"A good death does honor to a whole life." (Francesco Petrarca)
I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said that nothing in this world is certain but death and taxes. Well, I'd like to add another sure bet to the pair: The cost of both of Ben's absolutes will continually increase!
Although a great deal has been written on the subject of funerals (and what are often scandalously high funeral costs) in recent times, none of the reports really touched me personally until six years ago when my father was diagnosed as having terminal cancer.
Knowing that we wouldn't be able to think clearly while under the emotional stress that would undoubtedly hit us upon his death, my brothers and sisters and I began early to plan our father's final rites. As a result of our careful forethought, we were able to give him a special, personalized funeral ... and one that cut back on unnecessary expense as well.
Since our father chose never to discuss the matter, it was left to us to prepare a ceremony that we believed would approximate what he'd have wanted. So we decided to make his life of farming, and his intense dislike for pomposity, the funeral's central themes.
For instance, when we went to the mortuary in search of a suitable casket, we didn't insist on the "plain pine box" costing $300 (although we were told that one was stored "down in the basement somewhere," we weren't encouraged to see it) ... but neither did we feel obligated to purchase a beautifully polished hardwood model at $3,000. Instead, we selected a clean lined, attractive casket priced at $700 (and decided against using an "outside container").
At the same time that we bought the coffin, we made arrangements with the local funeral home for a "standard service." The relatively small payment covered professional services, preparation and care of the body, use of all necessary equipment and facilities, use of automobiles, a guest registry, and acknowledgment stationery.
Among the few "extras" we purchased were certified copies of the death certificate (four at $2 each), obituary notices in the local newspapers, a $25 gift payment to the minister performing the service, and the preparation of 200 Special Memorials (at a cost of $25).
We decided to have our memorials printed early, to avoid the last minute rush, which usually results in the purchaser's settling for copies of the 23rd Psalm (routinely handed out to mourners at many funerals). Instead, we wrote the following passage:
By worldly standards, Dad's life was not a success.
He possessed nothing of material value,
Nor was he surrounded by friends in high places.
What, then, did he leave us?
He left us values to sustain us in difficult times:
To deal fairly with everyone, to do our best,
Never to stop learning ... or caring for people,
Animals, and nature. To be dreamers and hope
For the impossible. Never to forget how to laugh.
If we can live by these principles, he will be at rest
And know his life was not in vain.
Dad earned the love and respect we have given him.
No man can do better than that.
My father died, in the hospital, on a Monday. By Tuesday his body had been embalmed and was dressed and lying in an open casket at the funeral home. We decided he would wear blue denim bib overalls and a blue chambray work shirt, because that was the way he had most often dressed. We even bought his outfit from the retailer he'd done business with most of his life ... and paid $16.94 for the work clothes. (The funeral home staff had wanted us to purchase a new "inexpensive" $90 suit ... but such finery would have been completely out of character for Dad.)
From 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Tuesday and most of Wednesday, at least one family member was always with the body, at the funeral home, to greet friends. Many people brought flowers, even though we had requested that any donations be sent to designated children's homes instead. And neighbors filled our house with gifts of homecooked food, an old and loving custom I hope will continue.
The burial service itself, at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, was partly impromptu. One granddaughter (from Vermont) played the organ and another (from Oregon) performed on her guitar. My sister read one of her own poems. A close friend of the family sang three songs, including two country-and-western tunes that our father had especially liked. The minister read a remembrance that we'd composed ourselves.
At the cemetery, the sons and grandsons dug the grave, and they closed it as well. (The plot was on land that had been donated, years before, to be used by the church and cemetery so we weren't charged for the site.)
Our dad's burial insurance—which he had carried for years—came to only $500, but by dividing the remaining costs (about $300) among his seven children, we were able to assure that no one suffered undue financial hardship.
And, although several of our relatives indicated displeasure with the "cheap" way we had handled our father's funeral, we knew that Dad would have been pleased with our efforts. We'd given him our best while he was with us ... and he would never have approved of our going into discouraging, resentful debt to bury him in a manner that was contrary to his lifelong ways.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Aid in arranging a respectful funeral service is available from the Saint Francis Center. The society also sells very inexpensive coffins as well as crematory ash boxes.