Category Archives: Funeral Planning

All the information you need to plan a funeral in advance or at the time of need. Read articles and tips; learn how to save money when planning a funeral.

Jake Koltun is seen in a photo provided to CBS Denver station KCNC-TV.

Heritage Cremation Provider Accused of Being the Ultimate Scam

Via CBS News Denver – February 10, 2017

DENVER — As Lisa Koltun quietly thumbed through precious photos of her son Jake, she couldn’t help but remember how his 2015 death on a Colorado ski slope was made far worse by the treatment she received after he died, CBS Denver station KCNC-TV reports.

“That’s my boy,” she murmured softly as she looked through a photo album. “He had so many friends.”

Jake Koltun, 22, died at Breckenridge on his last run of the day. Things were only about to get worse for his mother as she connected with Heritage Cremation Provider, which purported to be a local, trusted cremation service in Boulder that could handle Jake’s remains.

“It was just a nightmare,” said Lisa Koltun.


She is not alone in that assessment. A KCNC-TV investigation found that the company paid to handle Jake Koltun’s arrangements has been the subject of numerous consumer complaints in Colorado and across the country, has been officially sanctioned by several states for shoddy service, and is essentially a web-based marketing company that collects upfront payments and fees from grieving families and then subcontracts actual services out to local funeral homes. The company acts as a middle man or body broker and is based in Florida.

After Jake Koltun’s death, his mother asked her friend David Williams to handle cremation arrangements, which is what Jake wanted in the event of his death. Williams did an internet search of cremation services in Boulder, which is where Jake had been living as he attended the University of Colorado. A website immediately popped up for Heritage Cremation Provider, which said it provided “trusted cremation services in Boulder” and said it was “family-owned and operated for over two decades. Compassionate community service close to home.”

“I trusted their website,” said Williams. “They stated clearly in their advertising that they were a locally owned in Boulder family-run business.”

Based on the local appearance, Williams contracted with Heritage to have Jake’s body cremated. The problems began immediately. On the first invoice Heritage sent to Williams, the company misspelled Jake’s last name as “Kolton.” On a follow-up invoice, the company said the deceased was “The William family,” apparently confusing David Williams as being dead. On another invoice sent to Williams, the bill was for another dead person – Sarah White. And on multiple invoices the company asked for additional fees for an oversize container for Jake, even though he only weighed about 165 pounds and was about 6-foot-2.

“It’s so dishonest,” said Williams. “It’s the ultimate scam.”

They aren’t the only ones who feel that way. In 2015, five complaints were filed against Heritage Cremation Provider with the state of Colorado. One of those was from the family of Jake Koltun. But two years later, the state agency that deals with funeral complaints says none of those investigations have been completed and the company has no disciplines on its state record.

Three of the complaints were filed in June 2015, another was filed in September 2015, and the fifth was filed in December 2015.

Lee Rasizer, a spokesperson for Colorado’s Office of Funeral Homes and Crematory Registration told KCNC-TV, “This is a complex case with numerous complainants from multiple jurisdictions, many outside of Colorado. Ensuring that the investigation is thorough, complete and ultimately ensures the public is protected takes due diligence and time. Information continues to be submitted, and is proving helpful in furthering that overall objective. The methodical nature of the investigation takes precedence over any timelines. All avenues are being explored.”

Rasizer said the agency would not appear on camera to further explain why three investigations of Heritage have now spanned 20 months with no resolution. Complaints have also been filed against the company in Colorado in 2016.

Many of the complaints revolve around the fact that Heritage Cremation is little more than a marketing company which does not do any of the actual transportation or cremation work itself.

DFS Memorials, a low-cost network of cremation services, wrote that Heritage Cremation Provider “give the appearance of being a local company when in fact they are just acting as ‘middle men.’”

In North Carolina last year, the North Carolina Board of Funeral Service filed an injunction against Heritage Cremation Provider and informed crematory managers throughout the state that performing a cremation for the company “would constitute aiding and abetting the unlicensed practice of funeral service.”

In Oregon in 2014, the state mortuary and cemetery board found the company’s online advertising “constitutes a sales presentation or practice that conceals or misstates a material fact” and ordered a fine of $10,000.

The Better Business Bureau of Southern Colorado has also warned consumers about the company. The BBB gives Heritage a D- grade saying there were 10 complaints processed against the company in a 12-month period.

For the family of Jake Koltun, the ultimate insult came when they traveled to Boulder to retrieve his ashes. Believing the company was local and had an office in Boulder, the family said when they arrived Heritage gave them the runaround, only later to discover the company didn’t actually have a Boulder office.

When they pressed the company by phone to get Jake’s cremains, David Williams said a representative of the company told him, “They had no idea where Jake’s body was.” Lisa Koltun said, “They lost track of him for a week. It’s bad enough he is gone and I don’t get to see him again, but to not know where he was in that time period is completely unacceptable.”

