Department of Aging releases a guide to help families plan funeral services

36-page booklet offers tips on how to reduce costs

March 03, 2000|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

People shop around for a car and a house. Why not do the same for their funeral?

That's what advocates for the elderly at Baltimore County's Department of Aging were thinking when they began putting together a consumer guide to planning a burial or cremation. The 36-page booklet, with advice on how to choose a casket or donate your body to science, was released this week.

Because the subject often makes people squeamish, the authors gave the guide the oblique title, "It May Be Your Third Largest Purchase."

The guide confronts difficult questions. To embalm or not to embalm? What jewelry should you be buried with? Should you save money by building your own casket? Should you forward your mail before you die?

The guide was the brainchild of Arnold J. Eppel, deputy director of the county's Department of Aging.

"As we began to look at how people take care of their loved ones at life's end, it seemed so obvious there were so many ways to reduce costs," Eppel said this week.

Sue Fryer Ward, secretary of Maryland's Department of Aging, said the Baltimore County guide "is the first one I've seen on this topic. It is useful information in comfortable language. It takes the fear out."

She said she hopes the guide encourages grown children to discuss funeral plans with their parents.

The guide's introduction notes that "this is an uncomfortable subject." But, it adds, burials and funerals are a major expense, often costing more than $10,000.

Although people who comparison-shop for their funerals are in the minority, planning is becoming more popular, according to research from the American Association of Retired Persons and the National Funeral Directors Association.

The AARP estimates that 21 million Americans have prepaid at least some of their funeral or burial expenses. The senior citizens organization notes that careful planning can avoid deceptive practices.

Kelly Smith, public relations manager for the National Funeral Directors Association in Wisconsin, said his group, which represents 13,500 funeral directors, "encourages consumers to explore as many funeral service options and alternatives as they can."

The Baltimore County guide, which comes complete with price lists, suggests that the elderly and their relatives make advance decisions on burial, cremation and embalming and that they compare prices.

One chapter quotes "funeral facts from the Federal Trade Commission." The pamphlet recommends seeking price lists from funeral homes to avoid being overcharged.

Inside the guide is a yellow folder called "The File." It's a place where financial assets, names of lawyers and accountants and Social Security numbers can be listed. It also contains a checklist for funeral arrangements.

The free guide is available at Baltimore County libraries and senior centers. Information: 410-887-2594.

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