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Talk freely about death and keep rip-offs at bay

Perhaps a day will come when we will be able to talk about death and its various aspects as freely as we talk about life, but that day is not here yet. We shy away from dealing with -- perhaps even thinking about -- what might be the most important event in our lives. It's ironic, also sad.

Problems come home to roost when death approaches or arrives. Not just cosmic or theological issues but routine and banal things to be done. People often call or write NCR with problems or suggested solutions. This may be because we have a history of putting the spotlight, in particular, on unscrupulous people who take advantage of the bereaved at a most vulnerable time.

Mercedes Bern-Klug, director of the Funeral Information Project in Kansas City, sent us a copy of Funeral Related Options and Costs: A Guide for Families (available for $4 from Center on Aging/FIP, University of Kansas Medical Center, 5026 Wescoe, Kansas City, KS 66160-7117). Bern-Klug explains: "I feel it is vitally important for families to discuss options before death is imminent so that they can inform themselves of local options and costs and talk over their preferences with their loved ones. In most cases, once the death has occurred, it is too late for survivors to begin educating themselves."

Others cast a more jaundiced eye on the funeral industry. A 1987 NCR article raised serious questions about exploitation and caused a stir in the industry and outside it. Hero of the article, so to speak, was Fr. Henry Wasielewski, for many years a thorn in the side of funeral ripoff artists.

A follow-up article by Robert Bryce (NCR, Sept. 13, 1996) carried tidings that Wasielewski was on the Internet, specifically the Interfaith Funeral Information Committee at http://www.xroads.com/~funerals/ on the World Wide Web.

The Bryce article brought a letter from Lisa Carlson, executive director of the Funeral & Memorial Societies of America, Inc. (PO Box 10, Hinesburg, VT 05461; phone (802) 482-3437; Web site http://www.funerals.org/famsa), saying we didn't go far enough.

" 'Upholstery, Hardware & Undertaking' was the sign in a small town near where I grew up," writes Carlson. "Now the funeral homes want to charge waiting-around-until-you-die time and skip the sideline vocations. They want a full-time salary for part-time work." In Missouri, writes Carlson, if people died one-a-day Monday through Friday, that rate could support 204 full-time funeral homes. But in fact there are 707. If you ask, Carlson will send a list of nationwide nonprofit memorial societies.

"Unfortunately, Fr. Henry is among the few clergy speaking out on the subject of funerals," Carlson goes on. "Most clergy have not only dropped the ball -- by passing control of the funeral to the undertakers, their silence aids and abets a gross injustice to their parishioners. ... A conscientious priest, it seems to me, would want to bring the funeral back into the church. What more logical support group for a family at a time of death is there?"

As Wasielewski explained: "People don't get ripped off because they are grieving. They get ripped off because they are ignorant. If you know how much tomatoes cost, nobody's going to sell you a $10 tomato."

Another response to the Bryce article came from Tom Carva of Cremation Associates (PO Box 231163, Houston, TX 77223-1163).

"The abuse and overcharging of cremation services is common," says Carva. "Death-care arrangements is one of the most expensive purchases the average household will incur, and many households fall helplessly into the trap of being manipulated into spending thousands of dollars for cremation services that, in actuality, cost a small fraction of this." The Cremation Associates hot line, 1-800-CREMATE, is open all day every day, with free advice and information. Hunt and the others enclosed a wealth of articles and other literature to prove their point.

If your parish has no death ministry, start one and ask questions later.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 1997