Lisa Koltun said she eventually received her son’s ashes after numerous contacts with the company.

Katrina Goldsmith, who identified herself as a Colorado-based manager for Heritage Cremation Provider, told KCNC-TV by phone, “I don’t think there’s a story here. When people are grieving things get put in a different light. We do service many families, there’s always sometimes where we’re not perfect.”

She said she felt badly for Jake’s family but said it was “utterly ridiculous” for the family to think Jake’s body was temporarily lost. Goldsmith declined to meet with KCNC-TV in person, declined to agree to an on-camera interview, and said she did not want to review records of what occurred in the Koltun case. She cut off the phone conversation without answering most questions. Owners of the company never responded to KCNC-TV’s repeated requests for information and comment.

Lisa Koltun is answering questions. She said, “I can’t stand the thought of another parent going through this.”

David Williams, the family friend who first found Heritage Cremation and contracted with them, said the web-based company is “the ultimate scam. They are not the most trusted name in the funeral home business in any town in the United States.”

Colorado’s Office of Funeral Homes and Crematory Registration is asking anyone else with complaints about Heritage Cremation Provider to get in touch with the state agency.

See Original Article at CBS News Denver

todd fisher with prozac pill shaped urn

Carrie Fisher’s urn is shaped like a giant Prozac pill, which she would’ve loved

IMAGE: CLINT BREWER / SPLASH NEWS

By JOSH DICKEY for Mashable

January 6, 2017

Carrie Fisher’s legacy as a mental health advocate and her fiercely ironic sense of humor were encapsulated in one final gesture: Her Prozac pill-shaped urn.

Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds, who died a day apart last week, were memorialized Thursday at a private service in their adjacent Beverly Hills homes. On Friday, paparazzi captured images of Fisher’s brother Todd at Reynolds’ burial at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles carrying what looked like a giant Prozac pill — which he later confirmed was his late sister’s urn.

“Carrie’s favorite possession was a giant Prozac pill that she brought many years ago. A big pill,” Fisher told reporters, according to ET. “She loved it, and it was in her house, and Billie and I felt it was where she’d want to be.”

ET also reported that Fisher had wished to be cremated, and that some of her ashes were buried with Reynolds on Friday.

“We couldn’t find anything appropriate,” Fisher continued. “Carrie would like that,” he added. “It was her favorite thing, and so that’s how you do it. And so they’re together, and they will be together here and in heaven, and we’re O.K. with that.”

To be sure, Fisher was as cheeky in life about her own obituary as her family was about her final resting place: Fisher wrote in her book Wishful Drinking that she wanted her obit to read that she was “drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.”

Todd Fisher also told reporters that the family is planning a larger memorial service “down the road for the public and all the family friends,” but did not give specifics.

Fisher died Dec. 27 at age 60, less than a week after suffering a heart attack on a flight from London to LAX. The following day her mother, Singin’ in the Rain star and longtime Hollywood royalty Debbie Reynolds was stricken with stroke-like symptoms and died hours later. She was 84.

VIEW ORIGINAL ARTICLE ON MASHABLE

ED HILLE / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Stonemor Might Be Writing Its Own Obituary

By by Laura McCrystal, Staff Writer for Philly.com 

When the Archdiocese of Philadelphia two years ago announced plans to lease its 13 cemeteries to a private company, the deal was heralded as one to help the church recover from a dire financial situation.

Now, the Bucks County-based StoneMor Partners LP could be facing money problems of its own.

Its stock plummeted in the fall after the company slashed its quarterly dividend to shareholders. Investors claim in lawsuits they have been misled. Some municipalities and school districts are locked in battles with StoneMor over property taxes on the cemeteries.

The changes are worrying investors and giving new ammunition to local Catholics and funeral directors who in the past complained about aggressive sales tactics by the company, which oversees about 7,000 Catholic burials a year in the Philadelphia region.

“We just don’t want to see consumers taken advantage of if this company gets in even more financial distress,” said Paul Cavanagh, a director at Cavanagh Family Funeral Homes in Delaware County.

StoneMor executives have acknowledged a cash-flow problem. But the archdiocese calls its relationship with StoneMor a positive one. And both sides declare the partnership, locked in for decades, to be a success.

“Other than the cash drain, which we had anticipated, it’s a terrific acquisition, and we’re hoping to find other archdioceses that are willing to partner up with us,” StoneMor CEO Larry Miller told investors during a conference call in December.

To bring in more cash, StoneMor has started burying empty vaults purchased by Philadelphia-area Catholics who have not yet died — a move that allows it to access money otherwise held in a trust until someone is buried. And the company plans to open its cemetery gates to non-Catholics.

In 2013, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which had always run its cemeteries, handed operations over to StoneMor, a publicly traded firm that owns or manages 317 cemeteries nationwide.

The 60-year lease called for the company to pay the church $89 million over 30 years. In return, StoneMor maintains the cemeteries, arranges burials, and sells plots, vaults, and caskets.

