Newsletter Articles

by Valerie Friedman

I believe that it is our responsibility to our loved ones to prepare what is referred to as a "letter of final instruction". It provides someone who would have to step into our shoes with all the information they need to handle our affairs if we are unable to do so, because of disability or death. You might ask why this is necessary if you have been responsible and have prepared a will and other estate planning documents. The will does, indeed, describe how assets are to be distributed, but that assumes  the executor knows the whereabouts of all assets. Without this letter of final instructions, it could be very time consuming and expensive to reconstruct everything one would need to know to make sure that all affairs are properly handled. This letter is an adjunct to the will.

But it is also much more. It covers areas such as insurance coverage and contact information, location of safe deposit boxes, funeral arrangements, professional advisors, location of important papers, mortgage and other credit details, location and ownership of investment and bank accounts and real estate, etc. This information does not appear in a will, nor is professional assistance required to prepare the letter of final instructions. All it takes is a willingness to spend the time to accomplish the task.

I experienced first hand the importance of a letter of instructions when my mother's stroke left her incapacitated and left me -- in a flash -- responsible for managing her affairs. Fortunately, my mother had such a document prepared, and I was able to take over easily. I then prepared one for myself, and have kept it updated ever since. I give copies to people close to me, and every year, I make it a point to update the document to reflect the changes in my life.

The first letter you prepare is a daunting task, because there is so much information to organize. I suggest you wait for a long and rainy day, because it will take time. The annual revisions are much easier, especially if you save the information on your computer. You can tailor the information to your own needs, but the point is to get it done, distribute copies to your loved ones, and keep it updated regularly.

I urge you to take this seriously, because it is our duty not to dump this onerous task on those we care about. It is a time consuming task and we are the ones with access to the information. Imagine what the task means to our loved ones, who in a time of crisis are desperately trying to reconstruct our lives, likely with the assistance of professionals who are being paid handsomely for their time. And all of these problems can be avoided, if we give our loved ones the gift of preparing for a time when we cannot take care of our own affairs.

by George Schmidt

My father died in 1962 when I was 16 years old. He had married late in life, had very little insurance and was receiving a small pension which was immediately stopped by his former employer. He left his widow, my brother who was a first classman (senior) at the United States Naval Academy, and me. To state the obvious, we were not left "well off" financially at his passing.

It was his desire to have a "minimal" funeral with a closed casket, no public viewing and to be cremated. He had been a leader of our Episcopal church -- senior warden, vestryman, treasurer, building committee chairman -- and in these positions, he had had a great deal of contact with local businessmen. One of these men was the director of a funeral home located just a few doors away from the church. The funeral director was also an acquaintance of Dad's with whom he had played golf. He was fully aware of our family's circumstances.

We naturally turned to this man to help with Dad's requested arrangements. To put it mildly, we were completely ripped off. I still can remember the sales pitch in the "showroom" describing what my Dad would have wanted and certainly deserved for a full service, embalming, and an expensive casket that wound up being burned within a week. And of course, as we were at our most vulnerable, we succumbed to it all. I don't remember the total bill, but I believe it was well into four figures -- and, remember, this was 1962. Some months later, when the realization of what had happened sank into us, it left a distinct impression on my mother, my brother and me that has not been altered or ameliorated in the 46 years since Dad's passing.

As a consequence, all of us swore to each other that our funerals would be different -- simple, dignified and with a minimum of financial burden on those we left behind.  So I joined the Funeral Consumer Alliance and I am most happy and grateful that I did. My mother recently passed away -- in her 99th year, God bless her! -- after a brief period of at-home hospice care. I called FCA on how to effect the kind of funeral we desired. My call was answered promptly and I was steered in a direction that proved to be exactly what we wanted as a family. Rather than a local funeral home, we selected a New Haven service which provided us with a direct cremation that was handled with professional competence and a caring, sensitive attitude. The services and expenses were fully described at the initial meeting and exactly matched the final invoice. We were able to save at least $1,000 over the closest "minimum" price that was advertised by local funeral homes -- something that would have made my mother extremely happy!

There is a sequel; we prepared a 325 word obituary and submitted it electronically to our local newspaper. The paper called and said that the price to publish the obituary would be $286.48! I was astounded and my mother would have been appalled -- and even the woman who called me apologized for the price, noting that she was only the messenger! But I quickly figured it out: a newspaper requires that a funeral director verify a death and there is an implicit alliance to encourage spending on all facets of death. When you receive your invoice for services from the funeral home, which could be $6,000, $8,000 or $10,000, you are unlikely to note a $300 charge for an obituary. Needless to say, there was no obituary for my mother printed, As someone who lived through the Great Depression as the sole support of her widowed mother, her sister and herself, she would have been more than pleased with this decision too.

