Ashes Lost In The Mail

Ashes Lost In The Mail

A New York woman is suing the Walter B. Cooke Funeral Home in Manhattan because they returned her mother’s cremated remains to her via postal mail, and they were lost. What most people probably don’t realize is that sending cremated remains via postal mail is surprisingly common. A great many funeral homes receive cremated remains back from the crematory in this way, and use the postal service to get them back to the family in cases where the family can’t or doesn’t want to pick them up. In fact, the practice is  so common the USPS has guidelines about it: they must be shipped Priority Mail Express. And it’s one more reason to do plenty of research about what you want and think you need, before a crisis arises. After all, who would think to ask how cremated remains will be returned to a family?      ...

Planning is a luxury not everyone enjoys

Will you know when  it’s time to plan? Planning for the inevitable is necessary- even for those of us who are invincible. Lack of planning has implications extending way beyond wondering what kind of casket mom would have wanted. Over at the National Death with Dignity Center,  Nora Miller wrote a piece about how suddenly and quickly dementia can enter and change one’s life. Miller writes, “…there’s a whole separate set of decisions that must be made long before we develop the terminal illness that eventually requires end-of-life thinking. In some ways, these may seem even harder than some of the end-of-life decisions, since the subject of the decision is still present and may not consider it necessary for anyone else to decide for them.   Beyond immediate measures to ensure the safety of the person with dementia, there are concerns about how to determine when someone is unable to live on their own, how to pay for additional care, how to address  these life changes with  someone who is already frightened… and quite often the children who are suddenly making these decisions for their parents, are doing so without the counsel of their must trusted advisor- the person suffering. Miller had the very sound idea of including a letter written to herself among her other end of life plans, to be used if she ever suffered from an illness or accident which impaired her mental abilities. “Dear Me, no matter how much you think you are okay right now and all those around you are not seeing things as clearly as you do, trust me when I say...
A heartbreaking search

A heartbreaking search

The BBC shared a beautiful and heartbreaking story about two Japanese men who took up deep sea diving, with the sole intention of finding the bodies of one’s wife and the other’s daughter, who disappeared following the Tsunami over four years ago. “I want to search for my daughter as long as my body allows me to. If I just give up, there’s zero chance. If I keep searching, I might have a chance at least.” Takamatsu feels the same way. “I want to continue my search as long as my strength lasts, even though the chances of finding her are slim. I know that she has already passed away, but I don’t want her to be left alone under the sea. “Honestly, I still want to find her and bring her home.” The presence of a body at a funeral, or the ability to bury or cremate a loved ones means different things to different families, often influenced by the manner in which a death occurred. While there certainly has been a trend in recent years which has seen more “direct” cremations- where a cremation takes place without any services- it’s not as universally true as many people believe. Another striking example was those who lost loved ones in the September 11 Terrorist Attacks. Many families felt they would not have closure until their loved one was returned to them. Some families wanted to be notified each time a personal item or body part was identified. Other families felt the regular notifications were too painful and didn’t want to be contacted until identification efforts were completed. Of course,...

Funeral Industry Fraud

A new report issued by the Federal Trade Commission or FTC found that funeral home fraud increased in 2014. According to a report on APM’s Marketplace, roughly 1 in 4 funeral homes failed compliance checks by undercover investigators. Those who fail have the option of training their employees in proper compliance through the National Funeral Directors Association, or face civil court action and fines.  Last year, a Westchester county funeral home paid $32,000 in fines for its lack of compliance. The FTC’s Funeral Rule is pretty straight forward: consumers must be presented with a physical copy of the funeral home’s General Price List before arrangements are made or discussed, must be provided with a Casket Price List before viewing and selecting caskets,  and must be provided with an Outer Burial Container Price List before viewing and selecting an outer burial container or vault. Prices must be disclosed on the phone by request, and consumers do not need to provide their name or phone number in order to get them. The Funeral Rule also prohibits funeral homes from packaging services such that consumers are forced to buy products or services they don’t want or need. For instance, if you choose to have a cremation promptly after death, with no viewing or other services, a funeral home can’t require you to purchase embalming or a casket. It was disappointing to see that the National Funeral Directors Association‘s response to this report was the rule is “complicated” and that it is “easy to slip up.” The FTC Funeral Rule was implemented in 1984. It is impossible to become a licensed, professional  funeral...