Within months of the deal, some local Catholics and funeral directors began complaining that StoneMor was misleading or harassing mourners with aggressive sales tactics at a time when many are most fragile or vulnerable.

Miller maintains such complaints were stirred by funeral directors simply concerned about new competition in selling caskets and burial vaults.

Ken Gavin, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Archdiocese, said the number of complaints that come in are largely consistent with what the archdiocese saw before leasing the cemeteries. He said church officials maintain  “a positive working relationship” with StoneMor and have a right to inspect its records and monitor compliance with terms of the deal. “We communicate with them regularly regarding the cemeteries,” Gavin said.

Last year, StoneMor reported a decrease in cash flow, cut its dividend, and became the target of investor lawsuits.

Seeking to ease shareholder concerns, StoneMor executives used the December conference call to lay out plans to bolster their sales force and increase cash flow.

One solution they explained: Getting more money from Philadelphia-area Catholics before they die.

State law requires funds from cemetery sales made ahead of a person’s death to be held in a trust until a vault is delivered and installed, which traditionally occurs after the death. StoneMor has a practice of burying those prepurchased vaults at the cemetery long before the intended occupant’s death, giving it access to the trust funds.

In its call to investors, the company said it would begin burying the 3,700 vaults it sold in the last two years to Philadelphia-area consumers to cash in on $8 million in trust funds.

Miller defended that practice in an interview last week as “the right thing to do” because, he said, buried vaults secure and reinforce the ground at the cemetery.

“We did make a very conscious decision that we were not going to install vaults (in the Philadelphia-area cemeteries) for two years,” Miller told investors in December, according to a recording of the call posted on the firm’s website. “We wanted to make sure that we were supported by the Catholic families, and we are, and we’re now installing those.”

It’s not a fine-print issue. When StoneMor customers sign prepurchase contracts, they also sign paperwork authorizing delivery and burial of their empty vaults before they die, the company says.

Still, State Sen. Tommy Tomlinson (R., Bucks), who is a funeral director, said he believespre-delivery of vaults does not follow the law’s intent: to protect the consumer and keep their money safe until they need to be buried “They certainly are violating the spirit of the law,” Tomlinson said, “and they are not being consumer friendly.”

Sen. Tom McGarrigle (R., Delaware) introduced a bill last session that would have required all prepurchase money be kept in a trust until a person’s death. It passed the Senate but stalled in the House. He plans to reintroduce it this year.

“My goal is to ensure that merchandise which consumers purchase is available to them and in the condition they expect it to be when the time comes for it to be used for its intended purpose,” McGarrigle said in a statement last week.

Miller dismissed the opposition over burying empty vaults as a tactic from funeral directors frustrated that StoneMor is cutting into their business.

“When we took over the archdiocese cemeteries, we started to sell the merchandise, and that inflamed a handful of funeral directors,” he said. “And they’ve been fighting it ever since, trying to protect their turf.”

Miller also told investors in December that additional cash would come from opening burial gardens in the Philadelphia area Catholic cemeteries for non-Catholic Christians. In the interview last week, he said he still had plans to do so but provided no timeline for that move.

Gavin, the archdiocesan spokesman, said any such move must be approved by the archdiocese, and StoneMor “has not yet sought permission to do so.”

Some investors have expressed skepticism about StoneMor’s plans.

“There’s been no specificity, it’s basically been trust us, things haven’t worked so well recently, but they’re going to get better,” one, Jeffrey Schwarz of Metropolitan Capital Advisors, said in the Dec. 14 call. “I could be wrong, but I for one would love to see a little bit more meat on the bones.”

One lawsuit, filed in Philadelphia on behalf of a shareholder by the Berwyn-based Weiser Law Firm, calls StoneMor’s business model “a financial shell game” based on making false and misleading statements.

That and other lawsuits allege that StoneMor had to amend its financial reports last year because the Securities and Exchange Commission required it to stop relying on flawed metrics, and that their new reports resulted in lower revenue and distributable cash flow.

Miller said last week the lawsuits had “no merit.” He characterized investors’ allegations as confusion over StoneMor’s business model, because it relies heavily on pre-need sales.

“We have an enormously strong balance sheet,” Miller said. “The company is a very, very strong company.”

Gavin, the spokesman for the archdiocese, said the lease with StoneMor allows church officials to monitor the company’s records and compliance.

It also requires StoneMor to pay property taxes on the cemeteries where they are taxed, although the archdiocese must shoulder some of the tax burden for the first 11 years.

One such battle is ongoing in Delaware County, where the Marple Newtown School District claims the $1.85 million assessment for the 321-acre SS. Peter and Paul cemetery should be millions more than it is, and StoneMor claims the property deserves tax exemption as a religious worship site.

Similar cases are underway in Montgomery County, where StoneMor is challenging the county board of assessment’s decision to revoke cemeteries’ tax-exempt status after they were leased to StoneMor.

