dealing with your last physical manifestations. It’s the reason cultures all over the world adhere to end-of-life rituals and ceremonies. Your plan needs to make allowances for this important need.”
Rajiv offers a common example: cremation, which industry sources predict will be the choice of nearly two-thirds of Americans by 2025. “When cremation is your choice,” says Rajiv, “the actual planning does not end till you specify what your loved ones are to do with your remains. Without your clear instructions, your loved ones won’t have a clue what to do, and I hate to say it, but your ashes will end up on the mantle or in the closet. Don’t put your family through that!”
Rajiv acknowledges that many funeral rituals are emotionally difficult, whether loved ones are tossing handfuls of dirt into your grave or, as in his native India, entrusting cremated ashes to the sacred Ganges River. “These things trigger powerful emotions,” says Rajiv, “but that’s how psychological closure is achieved. My advice is to be clear what you want to happen with your physical remains make sure your family has the chance to let go of you, physically and emotionally. You’ll be giving them a great gift.”
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(originally reported at www.kiplinger.com)