Q: I recently was involved with planning and paying for a funeral. The cost was staggering to me. What alternatives to a traditional burial are there for people to think about? Couldn't this be done with less cost?
A: I first want to say that I am not an expert on this, but have been talking with professionals in this field to help address this concern. One of these sources was the New York State Funeral Directors Association (NYSFDA) in Albany. The website is www.nysfda.org. This website has useful information and resources available to you. The other resource I would refer you to is our local funeral home directors. These individuals are knowledgeable and helpful with all of your questions and concerns.
I have heard of and help review a number of alternatives to a traditional funeral. But, I must also point out that "traditional" may be difficult to define. Traditional is a word that we use pretty frequently. But your definition of traditional depends on your ethnic, religious and cultural background. In talking with Robyn from NYSFDA in Albany, I learned that many Chinese funerals in New York City cost as much as $20,000 to $25,000 each. That is significantly more than we pay locally.
I have found that $6,000 to $8,000 is an average cost for funerals in our region of the country. That can be a lot of money to many families. Alternatives to the traditional funeral may be one way of reducing that cost.
The first area I will review is embalming. It is assumed by most of us that we must be embalmed after death. This is not necessarily true. The process of embalming allows us time to gather together in remembrance of the person who has died. Many cultures require almost immediate burial because they do not embalm the body. This process allows us to extend the period of time we can delay burial.
If you choose a burial plan that does not require embalming, the process of celebration and memorial will take place immediately, or after the body has been cremated or buried. This could be done with a memorial service at a later date.
You can also choose to donate your body to science or a medical school. Locally many individuals donate their body to University at Buffalo. This is called the Anatomical Gift Program. This program allows individuals to donate their body to the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. This donation is free to the individual or family. UB has a website dedicated to this program, and it is www.smbs.buffalo.edu. The number to call is 829-2913. This process requires forms be filled out in advance of the death by the individual themselves. The information provided by UB is thorough and useful to help you make your decision about this donation. Upon death the body is released to the program, and at a later date the body is cremated. Upon cremation the family can request the ashes be returned to them for a nominal fee. The family can then decide what to do with the ashes.
There are other "donations" you can make with your remains. Many people are organ donors. Many people are aware of this due to the information that is printed on the back of your driver's license. This donation is information that you review and decide upon before death. This is also something you should review with your family, since they must agree to this donation after death. You can donate all your useful tissue and organs, or just particular organs and tissue, such as eyes, heart and lungs, which are the most commonly donated. This donation again must be decided on prior to death or immediately after death. This donation could be because your body is healthy and could be used to improve the life of someone else. This donation could also be because you are ill and wish your remains be used for research purposes. Locally I have seen this done through Upstate New York Transplant Services (UNYTS) in Buffalo. Their website is www.unyts.org. Their phone number is 853-6667.
The last area I will review is cremation. This option can reduce the cost to many families because it changes the way the body is disposed of. The process of cremation means the remains are reduced to ashes. This can be done prior to or after embalming, or organ/tissue donation. The ashes are then returned to the family in a container, and can then be saved in an urn or buried. Some families "spread" the ashes. I was surprised to learn that there is not a state or federal law restricting the "spreading" of an individual's ashes. There may be localities (county, town, municipalities) that have laws on the books regarding the spreading of the ashes, so check before you dispose of them.
The most interesting tidbit I learned while researching for this article is that you can have these ashes made into diamonds. I was amazed to learn that it is possible to convert ashes of a loved one into diamonds. This process is not cheap, but it is certainly interesting. You can send the ashes of a loved one to your chosen company, and they will convert those ashes into a diamond. There are six diamond colors to choose from. You can also have a small amount of ashes made into beads or jewelry. This conversion is not cheap. A diamond can cost well more than $2,500. The beads are significantly less expensive. Actually, the items you can convert your loved one's ashes to are endless, coral reefs, jewelry, diamonds, pendant, and many others. I have to admit I was not aware of all these options and alternatives.
So you really are a "diamond in the rough," or you could be later.
Janell Sluga is a geriatric care manager certified and works for Senior Life Matters, a program of Lutheran Senior Housing, and has worked in Chautauqua County with seniors for more than 18 years. She is HIICAP (Health Insurance Information, Counseling & Assistance Program) counselor-trained by Office for the Aging. She does not sell insurance or represent any insurance company. She is an unbiased source of insurance and education to help seniors choose the best option for them.