Miller attributes the company’s decrease in cash flow to leasing the Catholic cemeteries in Philadelphia and costs associated with building up a sales force here. Despite the ongoing litigation and criticism, he said StoneMor officials remain confident and hope to make similar deals with other Catholic cemeteries across the country.

“We make attempts periodically to reach out,” Miller said, “because there’s a lot of archdioceses in financial trouble.”

'12 Philly.ComLogoSee original article, “Company operating Philadelphia Catholic cemeteries faces lawsuits, criticism” on Philly.com

Cemetery, Vermont, USA

Know Your Options: Burials

A burial is defined as an act or ceremony of burying a dead person or object in a grave, often synonymous with “interment,” the placing of human remains in an underground enclosure. In the funeral industry, a burial is a means of final disposition that ends with burial in the ground or in a crypt in a mausoleum.

Erik Jan Leunsink }Unsplash|

Erik Jan Leunsink }Unsplash|

Once the most prevalent type of funeral arrangement in the U.S., now only 50% of the population elects for burial. Adding to this trend are changing religious views as some religions have begun loosening their view on cremation vs. burial. Others are looking for simpler means of final disposition.

Burial Options

Deciding on burial as a means of disposition is just the start of decisions. As consumer funeral preferences change, so has the rise of more diverse burial options being offered. There are a plethora of choices you can make – from an in-ground or above ground funeral to a green and natural burial or home burial.

Ground Burial

In-ground burials typically involve a plot for which to inter the deceased, a casket, and vault or grave-liner (as required by the cemetery). Often a plot is marked by a memorial tribute such as a headstone or grave-marker of some sort.

Above Ground Burial

Types of Mausoleums |Everplans|

Types of Mausoleums |Everplans|

A burial that occurs above ground involves the use of a crypt in a mausoleum which can be either communal or private. A public, or community mausoleum is a building that provides space for the interment of multiple individuals and families. A crypt may house one person or two, similar to an in-ground grave.

Private mausoleums are the ultimate above ground interment option. Often built to resemble a small house, it ensures maximum privacy, prestige and personalization as well as the ability to be laid to rest alongside your family and loved ones.

Green or Natural Burial

A Handmade Pine Coffin from DBCWW on Amazon is considered a green/natural burial casket and is quite affordable.

Hand made pine coffins are biodegradable, affordable and available for purchase on Amazon.com

Green burials are burials carried out in a way that creates the least negative impact to our environment. This includes using a biodegradable casket or shroud, foregoing embalming, and finding space that does not require the use of vaults or grave liners. All of these choices allow a more natural decomposition of the interred body.

Green and natural burials seek to cause the least damage as possible by aiding in the conservation of natural resources, reducing carbon emissions that may be released with cremation, protection of worker health from embalming toxins, and the restoration and preservation of natural habitats.

Home Burial

The burial of a deceased individual on private property is referred to as a home burial. Most common in rural areas, home burials offer a more economical, convenient and intimate alternative to a traditional burial. It is legal to bury your loved ones on private property in rural and semi-rural areas in nearly every state. Municipality approval, legal mandates and re-sale value of the property are some aspects of home burial that may need to be considered. For more information regarding your specific state, see our state by state end of life guides.

Burial Services

After you have decided the sort of burial you want, you may have to decide what sort of services you’d like to have. Below you can find some of your service options.

Home Funeral

Home funerals, or family-led funerals, encourage a family to take control of the funeral process and care for their own loved one in the hours and days following their death.

A home funeral may consist of a few hours to a few days of keeping the body home to care for your loved one, prepare them for burial (or cremation), and allow friends and family to stop in and say one last goodbye. It may also involve transporting the body to the cemetery in the family van or truck bed or hearse.

Home funerals may include engaging professionals, clergy and funeral directors among them, or more commonly be handled exclusively by family, friends, neighbors.”

Immediate Burial

The simplest form of burial, an Immediate Burial is the most cost-effective choice. It involves no service, no embalming, and the body is buried shortly after death and in a simple, untreated container. No viewing or visitation is involved though a memorial service may be held at the grave-site or anywhere else a family wishes.

Burial with Graveside Service

Graveside services can follow a traditional funeral or immediate burial, preceed a memorial service, or be a stand-alone event held at a grave-site, mausoleum or crypt. Common among some religious groups, such as with Judaism or Islam, burial with a graveside service is, in it’s simplest form, is an immediate burial where the family and friends may be present for the interment.

Some funeral homes may allow family to be present as part of the cost of an immediate burial and others may allow a family to add a graveside service to the cost of a burial. As such, this type of service may be slightly more expensive than an immediate burial. Also keep in mind grave-site preparation fees for things like opening & closing the grave, officiant fees for a committal service (if desired), and perpetual fees for landscaping and keeping up the cemetery grounds.

