"The subject of death has long been taboo in our culture. This is unfortunate, for death is a normal and necessary part of life. Until we learn to face it honestly and accept it, we are not living at our best."
So says Ernest Morgan in his modest pamphlet, A Manual of Death Education and Simple Burial which just happens to pack far more value into its, 64 pages than do many lengthy books on the subject. Not only does Mr. Morgan's manual cover the philosophical aspects of passing on ... it offers sound alternatives to the expensive, often grotesque funeral customs to which we North Americans so doggedly adhere.
Our tributes to departed loved ones can be both beautiful and appropriate, yet such ceremonies need not cost the bereft family thousands of dollars. We've selected the following portions from the Morgan manual (which is now in its eighth edition) in order to demonstrate just that fact.
From A Manual of Death Education and Simple Burial by Ernest Morgan, copyright© 1977 by The Celo Press, Rt. 5, Burnsville, N.C. 28714 and reprinted with the author's permission. Available for $2.00 from The Celo Press or from Mother's Bookshelf.
We have, in the United States and Canada, an amazing custom of displaying dead bodies in a costly and elaborate routine. Each year — in response to this custom — nearly two million American families put themselves through an emotional ordeal ... and spend upwards of four billion dollars doing so.
When death occurs in a family in which there was no planning, the survivors find themselves virtually helpless in the face of entrenched custom, and dealing with a funeral director who expects them to follow this custom. Through planning, however, a family can have the precedent, information, and moral support needed to get the type of service it wants.
To help with advance planning, nonprofit funeral and memorial societies have been formed. These societies cooperate with funeral directors, sometimes by having contracts with them and sometimes by advising their members as to which firms provide the desired service. They also assist those who wish to leave their bodies for education or their eyes or other tissues for transplant or therapy. With the guidance of these societies, thousands of families are now being helped to secure dignity, simplicity, and economy in their funerals.
There are now memorial societies in 170 cities in Canada and the U.S., representing some half a million members. Most Canadian societies are united in the Memorial Society Association of Canada, Box 96, Weston, Ontario M9N 3M6 Most U.S. societies belong to the Continental Association of Funeral & Memorial Societies, 1828 L St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036. The two groups work closely and membership is reciprocal between them.
HOW FUNERAL AND MEMORIAL SOCIETIES WORK
Q. What is a memorial society?
A. A memorial society is a voluntary group of people who have joined together to obtain dignity, simplicity, and economy in funeral arrangements through advance planning.
Q. Is is run by funeral directors?
A. No. It is an organization of consumers that helps its members to make dignified funeral arrangements at reasonable cost.
Q. How is it controlled?
A. It is a democratic organization managed by an unpaid board of directors elected from its membership.
Q. Who organizes memorial societies?
A. Usually they have been started by a church or ministerial association; occasionally by labor, civic, or educational groups; sometimes by a few concerned individuals.
Q. Is membership limited?
A. No. Membership is open to all regardless (if creed, color, occupation, or nationality, even though a society may be organized by a church or other group.
Q. How are memorial societies supported?
A. Most have a single modest membership fee for individual or family memberships. A few have annual dues. Some receive gifts or bequests Some make a small charge whi is remitted to them by the funeral director at time of death.
Q. Who does the work?
A. The members. Most societies are run by unpaid officers and committees, some by church staffs. A few larger ones have part- or full-time paid secretaries.
Q. What happens when you join?
A. The society lets you know what kinds of funeral service are available and at what cost. You talk it over in your family and decide on your preference, then fill out forms provided by the society.
Q. Can these plans be canceled or changed?
A. Certainly. Anytime.
Q. How does preplanning help at time of death?
A. In several ways:
1. You know what you want, how to get it, and what it will cost. You don't have to choose a casket or negotiate for a funeral.
2. Your family understands what is being done. Simplicity will reflect dignity rather then lack of respect.
3. By accepting in advance the reality of death, and by discussing it frankly, you and your family are better able to meet it when it comes.
Q. Does planning really save money?
A. The amounts vary greatly, but memorial society members usually save several hundred dollars on a funeral. One large society estimates that its members save upwards of a million dollars a year by belonging to the organization.
Q. What is the basis of these savings?
A. Simplicity. A dignified and satisfying funeral need not be costly if you are not trying to demonstrate social status or compete with the neighbors. There is also the element of collective bargainin in your favor and the advantage of knowing where to go to get the desired services at moderate cost.
