Grave Matters

You can't live forever, but you can ease death's sting

June 21, 1999|By Kasey Jones | Kasey Jones,Sun Staff

Over the past few years , the World Wide Web has changed the way we manage our work, banking, shopping, travel and dating. In fact, you might feel you can't live without the Internet.

But why stop there? How about managing your death online?

Dozens of Web sites allow you to plan your funeral by buying caskets, urns and flowers online. You'll find software that helps you plan your departure from this mortal coil by directing your loved ones to carry out your wishes.

You'll also find programs and Web sites that help you organize the critical information they'll need after your death: the location of your will, a listing of your bank accounts, stocks, bonds and insurance policies and all the other details your survivors will need to manage without you.

The funeral industry has taken its pre-need planning message (that's death-speak for "before you expire") online in a big-time way.

Planning for your death is not pleasant. But leaving your loved ones to puzzle over your financial and legal remains is thoughtless, and it could cause them (and you, in death) to miss out on benefits that are due.

I learned this the hard way when my father died in his sleep in 1997 at the age of 72. He had been ill for several years, and told a friend a few months earlier that he knew death was near. But he made no effort to tell me what he wanted done when he died. I was so distraught and bewildered that I selected a funeral home based on the recommendation of the police officer who had been called to the scene.

I spent months tracking down bank accounts, stock brokerage accounts, insurance policies, the deed to his house, credit cards and other documents. I found his will, but it had never been notarized and was invalid. My dad was a World War II Army veteran who won a Purple Heart, but I had no information about his service record and therefore couldn't get him the death benefits that were his due, such as burial in a military cemetery.

Given these issues, a Web site such as Plan4ever or software such as PreNeed can be invaluable in following the paper trails we leave in life and -- for some time afterward -- in death. They also provide users an opportunity to open discussions with loved ones about a subject that's too often avoided.

PreNeed software by Power Solutions of St. Louis is a straightforward program that encourages users users to record vital information for their families. Unfortunately, the interface is cheesy, with unattractive typefaces and a manual laced with misspellings. For $39 it offers nothing that can't be found on the Web for free.

At Plan4ever, users can fill in and print out forms that provide hard copy for vital information. You can tell your survivors whether you wish to be buried, cremated or otherwise disposed of (such as having your body donated to a medical school). You can list your favorite flowers, favorite musical selection (I wonder how many people pick "Stairway to Heaven") and designate charities to which memorial donations can be made.

But Plan4ever has its questionable side. One page states: Writing an obituary can be a difficult and expensive process." Difficult certainly, but not necessarily expensive. Few newspapers charge for writing and publishing obits, although they do charge for the death notices. It's an important distinction.

If you're looking for a comfortable place to spend eternity, casket and urn vendors abound on the Web. A Yahoo search for "caskets" yields 80 sites and more than 4,000 Web pages dedicated to the subject.

The sites bear names such as The Casket Store, Caskets Plus, Budget Casket Superstores, Casket Gallery, Urns Direct, West Urn Creations, Urn Mall and other tasteful names that convey the seriousness of the products. The selection of coffins and urns seems almost limitless and buyers can easily compare prices. Many vendors promise delivery within 24 hours to anywhere in the United States.

If you're willing to look a little further afield, Final Indulgence, based in Tasmania, Australia, offers exquisitely designed custom coffins, including one patterned on an Egyptian sarcophagus and other boxes topped with sculptures of mermaids and lizards. Automobile enthusiasts might consider the Roller, a coffin that looks like a luxury touring car.

The Web site for Bert & Bud's Vintage Coffins bears the motto, "Don't be caught dead without one." The Kentucky firm proudly displays its testimonials, including one from a customer who wrote, "By building my Doll House coffin, you've made it possible for me to have a funeral which will be a unique and memorial personal statement."

Worried about the impact of your demise on the environment? Consider an eco-friendly coffin. Celtic Caskets Ltd. of Derby, England, offers worldwide delivery of its "universal, biodegradable, flatpack coffin." The firm's Web site says the casket is made from waste and recycled or sustainable lumber products and is 98 percent biodegradable.

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