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A Final Gift – Keystone Elder Law – Mechanicsburg, PA

Have you experienced the death of a loved one?  The numbness and shock that accompany feelings of grief and loss can make simple, daily tasks seem like mountains to climb.  What if you were faced with a long list of detailed decisions to make during this time?  Would you be able to think clearly?  This dilemma often confronts families when a loved one dies without having discussed preferences related to funeral planning.  Despite their grief, families are faced with quickly choosing a funeral home, cemetery, burial or cremation, casket, flowers, music, clothing, etc.   Details for an obituary must be gathered, extended family and friends notified, and payments made for these considerable expenses. It is a tremendous final gift to one’s family when an individual takes the time to think about and preplan for some of these details.  Pre-planning allows for decisions to be made without the stress of grief and with plenty of time to consider choices.

An understanding of some of the procedures that funeral homes follow can help individuals and families feel less fearful about pre-planning. If death has occurred at a hospital or other health care facility, the facility will contact the funeral home after receiving approval from the family.  If a death occurs at home, family members should call 9-1-1 if the death is unexpected or there is any uncertainty about the death, the hospice nurse if hospice was providing care for the individual, or they may call the funeral home directly, and the funeral home will contact the coroner. When a funeral home receives a body, the first step is that the body is fully washed, including the hair.  Nails are also cleaned.  The funeral home must obtain permission from the next of kin to proceed with embalming. Embalming the process used to restore a natural lifelike appearance to the body and to preserve the body for the services provided.  An embalming is only required when a public viewing is planned, or if a body will be transported across state lines.  The process if fairly simple, and involves circulating embalming fluid through the body while the blood is drained.  This is accomplished with equipment similar to an intravenous line, using a pump or gravity to circulate the fluid.  Jill Lazar, Preneed Counselor and Funeral Director at Hoffman-Roth Funeral Home in Carlisle, advises that embalming be completed it the funeral home will be holding the body for an extended period of time, and/or to make a family viewing more comfortable, especially if children are going to attend.  “An embalming (and restoration if necessary) may be what a family needs for closure.  Seeing their loved one looking peaceful after a lengthy illness or unexpected death may have lasting psychological benefits for survivors long after the individual has been viewed.”  Jill has also received questions about dressing a body.  Some people believe that clothing is cut to make dressing the body easier.  This is not the case unless the clothing provided is not quite the right size, or some other extenuating circumstance exists.

One of the major decisions that must be made during pre-planning or at the time of death is traditional burial or cremation.  Jill estimates that the current trend is a 50/50 split between these two choices, with most who choose cremation having their ashes buried afterward.  In some states, a family is required to identify the body at the crematory; but that is not the case in PA.  It is a requirement, however, that a crematory hold a body for at least 24 hours prior to cremation taking place.  Some funeral homes, such as Hoffman-Roth, provide crematory services onsite.  With cremation, an individual can still choose to have embalming, a viewing, and a funeral service, however burial of the ashes at the cemetery is more likely to involve only family.  After a traditional funeral, a larger number of people also visit the cemetery for the burial.

When people hear the news of the death of someone they knew, their initial response may be to question when, where, and how the death occurred.  Next, they want to know about plans for a service. Attending a service is one way for the community to show support for a family’s loss, and for individuals to begin to experience closure.  If there is a delay in scheduling a service, families may experience less external support because members of the general community will move on.  It is helpful for obituaries to contain service information. Jill has discovered that when they don’t, the funeral home is often bombarded with telephone calls by people interested in these plans.  In addition, grieving family members may also receive more telephone calls during a time when they may have less energy and inclination to speak with many people.

When planning a funeral/memorial service, it is important to consider the needs of the survivors as well as honor the wishes of the deceased.  Couples who discuss funeral planning ahead of time may find that they have different ideas about what they each want.  These conversations can allow each individual the opportunity to question the other and gain an understanding of certain decisions.  At the time of death, the survivor is more likely to be accepting of arrangements that differ from personal ideals.   When an individual completes prearrangements, he/she can change those plans at any time, but family members cannot change the prearrangements at the time of death.  Keep in mind that when prepayment is made, the funds may be irrevocable, and should changes be made later on for less expensive arrangements, a refund cannot be paid until the time of death.  More about financial considerations for pre-planning will be covered in next week’s article.

Thank you to Jill Lazar of Hoffman-Roth Funeral Home for her contributions to this article.  For additional information about advanced funeral planning or to attend one of Jill’s Lunch & Learn sessions, call 717-243-4511.

For additional information about legal and financial planning for seniors, Keystone Elder Law will be conducting a free seminar on Thursday, June 11th at the Days Inn, Carlisle.  Please call our office at 717-697-3223 for details.

Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN