Back in the 1970’s I read a book entitled, ‘The American Way of Death.’ It gave an overview of the undertaker’s lobby and how Congress had helped the industry keep prices artificially high. It was a real eye-opener.
This week I discovered that the intervening 30 years have done nothing to change the status quo—except maybe make it more entrenched.
I’m my mother’s primary care-giver—an extraordinarily surreal experience when I’m half a continent away from her. Recently, following one of her ‘spells’ during which she was taken to a hospital where she proceeded to rip IV tubes out of her arms, my siblings and I came to the conclusion that it was time to enroll her in hospice care. So, I did that last week.
Then, the hospice suggested that we should begin the process of arranging for ‘disposal of the remains’ [such lovely euphemisms they use].
Our father’s body was cremated in 1998 and our mother has an adjoining spot in the same crypt reserved for her ashes. So, imagine my surprise when I attempted to pre-arrange cremation for my mother’s body and was told that that is impossible under existing laws.
Unless my mother has signed an ‘Appointment of Agent to Control Disposition of Remains’, our family is not allowed to pre-arrange cremation. Burial—yes. Cremation—no.
When the time comes—when my mother’s body is residing in a refrigerator in Texas—each of her four children has to sign an agreement to cremate her remains. And any one of us could, theoretically, refuse, enforcing a burial rather than cremation.
Set aside for the moment the fact that my mother, a victim of Alzheimer’s Disease, is in no position to sign anything. Do YOU feel comfortable bringing up this issue with your elderly parents?
And, guess which of the two processes is more expensive? Yep—you got it in one. Burial is, by far, the more expensive.
As with many families, these days, my siblings are scattered far and wide: One lives in Texas. Another in California. Another is in Missouri. And I’m in Florida. In the most important way, though, we are all together. We know our mother’s wishes and our father's body has already been cremated. None of us is going to have a last minute change of heart—although that was the excuse given me by the director of one of the funeral homes I contacted yesterday.
It’s obvious the undertaker’s lobby earned it’s money when this bit of legislation was passed. At a time when families are most vulnerable— when emotions are running high—an enormous amount of paperwork has to be faxed, FedEx’ed, overnighted or whatever back and forth among everyone involved. If consensus hasn’t already been reached [which thankfully, in our family, it has] it takes only one person to opt for the more expensive process to force it on everyone else.
Never mind the fact that such a rift might be long-lasting and cause years of strife within a family. The funeral director will have gotten his fee. The hell with the rest of us.