New York Hospice and Palliative Care

Hospice and Palliative Care in New York is a subject that can raise a  lot of questions and anxiety,  largely because they are so widely misunderstood. This fantastic article explains the differences between hospice and palliative care in New York and beyond. I worked with hospice and palliative care workers extensively, both as a funeral director and as a volunteer at  Francis House when I was studying for my grief counseling degree. I even interviewed a woman who was both  a midwife and a hospice nurse. By far, one of the biggest sources of frustration I found among those in hospice is that patients and their families wait too long to get hospice involved. There are myriad things hospice and palliative care nurses in New York can do, all of which are aimed at helping the patient live better and more fully in the time they have.  Frequently that includes unique forms of pain management so patients remain as lucid as possible, and sometimes it involves intense therapy, spiritual guidance and antidepressants so patients  can effectively deal with their emotions.  However, when hospice and palliative care is not called in until the last minute, frequently only a few days before the death, there simply isn’t enough time for them to do the many wonderful things for families that they can do. The palliative care portion of hospice and palliative care is frequently misunderstood- it’s simply finding ways to make the patient comfortable, regardless of whether they are dying or not. And yes, medicaid does help cover the cost of hospice and palliative care in New York. Many people who...

PrePaid Funerals: Protecting Your Funds

The FBI recently announced convictions of the top officers of National Prearranged Services. The company worked in 19 states, helping people put money for their funerals aside in trusts and insurance policies, and also purchasing prepaid trusts from funeral homes who needed liquidity, and purchasing life insurance policies instead. What the 92,000 victims didn’t know, was NPS officials invested those funds in risky investments, changed the beneficiaries of the insurance policies to themselves, and just plain kept the money for themselves. Victims included individuals, funeral homes, and insurance companies.  After admitting to the $450 million fraud, the company’s founder was sentenced to 115 months in prison, his son got 60 months.  In total, the six people indicted were sentenced to 46 years in prison. So why would you want to pay for a funeral in advance when scams like this seem so rampant? Fortunately, NY is the most regulated state in the nation with regard to funding in advance. By law, all prepaid funeral funds must be placed in an interest-bearing, FDIC backed- account, for which the planner is the sole beneficiary. The only way a funeral home or funeral director can touch those funds is with a death certificate in hand. Most New York Funeral homes use PrePlan, a non-profit master trust backed by the New York State Funeral Directors Association. All funds and interest remain the property of the planner, but by managing so many trusts, they tend to earn a higher interest return.  It has an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau, and since the funds are always yours, you can move or remove* them at any time....

Funeral Ettiquette and The Mistress

In a recent column of The Ethicist in the New York Times, a reader posed a difficult question: A dying friend asked a man to ensure his mistress was able to attend his funeral, against the wishes of the man’s wife. What to do?  And what should you do when the people who are arguably closer to the person dying, and who know him or her better, are not the ones entitled to make final arrangements? Thanks to a little-known NY State Law,  anyone can appoint an agent to control the disposition of their remains.  This form doesn’t need to be witnessed or even filed with a clerk, and can be revised as often as desired. When first made law, it was intended to help protect gay couples who were being kept from making such decisions or even attending the funerals of their loved ones.  However, in practice, it has had much larger implications: a man can appoint his mistress over his wife, a mother can appoint one child and not the others.  The only area that it gives that person control is in the final disposition- so it doesn’t make you executor of a the will or the controller of the bank accounts. But it can help people ensure their final wishes are carried out in the manner they desire As for the Ethicist- I agree with the writer. If the mistress’ presence will upset the family, she should keep her distance. The funeral is for the family, and they deserve to mourn without distraction....

