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Tom Murphy

With funerals, it still pays to plan ahead

The days of the cookie-cutter funeral are fading. Staid remarks at a church or funeral home lectern are being supplemented with slide shows, and services are moving to golf or yacht clubs to reflect a person’s life.

Baby boomers are confronted with more options than their parents had for planning a funeral or memorial service, and all can lead to a big bill. It pays to plan ahead. Here are some tips:

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Decide what you want: Funerals or memorial services help people grieve and remember the person who died, funeral directors say. Personal touches are becoming much more common, so think about what the person liked and whether that can be worked into the service.

Aside from the service, you need to think about disposition of the body.

More often, people are choosing cremation, because it can be cheaper than a traditional funeral with a burial, it makes it easier to transport or move someone’s remains, and it has become more accepted in many religions.

Nearly 41 percent of all US deaths led to cremations last year, a big jump from about 15 percent in 1985, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

Even if opting for burial, there are more choices than just the traditional.

Green or natural burials, which involve no embalming and allow the body to decompose into the earth, are on the rise. Caskets made from recycled paper or cardboard can help this process. Some people may even want to be buried with their pets.

Plan, set aside money: People can spare their survivors some of these decisions and expenses by writing a plan for how they want their service to be conducted and setting aside money in a trust set up through a funeral home.

There are typically no limits to the amount that can be placed in a trust, except when a person is spending down resources to qualify for Medicaid, said Joe Marsaglia of the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science.

Shop around: Funeral costs vary widely. The average funeral cost about $6,500 in 2009, the latest figure from the National Funeral Directors Association. That doesn’t count cemetery costs, which can add several thousand dollars to the bill. It may pay to shop around, and that’s easier to do when planning ahead. Funeral directors are required to provide an itemized list of products and services. Buying a casket separate from the funeral service might save money, but shipping costs can eat into that, and the customer should make certain it will be delivered in time.

If there is no plan: Sometimes deaths are unexpected, but more commonly, people avoid planning for their own deaths or those of their loved ones. When starting from scratch after someone has died, first figure out who will put together the service. Ask friends and family for recommendations. A rabbi, nurse, or hospice worker also may have suggestions.

Tom Murphy writes for the Associated Press.
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