How to Arrange a Simple Burial

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Questions and answers about dying and funerals and how to arrange a simple burial.

You can learn how to arrange a simple burial using these thoughtful suggestions.

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How To Arrange A Simple Burial

“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 which 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 pre-planning 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 bargaining 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 and inquire 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 associations. 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 between funeral 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.

Burial: 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 of the Funeral

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 Funeral 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.