Florence Kramer did not base her casket choice on aesthetics alone. The Charleston,S.C.,woman actually climbed inside her prospective final resting places.
“… She wanted to make sure she fit,” her daughter Lottie Whitaker said,laughing.
Kramer planned and paid for her funeral services years before her death,Whitaker said.
And when Whitaker's husband,Bill,became ill with cancer,he picked out his casket,the preacher and the music for his service,and what he wanted on his gravestone.
In past two decades,more and more Americans have decided to plan and pay for their funeral arrangements in advance.
“In the last 15 years,there's been a heightened consciousness about the availability of coming into the funeral home and being able to make those pre-planned arrangements,” said Charles Anderson,an Ohio,funeral home owner and president of Outlook,a company in Ohio that helps funerals market pre-need programs.
In 1998,43 percent of Americans over 50 reported being solicited for pre-need funeral arrangements,according to an Association of American Retired Persons five-state study. Of that 43 percent,21 million pre-paid their funeral arrangements,the report states.
Most do it to save their families stress,or to ensure the service is what they would want,said Paul McCarver,senior director of the Memphis Funeral Home.
“Funerals are like weddings; everyone has their idea of what is important and what is not,” McCarver said. “These prearrangements allow them to express what they want.”
Whitaker said her mother's forethought made things much easier.
“To me,it was being very thoughtful of my sister and me,” she said.
Those who prepay usually buy caskets,niches,or mausoleums,according to the AARP survey. Some choose who performs the service,what music will be played and the location.
All choices should be listed in as much detail as possible and put on file with the funeral home,the Federal Trade Commission suggests. The consumer should also get a copy,and should tell a trusted friend or relative where the plan is stored.
Choosing to pre-plan does not require paying in advance,but it is an option.
The National Funeral Directors Association cites three options for pre-paying. A regulated trust can be established by a licensed funeral director,a life insurance policy can be purchased equal to the value of a funeral,or individuals can establish a savings or certificate of deposit account,earmarked for their funeral expense.
Arranging the funeral in advance is a good initiative,but prepaying is a poor idea in many states,said Michael Heath,assistant to the executive at the Funeral Consumer's Alliance,a non-profit group that lobbies for better consumer protection laws.
While some states,such as New York,have strong funeral consumer protection laws,others do not,Heath said. Often,the money paid into these accounts cannot be withdrawn or transferred to a funeral home in another state,he said.
He suggests an alternative savings route. A Trotten Trust or Pay Upon Death Account through the consumer's own bank is a smart and safe way to save for funeral costs,which now average about $6,000 nationwide,Heath said. This consumer-controlled account allows you to name a friend or family member who will receive the money upon your death without going to probate court.
The National Funeral Directors Association suggests the account can be designated as “payable on death” to the funeral home,but Heath advises otherwise.
“You should not list the funeral home as the beneficiary in any case,” he said. “If they [the consumers] have $10,000 in there,you can believe they'll have a 10,000 funeral. No money will get back to the family.”
Heath's criticism of the industry is not isolated. The stories of consumers burned by corrupt pre-paying schemes have gained the attention of lawyers,legislators and consumer rights’ advocates.
In June 2001,the Illinois state comptroller filed a lawsuit against a man who ran an Edgar County funeral home,alleging that he defrauded people of more than $66,000 through pre-need funeral contracts.
After an investigation,the comptroller concluded that from April 1992 through July 2000,Randall J. Smith of the Smith Funeral Home in Paris,Ill.,failed to deposit nearly $67,000 from 19 pre-need contracts.
Smith deceived customers into thinking he had deposited the money with the Illinois Funeral Home Directors,the lawsuit alleges.
Despite the threat of scams,customers continue to plan and pay for their funerals in advance,Charles Anderson said.
“The consumers have really been the driving force,saying,‘it makes sense to pay for your funeral beforehand',” Anderson said. “You wouldn't think about buying a car or a $4,000 TV on the worst day of your life.”
What you should know before pre-planning or pre-paying (bold)
(bullet) Ask for a general price list. The Federal Trade Commission's Funeral Rule,instituted in 1984 as a response to unscrupulous practices in the funeral industry,requires all funeral directors to present one.
(bullet) Look for the general or basic service charge. This non-refundable fee can range from $400 to $2,000. All other charges are in addition to this up-front cost.
(bullet) Embalming. It is not required in 99 percent of cases,Heath said. If you are going to be cremated and not have a wake or a viewing,embalming is not needed. It can cost around $1,000.
(bullet) Consider buying your casket or cremation urn from an independent dealer. Funeral homes cannot charge an additional fee or surcharge to consumers who purchase a casket elsewhere,thanks to the Funeral Rule. “It's a way consumers can save thousands,” Heath said.
(bullet) Ask to see the lower-cost caskets. “Generally speaking,they'll show you the higher-cost items,” he said. “When you ask to see the lower-cost,they may take you to the basement and show you the caskets in bad lighting or refer to it as the welfare casket. If that is the case,take your money and run.”
(bullet) Remember that veterans,their spouses,and dependent children are entitled to free burial and a free marker in a national or state cemetery. Veterans who wish to be cremated can have their ashes scattered at sea by the Navy or Coast Guard for free.
(bullet) Ask what happens to the money you’ve prepaid. States have different requirements for handling funds paid for prearranged funeral services.
(bullet) Ask what happens to the interest income on money that is prepaid and put into a trust account.
(bullet) Ask if you are protected if the firm goes out of business.
(bullet) Ask if you can cancel the contract and get a full refund if you change your mind.
(bullet) Find out what happens if you move to a different area or die while away from home. Some prepaid funeral plans can be transferred,but often at an added cost.
Sources: Michael Heath,Funeral Consumer's Alliance; Federal Trade Commission Web site