Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Making Funeral Arrangements

When it became clear that my mom was going to die, we were all impressed at how my dad began organizing plans. As with most families, my mom had done the organizing over the years.

He asked me to compose a draft of the obituary.

He asked my sisters to go through her clothes to see what we would have her wear in the coffin. And to go through pictures--both for the person at the funeral home to fix her up to look as natural as possible, and to place them around the room at the funeral home.

He asked my brother to help him go through papers and find the insurance policy, and visit funeral homes, and make burial arrangements.

As I set to work I discovered that the official term 'obituary' is for what is written when famous people die. As I searched--reading obituaries and looking for guidance--I discovered that there are 'death notices' that provide the basic details, and 'funeral service notices' and those are closer to what most of us find in the newspaper each day when regular non-famous people die.

As with most families, we've had marriages and divorces. There are step-grandchildren, family we are still close to from previous marriages and so on. I was trying to figure out the etiquette on how to handle this-and keep everyone happy. I found a good 'rule' to use as a guide. Ask yourself, "If they lived nearby, would I call this person to come to the hospital to say goodbye"? If the answer is yes, put their name in the obituary. This doesn't apply to everyone, but it helped.

I put together a paragraph about my mom, where she had worked and things she loved to do. Listed her parents, and her brother and sister that had died years before. Then listed the living. Five children. Lots of grandchildren, cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws and so on. I figured--it's easier to take a name out than to completely forget it and upset someone. As it was, I did forget some stepchildren. Others were concerned that the obituary would be too expensive, since the newspaper charges by the word. Before anyone could get too upset, a visiting relative said that many funeral homes pay for the newspaper obituary as part of their service. This turned out to be rest easy if you have a lot of relatives to include!

My dad and brother had an unpleasant experience at the first Funeral Home they visited. We had selected it because of it's convenient location and parking. No one had been to a funeral there, we just assumed it was coincidence. I think I know why now. They were extremely expensive, with so many 'little charges' for every little thing. Lifting the coffin lid. Closing the coffin lid. Everything was a charge. And of course we couldn't do any of that ourselves.

My brother-in-law had heard that you can buy a coffin from Costco, and that the funeral home cannot penalize you. We went online and found some of the same ones that had been at the funeral home but about 1/3 less in cost. According to the site, they drop ship the coffin to the funeral home, it usually arrives the next day. And that by Federal Law--the funeral home cannot charge you more because you didn't use their coffin. We wondered...but can they come up with another charge...stocking fee, polishing fee, who knows. We called, but no one from the funeral home called us back.

Another cousin was visiting and said that when her father died they learned that you are supposed to 'negotiate' the fees. So the outrageous price that had been quoted, a price thousands of dollars higher than expected, may not be what we have to pay.

Let me add, I had heard of very expensive funerals but jut assumed that the people were spending un-necessary money of fancier coffins and so on. Not necessarily true. If we hadn't learned about the 'negotiation' thing, we might have done the same. Since the first place never returned our calls to have questions answered, my sister made appointments at a few other funeral homes. Armed with the numbers from the first place, she was able to negotiate and obtain a much better deal. (My brother had to work, and she's a natural negotiator so she stepped in for him.). After my mom died, my cousin and I were dispatched to the first funeral home to recover important personal papers that had been left there. Since they hadn't returned our calls, you would think they would be remorseful. Instead, they were rather rude, and never offered their condolences. This place has been run by one family for a few generations. I have a feeling that the current generation is not 'cut out' for this kind of work. I know that I am glad that we took our business elsewhere.

Meanwhile, my other sisters had been searching for a particular dress of my mothers. My brother had re-married about five years ago and she loved the dress she had worn at the wedding. My mother had a lot of clothes. And she keeps everything. We found bridesmaids dresses that we had worn in weddings thirty years ago. In some cases, for brides that have re-married a few times since. After countless searches (each new person told about the problem just couldn't believe it wasn't in the house somewhere)we gave up. Another cousin guessed that she had taken the dress to the dry cleaners and somehow forgotten about picking it up. Although you would assume the dry cleaners would have called...who knows. It is as good a theory as any.

Slowly we had put together the clothes, jewelry, shoes that she would wear. We had gathered lots of pictures---so many of us just have pictures on computers now. So everyone was making discs--cousins, friends, siblings, and loading them onto my sister's laptop. I've learned that in addition to photos scattered around the room for the visitation, that most families also have a slideshow of photographs. My one sister has worked very hard on this. As different people drop by and watch it in progress, it opens so many memories for everyone.

When my mom died, we had already started all of this in motion. I am glad, because there is definitely a period of being 'stunned' that takes place. I understand why neighbors and other family members bring food over. No one has the energy or inclination to do much about food in your immediate grief.

That is how we were after she died yesterday. And most of today. We've asked my brother in law that has been around the longest (35 years married to my sister) to give the eulogy, and he has been working on that. I had to find something to wear and spent the afternoon combing thrift shops. I just have casual clothes in summer. I was lucky and found just the right things for a great price.

Meanwhile, our phones ring and ring with people calling expressing their sorrow. My e-mail box is full of condolence messages.

Tomorrow we will go to the funeral home. My mom had long ago fallen away from any church. However, she really liked my brother's pastor. He will do a short prayer service tomorrow, and the memorial service Friday. So we will meet for the prayer service which is for immediate family. Then the visitation--when friends and other family members, co-workers, neighbors, etc. come and express their sorrow at our loss, and say goodbye to my mom if they knew her. I have a feeling that this will be hard.

Friday morning, there will be a service with a eulogy and prayers. Then we will drive to the cemetary. After the service there, we will gather for a meal. That is the traditional celebration of the person's life. As I recently told my niece--there is usually more laughter at the funeral dinner than at a wedding dinner. I'm not sure why, but I'm sure it is true.

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