Funeral Home Price Lists

Did you know funeral homes are required by law  to present you with a General Price List (GPL), Casket Price List (CPL), and Outer Burial Container Price List (OBCPL) whenever they are asked for, and before discussion of any services, goods, or prices takes place? This is a federal law. In fact, the law even dictates how the price lists are structured, mandates certain disclosures, and mandates where on the price list the disclosures must be placed. Funeral homes are not required to mail price lists to people who inquire by phone, but they are required to disclose prices by phone and provide price  lists when such inquiries are in person, regardless of whether or not the person inquiring has lost a loved one, is a competitor, a journalist, or otherwise. Many funeral homes do mail their price lists upon request, and many even wisely publish their price lists on their websites. And when they don’t, they can get in a heap of trouble. A Westchester County funeral home learned this the hard way: John Balsamo, the owner of the Harrison Funeral Home was fined $32,000 and subject to two decades of increased mandated reporting as part of settlement of a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Attorney after they found repeated violations. The U.S. Attorney said the firm was first warned in 2001 that federal authorities knew they were not complying with the FTC Funeral Rule. However, undercover investigators were not given the price lists in four separate incidents in 2010. In a consent decree, the firm admitted to also failing to enroll employees in educational programs intended to prevent such violations.  John Balsamo owns...

New York Medicaid Lookback Period

The New York State Medicaid Lookback Period is one of the most obvious examples of how failing to plan can really hurt a family. More and more, people find themselves and their family members struggling to pay for the costs of long term care.  Sadly, nursing home costs are so high that after a while even the most seemingly “well off” families can find themselves turning to Medicaid to cover the cost of care. The two most frequent problems I’ve seen as a funeral director are this: the family doesn’t understand that, when determining eligibility, New York employs a five year look back period for your assets.  Many people confuse IRS gifting laws with New York Medicaid Lookback Period Laws.  The IRS may allow you to gift away money without penalty, but those gifts are counted against you if they are made during the five year Medicaid lookback. Even more heartbreaking, I see families fail to take funeral expenses into account when doing their “spend down” to become Medicaid eligible. It’s a scenario that plays itself out, over and over again throughout the state.  A parent dies in a nursing home after having exhausted all of their  assets, and instead of getting an inheritance, the children find themselves reaching into their own pockets to cover the cost of funeral and burial expenses. There’s a great article which details how the New York Medicaid Lookback Period affects the estate planning process. No one wants to, but it’s important to have difficult conversations with those you love, long before the need arises. Make sure those conversations include clear statements about what your...

Funeral Industry Advertising Still Gets a D

The more things change, the more they stay the same, don’t they?  Well, it’s true in the funeral industry, that’s for sure. In 2007 I wrote a guest blog for Tim at Final Embrace about how terrible funeral home advertising is. Very little has changed- there are still too many funeral homes which lack websites, have no social media presence, and rely on the yellow pages for people to find them. These are likely the same funeral directors who will argue that the most valuable funeral is a traditional service followed by a burial, and rigidly rail against the rising cremation rate and its impact on the bottom line. How’s that working out for you? Are your margins still decreasing? What’s your call volume like? We all know that funeral directors aren’t known to be early adopters of anything. However, it’s time to smell the spider mums before your competitor does. Research shows that when people are dissatisfied with a service or experience, they will tell 15 other people about it, but if they have a compliment they will tell only 3: and that’s when a situation isn’t emotionally-charged like a funeral.  That’s not to mention how frequently grieving families have a captive audience of friends and family around them, meaning their complaints and praise have a very broad range. Does complaining about the rain keep you from getting wet? So how will clinging to the past help you attract today’s savvy consumer? If you want to capitalize on every dollar they’re willing to spend, you have to be flexible and creative, or they’ll spend that dollar at your...