Burial with Funeral Service

Held at a church, funeral home, or elsewhere, a funeral service memorializes the deceased with their body present. Without a viewing, embalming is not necessary, which can save you from additional fees, though the use of a funeral home may raise the costs.

Full Service Funeral

Often referred to as a “traditional” burial, full service burials include the works; a viewing the night before or day of, a funeral service, procession to the cemetery, and often a short graveside or committal service before a ground burial or placement in a crypt. If a public viewing is had, funeral homes may require a body to be embalmed and dressed. This, in addition to hearse rental, funeral service, plot, casket and committal makes it the most expensive funeral and burial option.

Burial and Funeral Terms to Know

Committal Service

A committal service is the final portion of the funeral process when the casket is lowered into the ground as final words, prayers and wishes are spoken.

Plot

A designated section of land, a plot is a space within a cemetery for rights of interment which can be purchased. Above and below ground burials often have the choice of single or double plots, also known as companion plots. Companion plots are burial ground with space for the remains of two individuals and are sold either side-by-side or stacked. Family plots are another option in which a designated area can be purchased for use by members of a family.

Click here for a full Glossary for Funeral & Cemetery Terms.

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The Women Who Love Death

Young women are more paranoid about their own demise than ever before. Enter “death positivity,” a new female-driven trend aimed at turning that fear on its head.

About a dozen people are gathered at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, New York for its monthly death café, an event designed to prompt discussions about, as you may have guessed, death. We’re sitting in the library at a dark wood table topped with two emerald green banker’s lamps. What I see when I look around: specimen jars, wax figurines, anatomy prints, preserved butterflies, books, religious artwork, and a set of human teeth displayed in a black case like a pair of earrings at Claire’s. For two hours, we chat about our own experiences with death, learn about alternative funerals and “green” burials, and nod at phrases like “closure is a myth” and “to talk about death is to appreciate life” while eating shortbread cookies.

THAT’S THE THING ABOUT “DEATH POSITIVITY”—IT’S NOT ABOUT WANTING TO DIE. IT’S ABOUT FEELING BETTER ABOUT DEATH IN ORDER TO FEEL BETTER ABOUT LIVING.

“It’s refreshing,” Gianina Galatro, a 26-year-old media planner, says of attending her fourth death café today. “Bring up death in a random room, and it’s like, ‘Wow, way to bring down the mood.’ But whenever I leave a death café, I feel so happy.”

The leading women in death: Sarah Troop (left), Megan Rosenbloom (middle), Caitlin Doughty (right) photo: Scott Troyan

That’s the thing about “death positivity”—it’s not about wanting to die, looking forward to dying, or fantasizing when and where and how it’ll happen. It’s about feeling better about death in order to feel better about living. It’s about, in a way, alleviating the I’m-sure-something-horrible-is-going-to-happen-to-me paranoia that grips so many young women these days.

In fact, the “death positivity” movement is being led by women—female morticians, writers, academics, and artists—as an answer. Their cause has evolved over the last few years from online communities to annual events to, now, an entire museum.

Caitlin Doughty, 32, was there at the beginning. In fact, she’s pretty much the mother of the whole thing. (The New York Times bestselling author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, she’s credited with coining the term “death positivity” and for spurring the phenomenon of more open conversations about dying with her popular YouTube series Ask a Mortician.) “It’s not, ‘Oh, your dad died? Just be positive about it. It’s okay!'” she explains of the movement’s goal. “It’s realizing the fact that we’re all going to die is our greatest cultural force. It affects our desire to achieve, have children, get married. It affects everything we do.”

Not that Millennials need reminding that death looms large around every possible corner.

Maybe it’s all the apps and fitness trackers that tell us exactly how alive we are at any given moment. Or the constant stream of new studies revealing that everything we love will give us cancer. Or the collective mourning on social media that immediately follows a celebrity death. Or the incessant mass shootings and Reddit threads that follow them. Or the chilling headlines about young women being raped and murdered while out on a jog, while leaving the office, while on vacation.

For all these reasons and then some, young women are experiencing death anxiety more than ever. In data pulled for Marie Claire by OkCupid.com earlier this spring, only 28 percent of male users answered yes to the question: “Have you created a ‘Things To Do Before I Die’ list?” That’s nearly half the percentage of female users who answered the question the same way (52.6 percent). Part of it, perhaps, is timing. According to a study published in 2007 by a group of University of North Florida, Jacksonville researchers, death anxiety peaks for men and women in their 20s, but for women, there’s a “secondary spike” during their 50s, which men don’t experience.

DJ Andi Harriman spinning at the Morbid Anatomy Museum’s fundraising gala after-party photo: Eric Ogden

There’s also this: Today we don’t engage with death in the way we might if we time-traveled back to a period before vaccines and the marvels of modern medicine. Before you could pick up protein at Whole Foods without raising and slaughtering it yourself. Before you visited dying loved ones at a sterile hospital rather than tending to them at home.

