Please come to this area in the days to come. We’ll post ASK DRAKE columns from Kamloops This Week and the Senior Connector.
Q: IS MURRAY’S CREMATION FINISHED YET?
A: Alice phoned on Friday to say that Murray died. From the tone of her voice I could tell that she was very upset and probably in shock. Phoning me was probably one of the most difficult phone calls Alice has made in her lifetime.
In the funeral services field that first call is called…the ‘first call’. Although every funeral director wants and tries to be supportive and compassionate, the procedure for taking a ‘first call’ can vary from funeral home to funeral home. Some funeral homes ask many questions, including ‘What were Murray’s wishes?’, ‘What is the name of Murray’s doctor?’, etc. Other funeral homes ask the fewest questions possible during the first call. Why keep Alice on the phone longer than she needs or wants to be? I tend to fall into that camp.
There are some questions that by law we must ask during the first call. We need to know Murray’s first and last name. We need to find out where he is. We need Alice’s name and phone number. We need to confirm that Alice is the person with the legal authority to give us permission to pick Murray up. A lot of spouses are surprised to learn that if Murray has a Will naming cousin Leroy as the Executor, we have to get Leroy’s permission to pick up Murray; Alice doesn’t have the legal authority in such cases.
If Murray died at home we ask a few more questions. Would Alice like us to come over right away, or would she and the family like some more time with Murray? Finally, we ask a couple of questions to help ensure Murray’s ‘transfer’ will be performed with the utmost respect and care: (1) Is Murray a heavier fellow? and (2) Are there stairs or cramped quarters involved? Alice’s answers to these questions will determine the resources (human and equipment) that we need to send to Alice’s house.
Quite often, at some point during the ‘first call’, Alice will say something like “Murray wants to be cremated.” Our response is usually something like “We can certainly help with that.” The conversation will usually end with us inviting Alice to call us in the next day or two so we can meet and go through some documents together.
Alice takes a day or two to get rest, gather some of the information we require and then she calls us. Sometimes the first question Alice asks is “Is Murray’s cremation finished yet?” We reply that Murray cannot be cremated without Alice’s (or, if there is one, the executor’s) written permission; this is one of the documents we go over when we meet Alice personally.
Some callers seem surprised to learn that we haven’t proceeded with Murray’s cremation yet. I’m not really surprised by their reaction however. Unlike yours truly, most people give death, funerals and cremation little or no thought throughout most of their lives; they are too busy getting on with living. Rest assured, however, that your neighbourhood cremation service will not cremate Murray without first receiving permission in writing from the person with legal authority.
Q: SO WE SCATTERED HIS ASHES IN THE RIVER, EVEN THOUGH THAT’S ILLEGAL, ISN’T IT?
A: I hear that question almost every day; people seem to think that scattering a loved one’s ashes (cremated remains) is illegal. So, if they do decide to scatter the ashes, they often sneak out to their loved one’s “favourite spot.” Once there, they anxiously – almost sheepishly — pour the ashes out, fearing that they might “get caught!” That’s a shame. There is nothing in the British Columbia funeral and cremation law that prohibits a person from scattering a loved one’s ashes, even in a river or on top of a mountain. Of course, an environmental group or government department might have some concerns about that!
I believe that when a loved one’s ashes are scattered it should be treated as a very important moment. After all it is, in effect, the final goodbye concerning the loved one’s cremated body. So, if Murray says “I want to be scattered by my favourite fishing hole!” why shouldn’t his wife Alice, the kids and the grandchildren, along with other family and friends, feel comfortable heading out there on a nice sunny day?
Having said all that, there are laws against – pardon the expression – “littering.” So, if you’re going to scatter ashes on someone else’s private property, or on government or crown land, you might be taken to task. But this would be the case whether you were leaving behind your prize geranium, a lovely piece of art or cremated remains. It would be courteous and important to get permission first. And some people (including some government officials) may say “No…you can’t do that there!” One would have to respect that, wouldn’t one?
Q: WHY DO FUNERAL HOMES WANT ME TO PREPAY?
A: Have you seen the ads on TV telling you to buy life insurance to help cover your $10,000 funeral! Talk about fear mongering; the average funeral costs way less. Cremation with a Celebration of Life can cost around $3,000! What about the ads on the radio telling you to get your affairs in order and achieve ‘peace of mind’ by talking to a ‘friendly counsellor’ in the funeral home? Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Canadians see and hear these ads each year and march into their local funeral home, cheque book in hand. I’d like to tell you about the funeral pre-payment industry, how it works, and what you might wish to consider before you decide to write the cheque!
