Planning for a final resting place

Experts say taking care of funeral arrangements in advance relieves stress on family

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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When Vancouver resident Marilyn Johnson thinks about her future death, she said she envisions her grandchildren visiting her and her husband’s grave site.

The scene’s backdrop has already been set. Marilyn, 74, and Jack Johnson, 75, recently bought a grave site, grave marker and bench at Ridgefield’s Northwood Park Cemetery. Their names and years of birth are engraved on the grave marker, which includes a small vault for their ashes. The bench bears the names of the couple’s three children.

“Having a bench was important to me,” Marilyn Johnson said. “Five years ago, I took my two 15-year-old granddaughters to my family cemetery in Illinois to introduce them to the deceased family. It’s one of those cemeteries where everyone who touched me in my life — my parents, aunts, uncles — are buried. It’s a beautiful place, and I love that place.”

She wanted to give her children and grandchildren the same sense of place. As she and her granddaughters sat on a bench in the family cemetery, Johnson promised them that she would have a similar bench overlooking her grave site.

“I promised the girls I’m going to have a bench where you can come and sit,” she recounted.

Marilyn and Jack Johnson are part of the 27 percent minority of adults 35 and older who have planned their own funerals, according to a 2008 AARP survey of 1,013 adults in that age group.

Planning your own funeral can help relieve family members of crucial decisions and expense on one of the saddest days of their lives. It’s a good precaution against family disputes over what to do with your remains, according to experts. Moreover, it allows you to set the tone for your farewell party and ensure your wishes are carried out.

“It gives you peace of mind,” said Michael Dahl, director of Northwood Park Cemetery in Ridgefield. “If you don’t plan ahead, your children are going to have to make the arrangements on what is probably the worst day of their life, and when they’re not in the emotional state to make the 70 or more decisions that need to be made in relatively short order.”

Options

There are more options for funerals than there were back on the farm in Illinois, where Marilyn Johnson grew up.

Nowadays, cremation is commonplace and is expected to surpass the rate of burial by 2025, according to the Cremation Association of North America. The Johnsons have opted for cremation because it is less expensive and generates less waste. It also is a symbol of their faith that God will give them new bodies in heaven, Jack Johnson said.

In the same vein, “green” funerals are on the rise. Downtown’s Vancouver Funeral Chapel offers the environmentally friendly services, which use only biodegradable materials.

“The casket is either made of wool or bamboo,” said Karen Brown, family services counselor at Vancouver Funeral Chapel. “The clothing type should be a shroud. There are no shoes, socks or belts.”

The cost is about the same a traditional funeral, Brown said.

Family members also are increasingly videotaping services and posting them on websites such as http://www.dignitymemorial.com. Loved ones who missed the funeral can search for their family member by name, watch the funeral online, post comments or record audio comments, Brown said. Vancouver Funeral Chapel is one of the local funeral homes that offers the service.

Even as technology adds new options, some funeral decisions are age-old. In addition to choosing burial or cremation, caskets, grave sites, markers and memorial service locations, people can plan other details, including which photos are shown. That gives people a chance to choose how those who survive you grieve or celebrate your life, Brown said.

Expense

Funerals can cost between $1,500 for a cremation and a memorial service to several thousand dollars for a service with burial, Dahl said. Funeral insurance can pay the expense, but insurance companies sometimes refuse service to those in poor health or the elderly.

An alternative to insurance is a trust, which allows people to pay toward their funerals in advance. Family can use the trust to offset the cost of a funeral at the time of death, Dahl said,

Funeral insurance and funeral trusts can be used at any funeral home in any part of the country. Some funeral homes, such as Northwood Park, offer trusts that allow you to lock in the price of your funeral.

Both trusts and insurance policies accrue interest, which can be applied toward funeral costs.

For those who can afford higher monthly payments, experts recommend buying a whole-life funeral policy. Whole-life policies last until death, and purchasers only make payments until they have contributed an amount set in the policy. Term-life policies cost less per month, but purchasers have to continue paying on them every month, or they are no longer in effect.

Experts recommend letting loved ones know about your funeral plans and where they can find your funeral insurance information. Many funeral homes offer cards with the information so you can keep it in your wallet.

In some cases, family members are unaware of their loved one’s funeral insurance or trust, and they pay for the funeral costs themselves, Dahl said. If family members find out later there was an insurance policy or trust, they’re entitled to that money, he said.

Preventing acrimony

Family disputes over what to do with a loved one’s remains are comic fodder in films such as 2009’s “The Six Wives of Henry Lefay,” in which Henry’s wives of past and present fight over what kind of funeral he wanted. What’s believed to be Henry’s ashes are spilled in a gas station parking lot during a chase and altercation between the wives.

Such disputes aren’t funny when they happen to your family, said Vancouver gerontologist Gail Haskett.

Making your wishes known is the easiest way to spare your family from that experience. Those wishes are reinforced by state law. Once you have a funeral plan filed at a funeral home, your wishes trump your family’s, Dahl said.

Vancouver residents Liz and Adam Cushman wrote their wills when they were in their 20s.

“He was very future-minded, and very strategic and deliberative in his decisions,” said Liz Cushman, now 37. “He knew he was going into law enforcement. That’s definitely a higher-risk job.”

In February 2010, their worst fears came true. Adam Cushman was killed in a traffic accident on his way home from his job as a criminalist with the Portland Police Bureau.

“We had talked about his funeral because we had another friend die a few years before,” Liz Cushman said. “I knew he didn’t care whether he was buried or cremated. I knew what kind of casket. I knew he wanted bagpipes.”

Knowing his wishes helped her resolve Adam Cushman’s family’s question about whether to bury him in Idaho, where both he and Liz Cushman grew up.

“He did make it clear he did not want to be buried in Idaho,” she said. “It gave me so much confidence. I was making decisions based on his wishes. I didn’t have to guess.”

Facing death

Most people are less comfortable planning for death, however, according to experts.

“Nobody wants to talk about that they’re going to end someday,” Haskett said.

People with religious beliefs tend to have an easier time talking about it, said Denise McGuiness, a Vancouver psychologist. But that’s not always the case.

Just the idea of funeral planning can cause some people to bristle.

“Everybody starts out differently,” Dahl said. “It depends on age and health condition. I’ve got people who look forward to doing it, and I’ve got people who see me coming down the street, they’ll go to the other side of the street. When people are closer to death — 80- or 90-year-olds — they avoid me like the plague. They think if they put arrangements together, it’ll make it happen faster.”

Vancouver resident Bob Olson, 62, said he doesn’t want to spend his time on planning his own funeral.

“I feel fine,” Olson said. “I go for a walk every day. I try to stay active. I have faith God will work things out one way or another.”

Marilyn Johnson said her previous career as an emergency room nurse helped her become more comfortable talking about death.

“It’s taken a life journey to get to this point,” she said.

She and Jack try to make light of their grave site. They tell their friends to check it out and tell them what they think.

“It makes it almost humorous and kind of lightens it up because it is really tough to talk about,” she said.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://www.twitter.com/Col_Trends;http://www.facebook.com/ColTrends;paris.achen@columbian.com.