Q. Can these savings be made without a memorial society?
A. Theoretically, yes. But it rarely happens. One has to search carefully andinquire widely to discover all the possibility something few families are prepared to do, especially at a time of death.
Q. How do I join a memorial society?
A. Phone or write the nearest society and ask for their literature. They will send you information about the help they can give you and the membership fee.
Q. What if there Is no society nearby?
A. Write the Continental Association or the Canadian Association to find out if there is a society that serves your area or if one is being formed. If you are interested in helping start a society, the association will supply, information and frequently local contacts as well.
Q. What If I move to another place?
A. There are memorial societies in 170 cities in the U.S. and Canada, affiliated with the Continental or Canadian Association. They accept transfers of membership with little or no charge.
Q. Are all societies alike?
A. Memorial societies vary in their arrangements and mode of operation. Their common characteristic is that they are democratic and non-profit. Occasionally pseudo memorial societies have been set up as "fronts" for funeral directors.
Q. How can I tell the real thing from the Imitation?
A. In two ways:
1. Virtually all genuine memorial societies are members of one of the two as- sociations. The associations screen their members with care.
2. A bona fide society has no commercial interests. Membership rarely costs over $20. If an organization calling itself a memorial society tries to sell you a cemetery lot, or if it asks a large membership fee, you had better investigate it carefully.
Q. What does a memorial society have to do with funeral directors?
A. Some societies serve only in an advisory capacity, informing their members where specific services may be had at specific costa. Most societies, however, have contracts or agreements on behalf of their members with one or more funeral directors.
Q. Does the society handle the business details of a funeral?
A. Not ordinarily. The society commonly brings the family and the funeral director together on a pre-arranged understanding of services and terms. The family itself deals directly with the funeral director.
Q. Are funerals necessary?
A. Survivors have important social and emotional needs which should not be ignored. A funeral is one way of meeting some of these needs.
Q. Are there other ways?
A. Yes. Disposition of the body can be made immediately after death and a memorial service held later.
Q. What is the difference?
A. In a funeral the center of attention is the dead body; the emphasis is on death. In a memorial service the center of concern is the personality of the individual who has died, and the emphasis is on life. In addition a memorial service generally involves less expense and can be held in a greater variety of locations.
Q. What are memorial services like?
A. They vary, taking into account the religious customs of the family and the personal relationships of the one who has died. The distinctive thing is that they stress the ongoing qualities of the person's life rather than his death. Each service can be worked out to meet the needs and circumstances of the particular family.
Q. Is there any essential difference etween neral societies and memorial societies?
A. No Both types of service are arranged by most societies. In every case, how-ever the family is encouraged to make the type of arrangements most congenial to its background and religious beliefs.
Q. Is embalming mandatory?
A. If the body is to be kept several days for a funeral service or—in some cases—when it is to be transported by common carrier, yes. Otherwise embalming serves no useful purpose and except in one or two states is not legally required.
Q. Why then is embalming usually practiced in this country?
A. Funeral directors assume that unless otherwise advised, there will be viewing of the body, and a service in its presence, and that embalming and "restoration" are desired. If this is not the case, the funeral director can be instructed to omit embalming.
Q. What appropriate disposition can be made of a body?
A. There are three alternatives:
1. Earth burial was once the simplest and most economical arrangement. With increasing population, rising land values, and cost of caskets, vaults, and other items usually required, it is becoming more and more costly.
2. Cremation, a clean orderly method of returning the body to the elements, is economical and is rapidly increasing in use.
3. Bequeathal to a medical school performs a valuable service and saves expense. In many areas there is a shortage of bodies for the proper training of doctors. Many public-spirited people leave their bodies for this purpose. A number of body parts can now be transplanted or otherwise used to promote medical research, restore sight, or save a life. To facilitate the gift (of body parts at time of death, a "Uniform Anatomical Gift Act" has recently been passed by most states and provinces.
MEMORIAL SERVICES AND MEETINGS
A memorial service is a service held after the body has been removed. A funeral service is a service held in the presence of the body. Both are intended to fill the same need. In practice the memorial service tends to center more on the life of the person, rather than on the dead body. This allows for greater flexibility and less expense. Because memorial services are less well known, some suggestions may be helpful.
THE TIME AND PLACE
The exact timing of a memorial meeting is flexible, and should take into account the times when family and friends are free to attend. Three or four days after death is the most suitable time, in terms of the emotional needs of the survivors, though in special cases meetings are sometimes scheduled for several weeks afterwards. It is often helpful to hold more than one meeting in cases where there is a group of friends or relatives in a distant place.
