Monday, April 12, 2010

Ashes to Ashes

If you haven't priced funerals lately and you happen to need to put one on, you can be in for a bit of a shock. You could easily spend over $10,000, not counting any money you spend hosting your relatives and friends. If you are Michael Jackson, you could spend a $million.

Sue and I decided a long time ago that big-bucks funerals were a waste of money. We agreed to each be cremated. But even there you need to shop around. I discovered that cremation in Fresno, California can be had for as much as $2,500 and for as little as $795. No real difference in the final product. We are comparing ashes to ashes, here.

We bought the $795 job from Bob Bergthold at Farewell Funeral Service, and now Sue is back with us, albeit in a small (but surprisingly heavy) box on the fireplace mantle. It's a rectangular brown plastic box about the size of a half gallon container of ice cream. We have to wait for the snow to melt to put her in her final resting place at 7,000 foot elevation in the Sierra Nevada mountains. We also have, affixed to the box, an official Permit for Disposition of the cremated remains of Susan Freeman Harper, cremation number 19818, issued by the State of California Health and Human Services Agency. The permit has this ominous warning: "IMPORTANT: The law requires that this permit accompany the cremated remains to the final place of disposition." I never did price cemetary burial plots. There's a lot of earth left where nobody will try to stop you from digging a hole and mixing a little ash with the dirt. Earth to earth. Dust to dust. It's all very natural.

And caskets. My goodness. Thousands of dollars to purchase one, or only $1,000 to rent a nice one for a day. If you rent one, you also pay an additional $300 for the cardboard inset which gets removed and buried. Instead of an open-casket viewing, we opted for a nice picture mounted on photoboard for about $50. The picture harkens back to a happier time, anyway. It's hard to make corpses smile. In addition to the picture, we spent about $400 to print a four-page (a folded 8 1/2 by 11 page, printed on both sides) color program which Dave, Debbie and Matt Friesen put together. I'm an old advertising guy, so four-color is the only way to go. Besides, you can't see those pretty blue-green eyes so well in black and white.

Then you have the newspaper obituary to consider. The Fresno Bee has a free announcement that everyone gets into which most of the pertinent information can be put. For $468 we did a small "display ad" with Sue's picture and a bit more information than the free announcement. The larger obituaries with life stories and accomplishments run into the thousands of dollars.

In addition to the $795 for cremation the funeral home was willing to coordinate the memorial service for a fee. Our friends and our church came through for us here. We have a lot of thank you letters to write and owe a great debt of gratitude to a lot of people who volunteered time. There is a $200 fee to use the church and social hall (though an anonymous donor paid this fee for us), and I have yet to get the bill from the church for the pie, ice cream and gorp (trail mix) Sue wanted served at the reception. I also learned that it is appropriate to give a small amount of money to the preacher and the musicians (ranging from $50 to $200, depending, I guess, on your importance and ability, and/or their importance and ability).

Don't forget death certificates. I ordered 15 certified certificates because I learned a long time ago in my law practice that this is the best and easiest time to get them. If you need just one more than you have when you are trying to settle the estate matters, you will rue the day you didn't order five extra when you had this chance. It takes about three to four weeks to get them, so I don't have them yet. My recollection is that they cost $12 each. Every bank, financial institution, insurance company etc. will want one and you will need to record one with an affidavit of death of joint tenant to transfer jointly-held real property into your name.

I haven't done a final tally yet. Come to think of it I probably never will. But anyway with the cremation ($795); additional funeral services and death certificates (about $300); obituary ($468); church and social hall rental and food (under $1,000?); printing ($450); and hosting and travel expenses (I picked up about $2,000) this inexpensive funeral cost around $5,000. (If you think that's a lot, try putting on a wedding.)

Sue was appropriately remembered by what was done. We would not feel better about what was done if we had spent another $5,000. Personally, I would feel worse if we had.

We have yet to finish our job, putting Sue's ashes in the ground in the appointed place, at which time we will recite these famous words from the Book of Common Prayer, based on Genesis 3:19:

"In sure and certain hope of the resurection to eternal life through our Lord, Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our sister, Susan Freeman Harper; and we commit her body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes; dust to dust. The Lord bless her and keep her. The Lord make his face to shine upon her, and be gracious unto her, and give her peace. Amen."


  1. In the sure and certain expectation of having to leave this world at some time, hopefully not too immediately, your notes were a reminder to me for my children's peace of mind that I should give them written instructions to donate the remains or cremation, whichever is easier and less expensive. Like you and Sue agreed, I do not think an expensive event makes much sense... I would not be pleased to have them thinking of me as a burden at the end - emotionally or financially.
    That photo you've selected is very sweet and you must miss her terribly. My condolences for your loss.

  2. Well, that was a helpful bit of information I wish I didn't ever have to know but probably will. Thank you. 'Course here in rural MN, we can probably leave this earth a bit more cheaply. ;)

    I agree... cremation is the way to go. I went to one funeral, though, where the body was shown the day before at the visitation. It was then apparently cremated overnight, and the remains were in the "box" at the front of the church for the funeral the next morning. That kinda gave me the "willies". :(

    I'm glad to see your humor is still intact. I literally laughed out loud when I read the last sentence of your second paragraph. :)

    Such a lovely picture of Sue....

  3. Thank you for taking such good care of Sue...before and after her death.

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