Pre-paying your funeral or cremation isn’t necessarily a bad idea, as long as you know what you’re doing. And most people don’t know what they’re signing when they pre-pay. Do you read every word on every contract you sign? I don’t. Why? Because the print is so tiny, it’s usually several pages long, you may not want to keep the salesperson waiting while you read it, and you’d have to have a Philadelphia lawyer there to translate the gobbledygook anyway. But remember, the fine print is there for a reason. And the companies who write these forms know exactly what they say and mean…they hired the Philadelphia lawyers to make sure of it!
A couple of examples might drive this point home. One lady told me that she pre-paid her funeral several years ago, and the funeral home set up a trust account for her money. It sounded good, but when she told the funeral home that she wanted to transfer her funeral arrangements to another funeral home in a different town, the first funeral home kept 20% of her money. And she got almost no interest on the money they’d held for over 20 years! They’d done very little work, but kept $600 of her $3000 policy, almost all the interest it produced, and it was completely legal for them to do so! I advise clients to avoid trust funds like the plague!
The other option is for the funeral home to send your money to an insurance company. But the insurance companies have great lawyers and their contracts have fine print too! One lady in the Kamloops area recently told me that she was paying $40 per month for 10 years for her cremation and memorial service. But her circumstances changed and she couldn’t afford to keep making the payments. So she cancelled her pre-payment plan. She’d contributed about $700 to the funeral insurance company. How much do you think she got back when she cancelled? You guessed it…zip! Zilch! Why? Because the fine print said she wouldn’t get any refund if she cancelled. She told me that if she’d known she would lose all her money for cancelling, she wouldn’t have signed the contract!
So, why are funeral homes so eager to have you pre-pay? Pre-paying your funeral generates significant commissions for the funeral home or the insurance agent. It also literally or figuratively locks you in with the funeral home; if you pre-pay with Acme Funeral Home, you’re less likely to end up at a different funeral home when the time comes than if you don’t pre-pay.
Am I against pre-paying? No. Pre-paying your funeral may give you peace of mind; that’s for you to decide. It’s done so for many thousands of people over the years. And there are many wonderful funeral directors and insurance agents out there. But, as the old saying goes, “the devil is in the details” and the details are in the fine print. If you’re thinking of pre-paying your funeral, save this article and take it with you to the funeral home or when you meet with the insurance sales person/‘friendly counsellor’. Take a family member with you. Trust your gut when you meet the funeral director or agent. Take your time before signing anything. Read the fine print!
Q: WHAT HAPPENS WHEN DEATH HITS THE BLENDED FAMILY? HOW DO YOU AVOID THE MESS?
A: Who needs to watch horror flicks on TV? When someone in a blended family dies, you can almost bet the next few days, weeks or years will be scary and full of drama. A couple of examples might help make the point. Years ago Murray left Alice and the kids and married Suzie, a single mom. Murray and Suzie lived semi-happily ever after, but the kids didn’t like their new siblings at all. (They didn’t like their step-parents much either!) The inevitable day arrived – Murray died. As next of kin, Suzie cremated him and kept the ashes, or maybe she scattered them somewhere. No one knew for sure, because Suzie wouldn’t tell her step-kids what became of Murray; she only told her own kids. Now that’s just plain mean! But it’s a true story. Now Murray’s kids hate Suzie more than ever, and they are devastated by the literal loss of their Dad.
Here’s another horror story (with a hint of black comedy), but it’s also true. Frank’s second wife buried Frank’s ashes in the cemetery. A few weeks later, the kids from Frank’s first marriage put so much pressure on step-mom that she caved in, allowing the Frank’s kids to dig up his ashes and bury them in a different cemetery! A few months later, the kids caved and step-mom relocated Frank back to the first cemetery! What kind of emotions were going on throughout this saga? And you can bet the saga continues, in some form or another!
Not all blended families behave like this when a death occurs. But death often seems to amplify underlying discord, doesn’t it? For many people, that discord may have started the moment Dad or Mom took up with someone new, whether as a result of divorce or widowhood. The step-parent became the villain; the step-children became the threat. The cold war was on, and the feelings were never resolved.
So, if you have a blended family on your hands, and you want to avoid a potential horror story when death occurs, what can you do? Well, you could go to group counselling for a couple of years, but that would cost a fortune and it might not work anyhow. Instead, I’d suggest you pile your spouse and the adult children into the station wagon, and visit the funeral home. Find out for yourself how to prepare for possible conflict. Although we are not lawyers and can’t give legal advice, we are governed by the Funeral Act and Regulations in BC. We refer to these laws almost every day, so we know them pretty well. You should know about some key elements of the law, too. In the absence of communication, knowledge can be a key. Besides, there isn’t much we haven’t seen over the years. And if the second spouse and blended kids won’t come, come by yourself. By the way, we don’t charge for the consultation!