The choice of a place is influenced by several factors. The expected attendance should be taken into account. If only a small circle of family and friends is expected to participate, a home or a small chapel or other small place is suitable, preferably one with meaningful associations where the family and friends will feel at home. An attractive outdoor spot is commonly good. If a larger group is expected, a church or auditorium may be used.
THE FORM AND CONTENT
The religious practices and ideals of the family must always be respected, and procedures arranged accordingly. It should be borne in mind also that a meeting with no formal religious content can be made equally moving and satisfying in terms of the spirit. Care should be taken to avoid dry ritual which has no content in terms of the individual situation, and is useful only in letting the family know that they "have done the right thing." Thoughtfulness and skill are important.
The age and character of the person who has died, his or her ideals and aims, and the role he or she played in life are different with each individual. The friends and the community, and their relationship with the one who has died should also be taken into account in determining the time, place, and program.
EACH SITUATION IS DIFFERENT
Programs can be extremely varied. A talk, a prayer, music, and possibly a song reflect the more traditional procedure. Most ministers are experienced in this. Another procedure, more secular in nature, is to schedule a series of short talks by friends and relatives of the deceased, again with music included. Still a third arrangement, as commonly practiced by Friends, is a variation of Quaker worship. A period of music is followed by a few opening remarks stating the purpose of the occasion and inviting the attenders to speak as they wish. These remarks are followed by silence, interspersed with the testimony of family and friends as they feel moved to speak. Often there is song. The exact length of the meeting is not determined ahead of time. Don't cut it short.
The three types of meetings described above can be modified or combined in many ways. In most cases it is good to follow the meeting with a period of informal visiting.
A scattering of groups and individual families still care for their own dead without the assistance of a funeral director. They are found mostly but not entirely in rural or semi-rural places. A few are religious groups such as the Quakers or Mennonites. Others are rural families, particularly in Appalachia. Some are organized within the framework of a memorial society. The "Burial Committee" of one Quaker group operates as follows: Member families wishing to sign up with the committee fill out forms in advance authorizing the committee to act on their behalf and including the necessary biographical data and endorsement by the next of kin.
At time of death, or when death is expected, the first action of the group is to assist the family in a coordinated way. Immediately after death a member of the committee gets the death certificate from the doctor and takes it to the county courthouse to be recorded. (In some states he must get a transportation permit there.) The next of kin endorses the authorization form, signs an "Authorization to Cremate", and makes out a check to the crematory. The body is placed in a homemade box and taken to the crematory. Burial or removal to a medical school follows much the same pattern. Members serve without pay, which minimizes the possibility of legal complications. The chances of such complications are slight, however, as the committee had, at its outset, read the pertinent laws and interviewed the appropriate public officials.
Following the removal of the body, a memorial meeting is planned, to suit the needs of the particular family and community. The procedure is characterized by the warm sense of emotional security it gives to the survivors (not to mention the small cost!), and the intimate participation which friends experience. What may have been regarded as a disagreeable duty becomes a meaningful privilege.
ON DYING AT HOME
Hospitals are geared to saving livesnot letting them go. Home is generally a nicer place in which to die, if the necessary arrangements can be made for the patient's care. This is particularly true for patients who, together with their families, have been able to accept their approaching death. Further, I can say from experience that the problems of home care, when actually tackled, may prove less formidable than they seemed in prospect.
My wife, before her death in her own home, took much satisfaction in the fellowship of family and friends, who visited her in a steady stream when she was able to receive them. They, in turn, took inspiration from her.
This arrangement can impose a financial problem when professional help is needed and when insurance benefits require hospitalization. Fortunately this is not always the case. Helen Farmer, of the Los Angeles Memorial Society, who kept her husband at home during his last weeks, reports that the two companies with whom they had medical and hospital insurance cooperated in meeting the costs of nursing, medical care, and special equipment. Actually, these costs were lower than they would have been in a hospital.
One way to approach this problem is to inquire of one's Insurance company at a time when there is no need in prospect, as to whether and under what conditions their coverage will apply to home care. Another way is to ask, when the need occurs, if they will cover home care or will insist on the generally more costly procedure of hospitalization. A hospital chart carefully kept and signed at regular intervals by an M.D. or an R.N. (with the letters after the name) plus an accurate expense record (including receipts) can sometimes meet the requirements for insurance benefits for home care.
