This morning I did a double-take when I read the following sentence: “Despite amazing advances in medical science and technology, the mortality rate for human beings stands at a whopping 100 percent.”
I had to read it twice before concluding that someone was having a laugh. A line like that could only be delivered by the likes of comedian Emo Phillips, who once observed, way before the current Ukraine crisis:
The way I understand it, the Russians are sort of a combination of evil and incompetence … sort of like the Post Office with tanks.
I have no problem with people being flippant about death, but what took me aback was that this statistic was contained in a serious article about dying and funerals. An undertaker called Elizabeth Fournier, owner of Cornerstone Funeral Services in Boring, Oregon was the one who was quoted.
My interest in funeral plans was sparked by a hellish debacle that followed the death of a 67-year- old friend of mine on Saturday, January 15. Ian left his apartment to walk his dachshund and French bulldog and dropped dead in the street.
A funeral was arranged for the following Wednesday. Family and friends gathered at a local crematorium where they were shocked to hear that it could not proceed because the company from which Ian had bought a funeral plan refused to pay out.
After a furious row erupted, crematorium staff eventually relented and allowed a secular service to proceed. But Ian’s body would have to remain in storage until the funeral company coughed up.
Today, 17 days after his death, Ian is yet to be cremated.
Because this sort of thing has happened before to friends, whenever the subject of prepaid funerals was discussed I would advise people to be very wary of them, as I believed many were scams designed to target people of limited means.
Then in 2017, The Guardian confirmed this, labeling some funeral plans as “quasi-Ponzi schemes.” It pointed out that the industry was largely unregulated, and that if payments were made to bereaved families, all too often the amount fell short of the actual cost of the funerals.
In Spain, such plans are aimed mainly at British expats and are widely advertised. A few years back I spotted a sales booth outside a supermarket in my hometown of Benidorm. The woman in charge of the pay-now-die-later booth, stopped me and said, “can you spare a moment to discuss what plans, if any, you have for your funeral?”
“No,” I snapped. “I’m running late for an appointment — and I am not planning on having a funeral. EVER! For all I care,” I added, “put me in a biodegradable plastic sack and throw me into a landfill site.”
I meant it.
Just a week before this encounter I took possession of a Spanish directive, drawn up by a local lawyer, stipulating that if were to be struck down by any condition likely to leave me permanently disabled, I should be allowed to die.
The legally binding Acta De Manifestaciones also states that I want my organs harvested, and whatever remains to be donated to medical science. If my cadaver is deemed unsuitable for either organ transplants or for science study, then I am simply to be incinerated at minimal cost without a funeral — just like David Bowie, who took the direct cremation route in 2016.
And, in a belt-and-braces move, I had tattooed at the base of my neck the words “No me resucites” (don’t resuscitate me).
The document also made Marcus — then my partner and now my husband — my next-of-kin. This was a vitally important part of the document because weeks before I had been plunged into a bureaucratic nightmare that followed the death of another of my close buddies.
The authorities flat-out refused to hand over Adrian’s body to his partner of ten years in order for a funeral to take place because the couple were not married, did not have a civil partnership nor any documentation to indicate that they were in a relationship.
Officials said they could only deal with family members, which was out of the question in this instance. Adrian’s family refused to come to Spain to claim his body as they were devout Christians who disapproved of his homosexuality.
The upshot was that the body was kept in storage for more than three weeks. In the end, the authorities just went ahead and disposed of him without ceremony.
I was so enraged by this that I wrote a column about the heartbreak caused to his partner and many friends and threw in some of my thoughts about companies who flog funeral plans. “Their plans are a scam and complete waste of money. If you want a funeral, simply set aside some cash for the event, or better still, don’t have a funeral at all, just like David Bowie.”
The local English-language paper for which I wrote the piece refused to publish it. Their reason: “We have many companies advertising funeral plans, and we don’t want to upset them. If they pull their ads we’d lose a fortune.”
In reporting on Bowie’s wish to be delivered straight into a furnace, Rupert Jones of The Guardian wrote:
Direct cremation is a low-cost, no-frills option where there is no funeral service and mourners aren’t present. In its most basic form it is – to put it bluntly – a disposal service. Prices start at less than £1,000 ($1,350), which is just a fraction of the £3,500 ($4,726) to £4,000-plus ($5,400) average funeral cost.
But while this type of send-off will not be everyone’s cup of tea, demand for direct cremations appears to be growing rapidly as more people – including those who could afford to splash out on something more lavish – opt for this type of funeral.
Two years after he wrote that piece, UK broadcaster ITV reported that an increasing number of people in Britain were finding it impossible to meet the escalating costs of funerals, and that bodies were being held in mortuaries for lengthy periods while relatives struggled to find the cash to lay them to rest.
A Freedom of Information request by ITV News revealed that a quarter of hospital trusts in England have held bodies for three months or more. And two trusts said they kept bodies for up to 14 months.
ITV News also surveyed 120 funeral directors — they too have had to keep bodies for up to eight months because families struggled to pay.
Industry research at that time showed the average cost of a basic funeral in the UK stood at £4,078.00 ($5,451).
It was later reported that that figure had risen to £5,033 ($5,509).
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the UK government to offer assistance with funeral costs, but the scheme is far less generous as a scheme currently in place in the US, which offers the COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Fund to help cover costs of COVID-related funerals into the foreseeable future.
But according to this report, while COVID-19 has claimed nearly 865,000 lives in the U.S., only an estimated 300,000 families have filed for reimbursement.
Said Ed Michael Reggie, CEO of Funeralocity.com.
This has been available to Americans for over a year. And it goes retroactive to all the way to January 2020 for any family who has lost a loved one in some way attributed to COVID. Everyone is eligible to be reimbursed up to $9,000 in funeral costs. Even applicants who used life insurance to cover funeral expenses may receive assistance.
Considering the average burial in America costs only $7,700 and the average cremation cost $4,500, this is a very rich benefit.
The thing is, people need to get on it and get this done. The longer you wait, the less information you’ll be able to collect in an easy fashion. Everything’s at hand right now, hopefully, because the person didn’t die that long ago; but I would get this done and get that up to $9,000 back into the family finances.
I bought three songs Ian’s family wanted to play at his service: “I am On My Way to a Better Place” (Chairmen of the Board), Stevie Wonder’s “A Place in the Sun,” and “Jealous of the Angels” by Donna Taggart.
So I won’t be having a funeral, but if friends think my life is worth celebrating, I’d like them to stage a joyful wake and play a religious song “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum.
I have two reasons for this choice. It has great tune, one that made me get up and dance when I was in my teens in South Africa. However, the censors regarded it as “blasphemous” and banned it soon after its release in 1969.
Second, the line “Never been a sinner, I never sinned, I got a friend in Jesus” will unleash howls of laughter among those who knew that the best part of my life was spent championing non-belief.