Spokane Journal of Business

Taking the first steps in planning your last wishes

Prearranging a funeral still not priority for most

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-—LeAnn Bjerken
Paula Davis, funeral director at Hennessey Funeral Home & Crematory, says about half of the funerals the company handles are burials, despite the rise in popularity of cremations.

While many of us see the value in planning ahead for life’s big events, when it comes to preplanning a funeral, funeral home operators here say most people are still reluctant.

“A lot of people are in denial they’re going to die one day, and others just procrastinate, putting it off until it’s too late,” says Paula Davis, a funeral director with Hennessey Funeral Home & Crematory, at 2203 N. Division, in Spokane. 

While Davis says her passion for her work has only increased over the course of her 16-year career in the industry, the clients she works with haven’t gotten any more proactive in preplanning funerals.

“I encourage people to plan while in good health and a good mood, because those are the times when you can be a bit more lighthearted about it,” she says. “Really, everyone should have a plan, because in the end it’s the kindest gift you can give your loved ones.”

Preplanning isn’t any more popular nationally either, a 2017 survey conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association found. While 74 percent of consumers indicated in the survey that it was very important to communicate their funeral plans and wishes to family members prior to their own death, only a quarter of them said they’ve prearranged all or part of their funeral.

While some people choose to set aside savings for their funeral, others may choose to designate a portion of their life insurance toward funeral expenses. Another option is to purchase a plan in advance through a funeral home, which can be specified to your needs and paid ahead of time. 

While funeral costs can be an issue for some families, Davis says potential costs shouldn’t be the driving factor in funeral planning.

“Cost should be part of your decision, but not the main focus,” she says. “It’s possible to have a good funeral without spending more than you need to.”

National data listed on the National Funeral Directors Association website show that last year the median cost of a funeral with viewing and burial was $7,360, and the median cost of a funeral with viewing and cremation was $6,260.

The organization’s 2018 Cremation & Burial report, which was released in July, indicated the costs of a funeral with burial increased 18 percent from 2000 to 2016, while cost of cremation with viewing has increased 28 percent during the same period. For cremation services, a private viewing can take place prior to the cremation process, or a memorial service can be arranged post-cremation. 

At Hennessey, an average casketed burial with traditional services (embalming, casketing, visitation, transport, etc.) costs around $7,000, while traditional services followed by cremation runs closer to $4,300, Davis says.

“The main differences in price are whether you’ll need a casket versus an urn, and whether you’d like a memorial service included,” she says. “A simple cremation without visitation or memorial service, could be done under $2,000.”

Chuck Wendt is the funeral preplanning manager at Hennessey.

“Unlike a funeral director, preplanning managers have to be licensed in order to sell funeral and burial insurance,” he says. “The biggest benefit to preplanning is that it helps to take away some of that emotional burden for your loved ones.”

Wendt says he starts preplanning by walking clients through a guide that’s designed to gather information to benefit survivors.

“A lot of it is basic information, where to find important documents and things like that,” he says. “From there, we move into more detailed information specific to your wishes.”

He says the next part of the process is narrowing down the potential cost of the funeral arrangements based on those wishes.

“For some people, it’s the first time they’ve talked about any of this stuff, so they might want more time to discuss it with family and consider how to pay for it,” he says. “It’s always better to figure out what you want for yourself, rather than leaving it to chance.”

Wendt says preplanning is a flexible process.

“You can take all the time you need to ease in, discuss things with family, or simply keep all the details on file with us,” he says. “No one I’ve interacted with has ever been upset to find their relative planned ahead.”

Wendt recommends preplanning for several reasons, starting with the fact that plans are based on today’s costs, so prepaying now ensures your loved ones don’t have to pay future prices for a funeral.

“Plans are inflation proof, guaranteeing you today’s prices for your lifetime,” he says. “Plans are also transferable, meaning if you move to live elsewhere, your plan comes with you.”

Wendt says plans can be paid off over a multiyear period, with no interest charges, and are fully insured from the first payment so that if you die before the payments are complete, the funeral is still paid in full and any remaining money is returned to your family tax free.

He says Hennessey also offers burial plans that are Medicaid exempt, meaning they’re not counted when applying for Medicaid coverage, allowing you to preserve those assets for your family.

Julie Adams, general manager for Heritage Funeral Home & Crematory, at 508 N. Government Way, suggests that one big reason people don’t preplan is because they mistakenly think preplanning must include prepayment.

“When we speak with people about prearranging, one of the first things we do is remind them that the process doesn’t necessarily mean you have to put money aside,” she says. “Of course, we hope you’ll lock in those prices because it builds security for both you and your family, but there are many options for how to get there.”

Adams says preplanning can be as simple as just thinking about your wishes and writing them down.

“That’s the first step. The next step is starting an information-only file with your funeral home, so important information that’s needed for things like the death certificate and your obituary is in a safe place,” she says.

“Neither of those steps include any kind of payment, but they are considered part of the preplanning process, and can be very helpful for your loved ones.”

Adams says because Heritage has been making more of an effort to educate clients on preplanning, it has recently begun to see more interest in the process.

“We are starting to see more folks asking about prearrangement,” she says. “I think once they understand, it’s easier for them to see the value in it.”

When it comes to funeral trends, the biggest decision is usually the method of disposition, or how your remains are handled.  While there are several options, the two most people are familiar with are burial and cremation. 

Most recent statistics show the more popular method currently is cremation, with the National Funeral Directors Association’s 2018 Cremation & Burial Report estimating the cremation rate will reach 53.5 percent this year and continue climbing, reaching 80 percent by 2035. 

Washington State Department of Health data show 4,672 Spokane County residents died last year. Among those, 19 percent were buried, and 78 percent were cremated. Two percent were listed as other, which includes donations to medical research, entombment, or removal from State.

Although cremation is more popular, Davis says she estimates that of the 600 funeral services Hennessey Funeral Home completes annually, only about half of are cremations. 

Davis attributes Hennessey’s higher burial rate to the fact that the funeral home is affiliated with the Catholic church, which still officially prefers traditional burials.

When discussing preplanning, Wendt says the most frequent questions usually have to do with cremation versus burial.

“Many people don’t understand that cremation doesn’t rule out having a memorial service,” he says. “A lot of people also ask about the legality of scattering ashes, and a few ask about the possibility of green burials.”

Davis says certain paperwork and arrangements still have to be considered, regardless of whether a client choses burial or cremation.

“You’ll still need to obtain a death certificate and complete other necessary paperwork, choose either a gravesite or a niche to house an urn, plan memorial service details, and create an obituary,” she says.  

Davis says obituaries are particularly tricky to write after a passing, as loved ones are often too tired or emotionally spent to recall names and details.

“As a funeral director, I can help guide you, but it’s really difficult not knowing the deceased personally,” she says. 

That’s why Davis says she conducts classes on obituary writing several times a year.

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken covers health care at the Journal of Business. A Minnesota native and cat lover, she enjoys beachside vacations and writing poetry. LeAnn has worked for the Journal since 2015.

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