Millions arranging their own funerals Easing burden: Increasing numbers of Americans are settling the details long beforehand and prepaying for their funerals.

November 13, 1995|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Maybe twice a year, William Whitley's sister places flowers at his polished granite gravestone in Parkwood Cemetery -- even though he's alive and well and living in Baltimore County.

For Mary Raver and her four surviving children, death no longer holds financial worries: Their funerals are arranged and paid for.

These Marylanders are just a few of the increasing number of Americans -- industry watchers and local mortuaries say the number has tripled in the past decade -- who aren't waiting to die before the funeral is planned. According to the American Association of Retired Persons, nearly 8 million Americans already have their funerals arranged, and prepayments for such services total $15 billion.

"It's a relief," says Mrs. Raver, 60, as she slides into a booth at the family's deli in Towson. "How Great Thou Art" will be among the hymns played at her funeral, and she will be buried wearing a cream-colored dress. "I had seen other members of the extended family pass away, and I had seen how difficult it was to make arrangements at an emotional time. I didn't want that for my family."

Once largely the province of rich eccentrics with big funeral plans, the early planning of funerals has grown as frugal, hard-headed Americans like Mrs. Raver have become more open in discussing death and more savvy about the financial costs of getting old.

"A kind of business mentality about handling death has taken over -- this is something we want to do and have over with," says Howard Starr, a Texas psychology professor who studies death. "And more and more we have realized that we are not immortal."

That is certainly true in Mary Raver's family, where cancer already has taken a son and her husband, Benson Raver Jr. Two frames -- one with Mr. Raver's picture, the other with his apron and butcher's knives -- sit on the wall behind the cash register at Raver's Prime Meats on York Road.

All four of her children, who range in age from 34 to 29, used some of the money they inherited from him to arrange their funerals.

Of course, prearrangers in their 30s are rare, but funeral homes and cemeteries say they are seeing a small but increasing number of people in their 40s and 50s planning for their deaths.

Sandra Wallace, for example, and her husband, Cephus, are 46. Her mother refuses to plan early for her death, but Mrs. Wallace thinks it's essential in a dangerous world and has started saving now for her own.

She is paying $51.78 a month to settle a $3,156 bill for two graves and underground vaults in Baltimore's Woodlawn Cemetery. "Funerals and burials are so expensive, and I'm not sure my children will have the money when my time comes," says Mrs. Wallace, who lives near Druid Hill Park. "Besides, with all the killing going on in this city, it's important to be prepared. This is a very serious thing to do."

Even critics of the death industry agree that people like Mrs. Raver or Mrs. Wallace are wise to prearrange their funerals, particularly given the tendency of families to buy extra, expensive services in the emotional days after a death. But these critics caution about prepaying for death services, particularly of cemetery costs, because of a lack of regulation and complaints of price-gouging.

Maryland law prohibits funeral insurance, but permits consumers to use trusts to pay for their funerals in advance. Mrs. Raver, for example, paid the $4,400 cost of her funeral with a nonrefundable, or irrevocable, trust. The money will earn interest until her death, when it will automatically be given to the funeral home she selected. Money put into an irrevocable trust is not counted as an asset when a senior citizen applies for Medicaid.

Allaying doubts

Through an extensive advertising campaign -- funded in no small part by corporate funeral giants such as Service Corporation International, based in Houston -- the death industry seems to have succeeded in allaying many doubts about early planning. Grief counselors, hospices and lawyers routinely inform the elderly, particularly those in long-term nursing care, about the benefits of arranging ahead.

"One of the burdens we have when we're grieving is a financial burden," says Betty Asplund, who directs the bereavement center at an Anne Arundel County hospice. "We all know about wills, advanced directives. This is something we should add to the list."

William and Shirley Whitley think so. Getting their affairs in order is a process that began 10 years ago with the purchase of a retirement house on the water near Middle River.

Mr. Whitley, 73, is a frugal man who fixed up the place himself, adding to the master bedroom and enclosing the porch. He hates debt. So four years ago he decided to pay for his $4,300 funeral while he was still active and financially comfortable. He and his wife even bought the Parkwood Cemetery grave, which his sister drops by whenever she is visiting the graves of other relatives there.

"More feminine"

Still, it is clear that the Whitleys aren't taking this death business too seriously.

Sitting in his dining room, Mr. Whitley opens up their prearrangement contract and proudly notes that he purchased a "Jefferson" hardwood casket for $1,700. "Of course, my wife " he says, grinning at her as he opens her prearrangement contract, "picked out a much, much more expensive casket." The cherrywood box cost $2,400, and her funeral was $4,900.

"It's more feminine," Shirley Whitley offers in her defense.

"It's very nice to have the peace of mind," he says, now winking at a visitor. "And at least she kept it under $5,000."

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