Without a regular face-to-face relationship with death, we’ve developed an aversion to the subject entirely.

But, it turns out, death can be sort of fun.

At the after-party for the Morbid Anatomy Museum’s annual fundraising gala this past April, guests—older artistic types who look like cooler versions of your parents, and hipster-y 20-to-30 somethings with beards and bangs and lots of black—chatted with each other between trips to the bar about near-death experiences and how they’d like to die. There were tarot card readings. An insect petting zoo. And even a palm reader, who held her iPhone over my two palms in the dimly lit space to tell me I’ll find true love later in life, not when I’m old-old but when I’m middle aged. Bad news for my boyfriend, who pays for the reading when I learn she’s cash-only. The good news, though, is that I’ll avoid certain death for at least another two decades. “It’s the funnest place I’ve ever been,” says Tonya Hurley, 45, New York Times bestselling author behind the ghostgirl fiction series and founding board member of the museum, “being surrounded by all this death!”

For the rest of us who may not have warmed up to the topic quite yet, part of our uneasiness, says Bri Barton, a 27-year-old artist in Philadelphia, is based on certain societal values. “Our culture is youth- and growth-focused,” she says. “Anything that reminds of us of decay or mortality terrifies us.” Last November, Barton self-published an all-ages coloring book titled Everything Dies! A Coloring Book About Life!, the first 1,000 printing of which sold out in four months. The project began as a way of coping with a “string of sudden deaths” when Barton lost six loved ones in an eight-month period. “All of these people are dying around me and all I wanted to do was talk about it,” she says. “But every time I mentioned ‘this person died,’ everyone froze and no one knew what to say next. And it was just like, dude, there’s one thing that happens to all of us. We have to be able to talk about it.”

People do talk about it in small (but growing) circles of similar-minded people. Take Death Salon, the discussions, panels, performances, even parties that make up the events arm of Doughty’s non-profit Order of the Good Death. The group’s first-ever event took place in October 2013 at L.A. rock venue Bootleg Theater—and the turnout shocked organizers. “No one knew our name, and we didn’t do a ton of promotion, but when we showed up it was sold out,” says Megan Rosenbloom, 34, co-founder and director of Death Salon and a medical librarian at the University of Southern California. “We didn’t have any seats because it’s a rock club, but people sat on the floor because they wanted to watch everything to the end. We were like, Wow, okay, something is happening here.” There have been five events since (in London, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Houston, and another in L.A., at the Getty Villa).

WITHOUT A REGULAR FACE-TO-FACE RELATIONSHIP WITH DEATH, WE’VE DEVELOPED AN AVERSION TO THE SUBJECT ENTIRELY.

Rosenbloom thinks about death every day—which, to her, is a good thing. “There are a lot of studies that say people who think about death more are actually happier because humans are wired to value things that are perceived as finite,” she says. And she’s gained a sense of preparedness for the inevitable losses to come. Earlier this year, her experience at Death Salons helped Rosenbloom cope with an unexpected death in her family, from making funeral arrangements (pro tip: you don’t need to embalm a body before it’s cremated, something funeral directors often fail to explain before charging you for the unnecessary expense) to what not to say to grieving family members (“she’s in a better place” and “everything happens for a reason” = particular pain points). Sometimes you have to get comfortable with the idea of a crisis before it’s staring you in the face.

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The Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, N.Y. photo: Eric Ogden

Like on a recent Saturday afternoon inside the basement of the Morbid Anatomy Museum, where everyone—11 women and one man seemingly plucked from the pages of an Urban Outfitters catalog—is hunched over their plates in concentration. Somewhere else, this could be brunch. But there are no mimosas here. Just tiny dead white mice being skinned.

Divya Anantharaman, 32, stands in the center of the room encouraging the attendees to dive in, her purple ombre hued hair in a messy bun. For the former Pratt Institute design student, taxidermy was a hobby until three years ago when she quit her freelance fashion work and turned the practice into her full-time job; now she teaches an increasingly popular sustainably-sourced taxidermy workshop in Brooklyn.

“IT’S THE FUNNEST PLACE I’VE EVER BEEN, BEING SURROUNDED BY ALL THIS DEATH!”

Fellow taxidermist Katie Innamorato, 26, who has the long wavy brunette locks and casual pitch-black style of an off-duty metal-band frontwoman, theorizes about the surging interest in their artform: “It’s another way for people to relate back to nature and to death.” Both women teach regularly sold-out classes, which cost between $100 and $450, in cities like L.A., Portland, Detroit, and Atlanta, with women, mostly in the 20s through 40s, making up the majority of their students. This month, Anantharaman and Innamorato released a part how-to, part history book on the subject, Stuffed Animals.

