Q: Is it necessary for a funeral home or ambulance service to remove a body from the home or hospital? Can a family member take the body to the funeral home to save the transport fee? -- Paul Pugh, Durham, N.C.
A: Funeral directors perform a service that few people want to handle themselves. Yet there is often confusion about whether and when their services are required.
The confusion is understandable. The laws governing the recording of deaths and the proper disposition of bodies vary from state to state, and what is legal in North Carolina may not be legal in other states.
For instance, Michael J. Fisher, a licensed funeral director in Royal Oak, Mich., writes to correct a point in an earlier column about less costly alternatives to funeral services:
" ... You say, 'With proper planning, it is possible to forgo the services of a funeral director, which makes disposition of the body even less expensive.' It may be possible to avoid the traditions of a funeral or any rites at all. However, it is not possible to avoid a funeral director entirely. Even if one joins a memorial or cremation society, or chooses donation to a medical school, state law requires the signature and license number of a funeral director within the state where a death has taken place."
Fisher is correct; Michigan law does contain such a requirement. But that's not the case in every state.
Regardless of laws, cases in which the services of a funeral director or funeral home would not be used at all are relatively rare. Even memorial societies -- groups organized to help people carry out simple funeral and burial procedures -- usually work through funeral directors.
Whether you can save money by choosing not to use a particular service is a complicated question -- in part because of varying regulations and in part because of the way funeral prices are set.
There are good reasons for regulation in this area. For one, the state has a legitimate interest in making sure the person is actually dead and not just comatose. The state also has an interest in recording deaths and in making sure that foul play was not involved. That's why local jurisdictions have medical examiners and coroners.
Some states, like Michigan, require a funeral director's signature as part of the paper trail in certifying a death. That's not necessarily to boost their business, but rather to add another step to the process largely as a safety measure.
According to Robert Harden, executive director of the National Funeral Directors Association, many states would permit families transport bodies themselves, provided they had the proper certification. Your medical examiner or health department should able to tell you about the requirements in your area.
However, in the view of one funeral director I spoke with, transporting the body yourself will not save a significant amount of money -- perhaps $75 at his rates, as compared to $140 for limousines to take the family to the funeral services and burial. There may be other ways to cut your costs, such as selecting a simple casket, often the costliest item in funeral expenses.
But the best way to cut funeral costs is to plan ahead. You can start by getting an idea of the price ranges in your area. Call several funeral directors and ask for information on prices and planning.
You don't need to commit yourself to any specific plan, and it's usually not a good idea to pay ahead. But by exploring your options, you'll have a better idea of what to expect from a funeral director -- and from yourself -- when a death occurs.
Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.