By Jean T.D. Bandler

We appreciate those funeral homes that responded to our price list requests, but remain puzzled that most ignored our letters, apparently willing to keep their charges a secret. We are also surprised that several homes reported the price lists "were unavailable" or provided incomplete "estimates". We are thankful for the hard work of many FCA volunteers who helped bring our total to over 60%. All lists were read for FTC violations here at our Connecticut office and by our Vermont experts.

The General Price Lists (GPLs) receive a mixed report, with some fine features, some areas of improvement, some items which "need work" and many poor features and failures.

No Honor Roll Candidates: No funeral home or cremation service made the honor roll with excellent compliance with Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rules and reasonable (for Connecticut) prices. Funeral homes, often those run by large corporate chains, with 100% FTC compliance had exorbitant charges, which our readers deemed "astronomical" and "outrageous". Establishments with moderate prices all had some FTC  problems and errors, both minor and major.

Gold Stars for Good Features:

  •   The explicit notation, by one funeral home, that the shelter charge applied only after the first four days;
  •   The FTC pamphlet Funerals: A Consumer Guide sent by some;
  •   The clear statement of one funeral establishment, that alternate and cremation containers were suitable for burial.

Good Progress in Some Areas:

  •   The elimination by many homes of hidden, illegal casketing handling fees when a casket is purchased elsewhere;
  •   The use of required FTC disclosures on embalming ("not necessary, may choose cremation or direct burial") and on Professional Service (covers planning, overhead,) by significantly more funeral homes;
  •   The clear statements, by more funeral homes, on whether or not crematory and medical examiner's charges are included in cremation price.

Failing Marks for Illegal Pricing Tricks:

  •   The effort by several establishments to insert a new, hidden and illegal casketing fee, (from $115 to $500) if an alternate container is used; The continuing practice of some funeral homes to use an illegal casketing  fee when a casket is purchased elsewhere;
  •   The continued use by some of extra, illegal charges (taking the body to the crematorium, getting death certificates).

Bad grades for Misleading Assumptions:

  •   Implying that shelter charges begin at the first day rather than after the accepted three or four days;
  •   Implying that sanitary charges are required if there is no embalming; these charges can reach or exceed embalming fees.

Failing Grades for Illegal Omissions:

  • Some price lists omit required services, as the cost of a graveside service with staff and equipment;
  • A number omit the price range of cremation and immediate burial;
  • Some omit the required listing of alternate containers under direct burial and cremation;
  • Others fail to describe the composition of these containers.

Low Grades for Extra (Sometimes Illegal) Verbiage:

  • Some still insist that the basic professional fee covers the funeral director's work during a funeral or memorial service;
  • A few funeral homes continue to describe the erroneous health benefits of embalming;
  • Several funeral homes claim their caskets and vaults are "protective"; others declaim that any goods purchased from a third party "must meet all state and cemetery/crematory requirements".

Unclear Calculations:

  • Many charge the same for a memorial service as a funeral; in a few cases a memorial costs more than a funeral;
  • Some now charge the same or more for receiving a body, as forwarding a body, despite the fact that there is no embalming or paperwork involved;
  • Touted savings on "packages" often fail any frugality test, add some perhaps unwanted products (bookmarks) and sometimes significantly increase costs.

Principal's Office for Bad Conduct and Citizenship:

  • Making money by an automatic imposition of high additional embalming fees for organ donation (ranging from $200 to $400) is a poor way to recognize a humanitarian gift of life;
  • Using rude, intimidating language specifically directed at cremation and immediate burial ("payment in full at time of arrangements", "done at our convenience without ceremony or family participation") is disrespectful to personal choice.

Interesting Price List Prose (and our editorial questions)

  • Only embalmed bodies will be dressed. (Others are just business casual?)
  • We offer a classic cremation package. (Like the Vikings?)
  • Basic fee includes compliance with mandated infectious waste management, employee safety regulations, FTC and OSHA rules? (They charge us to obey the law?)
  • Lowest cost casket - non-protective, no interior?. (That black hole coffin ?)
  • Cremation fees cover...cremation if relevant. (What's the fee if not relevant?)