Modern cremation is a clean, orderly process for returning human remains to the elements. With the rising cost of land burial and (in some areas) shortage of land it is finding Increasing use. Many people prefer it for esthetic reasons and specify that their remains be cared for in this way. Crematoria are steadily increasing in number.
The ashes (actually pulverized bone fragments) are clean and white and may be stored indefinitely or mailed by parcel post for distant interment. Some families prefer to scatter them in a favorite garden or woods, or from a mountaintop. (First make sure they are pulverized, to avoid visible bone fragments. This is not difficult.) Some crematories now have equipment which leaves no ashes at all. A few states have laws prohibiting the scattering of ashes. Such laws are commercially motivated and serve no hygienic or esthetic purpose.
Bodies may be delivered to the crematory, in most states, in a plain container; in some, on a pallet. Some crematories require a casket and this requirement is often mistakenly cited as law. The container is placed in the retort with the body, remaining metal parts being magnetically removed. Crematory charges range from $75 to $150. In some places religious groups or private citizens may obtain the necessary death certificate, and permits for transportation and cremation, usually provided no one is being paid. In other places a funeral director is required.
Most religions permit cremation. Roman Catholics may now request permission of the Bishop of their Diocese. Requests are usually granted. The Greek and Jewish Orthodox faiths oppose it, as do a few other groups.
DIRECT CREMATION SERVICES
Within the past few years a new and useful service has appeared in many areas, through which a body may be removed and cremated immediately after death, without embalming, and at low cost. Some organizations offering this service call themselves "societies," ap. parently In an effort to capitalize on the goodwill of memorial societies. This is not accurate; all the ones we know are commercial ventures and should be described as services. Some are operated by mortuaries. Some of the more substantial ones have contracts and agreements with memorial societies. Most of those who do not have connections with a memorial society charge rates above those available through memorial societies. You can quickly find out about this by contacting your local memorial society and comparing costs and services.
LEGAL AND LEGISLATIVE PROBLEMS
State and provincial burial laws are intended to protect public health and safety, to make sure that foul play was not involved in a death, and to ensure that the body is disposed of in a responsible and sanitary manner. State boards of health and various regulatory commissions are empowered to set rules and procedures for such things as licensing of funeral directors, death certificates, transportation permits, and authorizations to cremate. These laws and regulations vary in different states and provinces.
The funeral directors, like other industrial groups, maintain active lobbies in nearly all state and provincial capitals. In addition, the various state boards regulating the funeral industry are composed — with few exceptions — entirely of funeral directors. In some states these boards even hold their meetings in conjunction with the state meetings of the funeral directors organizations.
It is important in the funeral industry, as in other industries, that the state regulatory bodies contain a majority of non-industry representatives and that their procedures provide for full presentation of the consumer point of view.
Funeral directors' organizations are often able to put through laws whose ostensible aim is to protect the public interest but which really promote the interests of the industry at the expense of the public. For instance, morticians in Florida tried to get a law enacted which would make embalming compulsory. Failing that, they did get a law passed which requires embalming if a body is held more than 24 hours. A year or so later they got another law passed "in the interest of public safety" requiring that a body not be cremated in less than 48 hours. A similar subterfuge is occasionally attempted in other states to make embalming compulsory.
Funeral directors' organizations have opposed laws requiring that their charges be itemized, though one of their magazines, Casket & Sunnyside, commented that such laws only compel what should be done voluntarily. Some funeral directors do itemize their bills even when not required to do so by law.
In 1976 the Federal Trade Commission promulgated and held extensive hearings on a code of regulations for the funeral industry in the public interest. As we go to press the issue has not yet been decided.
Misrepresentation of funeral laws and restrictions on disposition of bodies is common and is a major problem. Moreover, few lawyers or funeral directors are knowledgeable about funeral and burial law. To find out your state's or province's laws and regulations on disposition of dead bodies, it is best to consult a law library (most county seats have one and the librarian will assist you), or write your state or provincial board of health.
Any person who has a complaint about funeral services (prices, lack of alternative choices, sales pressure, etc.) should definitely complain to the state licensing board (c/o the Governor, if the address is not known), and it is essential that copies go to the Attorney General's office, to the state legislator, and to any local consumer group or agency.
It is important that memorial societies and other consumer organizations be alert to legislative developments affecting funeral practices and themselves Initiate legislation in the interest of the consumer. Ways and means of doing this are discussed in some detail in a handbook for memorial societies prepared by the Continental Association.