Good Life

Final arrangements: Costs, attitude shifts lead more to choose cremation option than ever before

An urn such as this may be used for a person’s ashes.
An urn such as this may be used for a person’s ashes. MCT photo illustration

Janess Lyle has seen a steep increase in demand for cremation services since she became director of funeral services at Wetzler Funeral Home in 2007.

“Cremation rates are definitely on the rise,” Lyle said. “It seems like it’s what everybody wants now.”

Lyle said Wetzler’s has seen the volume of cremations double in recent years, from about a quarter of the total services when she started to now more than half.

In January, she said, 70 percent of arrangements handled at the Bellefonte business involved cremations as a cheaper alternative to traditional burials.

“The biggest factor is cost,” Lyle said.

Data from the National Funeral Directors Association supports her local observations.

The average price tag for a funeral has jumped from $708 in 1960 to $1,809 in 1980 and $7,045 in 2012.

In 1960, cremations were requested about 3.5 percent of the time. By 1980, that had jumped to nearly 10 percent. From 1995 to 2011, the NFDA said, the cremation rate doubled, from 21 percent to 42 percent.

The Cremation Association of North America expects the national average to pass 50 percent by 2020.

“When I purchased the business in 1987, I didn’t do any cremations for a couple of years,” said Steven Neff, of Neff Funeral Home in Millhem. “Now, we’re probably 75 percent cremations.”

Neff said price is a key in the decision, with the average cost of a cremation in Centre County at just more than $2,000 while funerals typically fall in the $8,000 to $9,000 range.

But he believes attitude changes have also made cremation a more acceptable option.

“Some of it is money, but not all,” Neff said. “Some of it is just people changing their ideas. They don’t want big services. They don’t want viewings with people looking at them.

“People today aren’t afraid to get away from traditions like they used to be.”

Preplanning those final arrangements is the other ongoing trend in the funeral industry.

And for many, preplanning and cremation go together.

“We still have people who, when preplanning, want to go with the full burial, which is nice,” Lyle said. “But about 50 percent of them are choosing cremation.”

‘Peace of mind’

Neff said his funeral home is increasingly helping individuals and families preplan and prepay for services.

“We’re doing a lot more of that now,” he said. “That helps, because you’re not putting the pressure on the children. I’ve got a small funeral home, but we’re doing them every week.”

Dahlgren Funeral Home, in Philipsburg, offers tips on its website for advance planning. The funeral home urges individuals in their 40s and 50s to begin thinking about what they would like to have happen when they depart, including how much they want to spend.

“People who do so feel that it is a way of smart financial planning and also gives them added peace of mind knowing that they aren’t leaving this burden to their family members,” Dahlgren’s website said.

“By taking time to collect cost information and calmly making choices related to your own funeral arrangements, you’ll be protecting your family against the stress of having to make these decisions at a time of extreme emotional stress.”

Dahlgren said letting your final wishes be known further reduces the pain of the moment.

And the funeral home said people should think about the opportunity to save money.

“Your prefunded prearrangement guarantees your family will never to have pay more for your funeral, no matter what happens with inflation,” the funeral home said.

“Preplanning has become very common, and more people are doing prepayment,” added Mark Heintzelman, of Heintzelman Funeral and Cremation Services of Centre Hall and State College.

Jim Wetzler, director of the Dean K. Wetzler Funeral Home in Milesburg, said every detail of a funeral and burial can involve expense.

That includes the use of a hearse or limousine, flowers and music, a pastor to deliver your eulogy, the guest registry, programs or other printed materials.

For that reason, preplanning and prepayment is a natural fit.

Which trust is best?

Funeral homes can help you set up a trust fund in an amount that will cover all or most of the costs, once the planning is completed.

Glenn Fleming, owner of Koch Funeral Home in State College, has been offering funeral preplanning for three decades.

He said trusts are the safest course for the investor who wants to be confident the money will be there when it’s needed.

“Funeral directors in Pennsylvania are required to put 100 percent of the money prepaid to them into a trust fund or insurance plan,” Fleming said.

You can put your money in revocable trust, which can be modified, or an irrevocable trust, which is locked until payment is needed for the original intent. An irrevocable trust is not included when estate taxes are calculated, another benefit, directors said.

“As with all end-of-life situations, it does make sense to think ahead,” Fleming said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to make it a pre-finance. That’s the second step, and a big step.”

Choosing cremation means you won’t need a vault or even a casket, necessarily. Just an urn or other container.

And the cost to transport your remains would be much lower.

Heintzelman said that many of his funerals involve people who have moved to this region but will be memorialized and buried elsewhere.

Beyond cost factors, preplanning will allow you to have the funeral you want, and can reduce stress for your family at an already difficult time, the directors said.

“If mom or dad has made the decisions,” Heintzelman said, “then carrying through with those decisions is much easier.”

‘Share the plan’

Fleming counsels his clients to at least take care of the biggest questions ahead of time.

He said: “You certainly need to address key questions, such as: Do you want a traditional service or something nontraditional? Do you want a religious service or a nonreligious service? Do you want to be buried, or would you prefer to be cremated?”

Funeral directors said they encourage their clients to make sure their family members or others close to them know what they’ve decided.

“If you have an advance funeral plan, you should share it with your family,” Heintzelman said. “Communication is still very important. We really encourage people, once the prearrangements are completed, to share the plan with the children.”

Fleming said he counsels his clients planning their funerals to bring others into the process.

“I think it’s fair to allow your wife, your husband, your children to have some say-so,” he said.

Wetzler said he believes you should consider every detail of the event, from music or passages of Scripture to be included in a service, to what you’ll be wearing and what flowers will be on display.

You don’t want your kids fighting over whether mom or dad’s favorite hymn is “Amazing Grace” or “The Old Rugged Cross,” Wetzler said.

“It comes down to personal preference and how much money people have been able to set aside for their disposition,” Wetzler said. “Usually, I get a call from someone who says, ‘My husband and I are 75, or 80, and we’re thinking about planning things in advance.’

“I admire those individuals who are able to do this. It takes courage.”