Katrina Spade, founder and executive director of the Urban Death Project in Seattle photo: Rania Spade

The fact that women are both driving and consuming the death positivity trend is not exactly coincidental. The women in death movement is actually a resurgence. “Typically death care [tending to the dying, making arrangements for funerals and wakes, preparing the body for burial] was considered feminine work,” says Sarah Troop, 41, curator at the Lindsey Museum Gallery in central California and executive director of the Order of the Good Death. “That was taken out of our hands and professionalized by men who said, ‘This is not something you can do, there’s science here, it’s a business, this is not a place for you.’

“Not today, and not anymore. Just look at mortuary science schools, Troop says, where classes are now “overwhelmingly comprised of female students.” (More than 60 percent of mortuary school students are female, according to National Funeral Directors Association.) Or outside the classroom where entrepreneurial women like Katrina Spade, the founder and executive director of the Urban Death Project in Seattle, W.A., are finding ways to decompose dead bodies at a faster-than-normal pace to turn them into soil for use in green spaces.

Ask any woman in the movement and she’ll tell you that constantly thinking about death is one of the best things that ever happened to her. Being reminded that we’re “mortal creatures,” as Doughty puts it, forces a sort of clarity about not sweating the small stuff. “It makes you focus on and appreciate the moments you have,” Spade says.

A sense of humor helps, too. “I’ve always been a little afraid of dying,” Spade admits, “but now when I get on a plane, I’m like, I can’t die. I’m going to a meeting about the Urban Death Project. It’d be too ironic.

Originally published by  Oct 31, 2016 in Marie Claire.

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FCA Philadelphia Newsletter: Summer 2016

FCA of Greater Philadelphia Summer 2016 Newsletter:

Beating the high cost of funerals:

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David Morrison, President of the Greater Philadelphia FCA chapter

With hard work from our board and volunteers, we now have over 140 General Price Lists from funeral homes all over the greater Philadelphia area. Direct cremation ranges from $700 to $4,465 (for the same thing!), and immediate burial from $900 to over $7,000! Wow.

Consumers turn to us for guidance and answers. With our help a daughter took on the chairman of the PA State Funeral Board for refusing to transfer prepaid funds to another funeral home. She then took the issue to the State Funeral Board which resulted in him being voted out of the chairmanship.

“My wife has just passed away, and I have been out of work for a while. I really have nothing, not even for cremation. What can I do?”

We told him about the Anatomy Gifts Registry (tissue and organ donation). “She would really have liked that.” In four weeks he had her ashes back — cost, $35. “I am so grateful.”

Negotiating the funeral:

Our members save thousands by shopping around, asking for a General Price List, and choosing only what they want. Remember, the FTC funeral rule states that you have the right to decline anything you do not want. 

Not Using Funeral Directors:

A member of a funeral group for Nepalese refugees died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 46. A hexagonal coffin from an Amish cabinet maker cost $315. His friends and family dug the grave. Total cost of the funeral and cemetery costs — $815. With the help of FCA, no funeral director was needed, although the experience of the Nepalese funeral group for the paper work was essential. We now have several religious groups in PA who handle their own. Would you be interested in having a speaker explain how this can be done to your group? We also speak about alternatives to the traditional funeral, home funerals, green burial, how to shop for funerals, cemetery rights and more. Please call (267-712-9695) or email to discuss or if you’d like more information!

Legislation:

We are working with the PA Funeral Directors Association on a problem we share — making sure Designated Agent forms are recognized. We need a simple statute that recognizes a funeral agent, regardless of how it is designated – in a funeral home questionnaire, a “Last Wishes” form, Before I Go Kit, etc.

Meet Our New Board Member:

3d4db1bThe Reverend Patrick Walker, Board Member.

As an ordained United Methodist clergy person, Patrick is personally familiar with the funeral industry in our country and in particular Pennsylvania. He has been looking for the opportunity to explore and assist in alternatives to what has become our “traditional” funeral practices.

Patrick learned about green burials from an article on Promessa (www.promessa.se.) Promessa is an ecological burial process introduced by biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak of Sweden. Here is her TED Talk:

Patrick also brings a background in non-profit development and fundraising, and he remains active on several non-profit boards in South Central PA. He sought out the FCA after doing his own online research. “What they are providing makes a lot of sense to me,” said Rev. Walker, “they are teachers — providing knowledge to the general public that has been hidden by the industry and avoided by our cultural disassociation with death.”

He resides in Northern York County and is a Community Engagement Specialist with Church World Service. He began his tenure on the Board of the FCA of Philadelphia at the April Board meeting.

Dying is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing to do with it

– Somerset Maugham

Don’t Pre-pay:

We encourage planning ahead, but discourage paying ahead.

Why? Pre-paid contracts are restrictive. You might die while traveling. You might move. You might change your mind about what you want. The funeral home you chose might be sold to someone you neither like or trust (such as a corporation) or it might go out of business. Pre-paid funds can be raided. The merchandise you chose and paid for might no longer be available by the time you die.

