Californian reporter Katie Steiner wrote recently about funeral costs and the increased use of cremation, and one letter writer suggested "planning ahead, but not prepaying."
The example of my parents illustrates the importance of making decisions in advance. My father died in 1967 without a will and without ever having discussed funeral plans with my mother -- even after he had previously experienced a serious stroke.
My mother chose an expensive walnut casket that was cremated with him. The funeral and the niche for his ashes cost more than $1,200, which was pretty close to the national average then. It does not seem like much today, but you could buy a new car for $2,000 at the time.
I had gone to high school with the funeral director, and I am sure he did not try to cheat my mother, but she was totally unprepared for the decisions she had to make. When we spend a lot of money, it is too easy to blame the funeral home for our own lack of planning.
Before she died a quarter-century later, she had made it clear to my brother and me that she wanted the cheapest casket available, no embalming and no funeral or memorial service.
We disobeyed her about that last request, because we wanted a chance to grieve together. When all my children were together six months later for a graduation, a priest friend conducted a very meaningful memorial, and we placed her ashes in the niche alongside my father's.
The most recent figures I have seen show that the average cost of an American funeral is between $6,500 and $7,300, but that does not include the cost of a burial plot and associated cemetery charges.
If I were to die tomorrow, I can have cremation, without embalming, for less than $800 with the family-owned funeral home that has an agreement with the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Kern County.
Locally owned funeral homes usually charge less than corporate mortuaries, but when a corporation buys the family-owned home, it buys its name, too, which can confuse consumers. It is often difficult to determine ownership.
FCA (www.funerals.org) recommends that no one prepay for funeral services, because so many abuses have occurred. For example, last year, the Colorado Insurance Commissioner accused the Neptune Society there of violating the state law requiring that 75 percent of any prepaid plan be put in trust (in order to protect purchasers in case the seller went out of business). The commissioner claimed that Neptune had withheld more than $2.5 million from trust.
Also, the purchaser may move away and not be able to recover the advance payment. Americans are mobile, and grandparents often move to be nearer family.
I would add one final point: You should write down your funeral wishes, as well as wishes for health care in case you are unable to speak for yourself. Make copies of both for all your family members so that there will be no disagreements later.
Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote detailed instructions for the modest burial he wanted and locked them in his safe. His family never learned about them until after he was buried.
Bruce Jones is a retired Cal State Bakersfield professor of religious studies. He won a Meritorious Teaching Prize in 1990 and was a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar fellow in 1995.