Why would you consider pre-paying? Most people say it’s because they don’t want to be a burden to their survivors and want “everything taken care of.” Unfortunately, even with the best planning, you can’t take care of everything. Your death will be a sad event and involve some decision-making by your survivors. The best thing you can do to make their time easier is to figure out what you want and share your wishes with them. Ask us for our planning form! (And see article on back page about our kit, Before I Go.)

If you are you worried that your survivors will have trouble coming up with the funds to pay for your services, consider setting the money aside in a joint savings account with a trusted friend or relative who knows your wishes.

One reason to pre-pay is if you are spending down for Medicaid for institutionalization. The money goes into an irrevocable trust, which means it cannot, by law, be cancelled or refunded. However, you can switch funeral homes.

Reminder:

As an advocacy group for consumers, we educate the public on their rights and options when planning for and/or purchasing funeral goods and services. We do not, however, offer financial assistance of any kind, or have access to any funds to distribute or donate for those needing money. We are available for phone consultations or email to answer your questions and help you make plans, and will always do our best to show you how you can reduce your costs either in advance or at time of need.


 

This content was originally published by the Funeral Consumer Alliance of Philadelphia. The original newsletter can be found here.

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Cremation Not Included: FCA Study Reveals All

When a loved one passes away, those tasked with arranging funerals and settling estates have to make a multitude of decisions during a stressful time and on a deadline. Cremation? Burial? Embalming? Organ Donation? The possibilities are endless and the choices made often have a lasting effect and although we try to make the most informed decision possible, no one really knows all the questions to ask. So when the Federal Trade Commission created the Funeral Rule in 1984, which requires funeral homes and providers to disclose all their disposition option,rates and pricing on a General Price List, consumers were reassured and confident their rights were being protected. But when a funeral home falsifies or fails to disclose important pricing information, what happens?

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On September 12 the Consumer Federation of America’s Executive Director  Stephen Brobeck and Josh Slocum, the Executive Director of the Funeral Consumer Alliance held a teleconference following the spontaneous release of an in-depth study on the cost of dying, with a special report on the cost of simple cremation, in America. The results were nothing short of surprising.

The CFA and FCA investigated 142 funeral homes in the top ten metropolitan cities in America including Atlanta, Denver, D.C., Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Princeton, Seattle, Southern California, and Tucson. They examined the General Price Lists disclosed by the homes, compared them to the actual fees charged, as well as the practices and services provided and found a substantial difference in cremation pricing and blatant exploitation of a loophole revealed in the Funeral Rule laws.

Of 142 funeral homes and cremation businesses surveyed:

—prices for Direct Cremation ranged from $495 to $7,595.

— 33 of funeral homes failed to list legally required options and disclosures on their general price lists. This is a direct violation of the Funeral Rule.

—Of the 46 funeral homes that post Direct Cremation prices on their websites, 12 (26%) failed to offer these options and disclosures. If the Funeral Rule applied to websites, these would be in violation.

—Thirty-one of the surveyed funeral homes (22%) advertised a price for their Direct Cremation package that failed to include the cost of the cremation process itself, making the price for a simple cremation seem artificially low. Though this is not a direct violation of the Funeral Rule, it is inherently deceptive and the FTC should bar this practice.

According to the report, the Funeral Rule requires funeral homes to provide two options when selecting cremation as the chosen means of final disposition:

“The price of Direct Cremation when the customer supplies their own casket or cardboard “alternative container” to hold the body prior to cremation, such as a homemade casket or a container bought from a third-party retailer,”

And

“The price of Direct Cremation when the customer buys the funeral home’s least expensive alternative container.”

But of the 142 funeral homes investigated, 23% of them failed to list the legally required service options which is a direct violation of the Funeral Rule. In addition, the advertised prices for a simple cremation and the actual cost differed $200, at least, and $595 at most. With the cost of cremation not included in the GPL, low and middle-income consumers were at risk being blindsided by the exorbitant fees and unable to afford even the most simple method of disposition.

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Since the services provided with a simple cremation does not vary between one funeral home and another, the prices and the differences did not add up. A Direct Cremation consists of picking up and transporting the body, filing paperwork, and returning the ashes to the family. There are no ceremonies included, no casket, and no ornamental urn aside from the basic container when a direct or simple cremation is chosen and yet, prices could vary as much as 200 percent for the same service in the same city, according to the report. While many funeral homes use third-party crematories, as they do not have their own, these crematories charge somewhere between $250 and $400 for a cremation, pointing to a large discrepancy in ethical practices and pricing. But if the 2012, 2013 and 2014 lawsuits filed against a NY, Montgomery and D.C. funeral home by the FTC are any indication, the people will soon have their justice.

The full report can be accessed here.

The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).

The FTC educates and provides comprehensive guidance services to businesses and consumers in how to comply. For more information read Shopping for Funeral Services, Paying Final Respects:  Your Rights When Buying Funeral Goods and Services, and Complying with the Funeral Rule.