Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Funeral Planning

Now, over a week after the service and reception for my father's passing, I find myself still reflecting on it. Today's post is about that event, and a round-up of everything around that event. I would like to point out that I personally did very little of any these steps; my siblings, their wives or Boo did them. My job has been highly taxing lately, so I have not been available to much of anything else. For those who come here looking for car stuff, I too look forward to the return to clowning on cars. I'm sure that day is approaching.

Parent Approaching Their End
I will start with acknowledging that my experience may not parallel anyone else's experience. As in all things, your mileage may vary (YMMV). I will say, though, that had I known what I was in for, maybe I would have been more prepared, or at least understood what I didn't know and needed to learn super-fast. In retrospect, many of the steps parallel a wedding: plan a service, plan a reception, dress the celebrant(s), announcements, catering, transportation... the only real difference is a wedding is planned on your timeline. A funeral arrives, sometimes without warning, and needs to happen somewhat quickly. Even if a funeral home is "handling it", someone needs to answer practically all of these questions anyway, but instead of interacting with lots of folks, you have one institution.

We knew Dad was on borrowed time for a while. He survived prostate cancer 25 years ago, and was on a regimen to keep it monitored ever since. As a long-term smoker, he also suffered COPD. We don't know if it influenced any other health conditions. A few years back, his PSA spiked and cancer was found in his bones (the cancer had metastasized). He took various medications to control/contain it, and they staved off the worst of it. Dad's movements reduced and he and Mom made their final preparations, which they documented in a file and had witnessed by Boo. Last Fall the medications stopped working. There was some discussion about, and then he started, a new experimental medication, but it was either too late, or insufficiently effective. Dad went on hospice and we encouraged those who lived out of town to visit. The last visit with him I choose to remember was a week before he died when my son T came home from LA. We talked for about an hour before Dad got too tired. Dad went to bed the last time the following Wednesday and was gone the following Saturday. While I saw him a few times after that meeting with T, he was not responsive at the end, and really was not engaged prior to that.

Parent Dies, Day One
The days leading up to Dad's passing had a steady stream of his children, their spouses and grandchildren. At the actual time of his passing, there were a couple of us there, but it really could have been any of us He could passed on Friday or hung on for another day or so. Basically, when the end is near, it hangs there for, like 48 hours. Still, he passed, and then the final preparations kick in, including last rites in Dad's case. The funeral home with whom arrangements were made are among the first phone calls to make, so the remains can be taken away. The funeral home with which Dad made his arrangements had suffered some employee attrition so things were bumpy that first afternoon, suffering a significant delay before Dad's remains were transported to their facility. As an aside, their communication and follow-thru was poor from start to finish, and it was the missteps in the early days that confirmed our decision to arrange things ourselves.

Depending upon the decisions made by the deceased for treatment of their body, you may have a very short window to complete a long list of socially-expected steps. Dad chose cremation, so we had considerably more time before a service needed to be conducted. Regardless, many of the steps are the same, it is just a question of how much time you have to pull it together. Some cultures expect a funeral within a few days, and if even the body is embalmed, there are limits to how long you can delay.

Location, Location, Location
Mom and Dad lived most of their lives on the East Coast: NYC, northern NJ, upstate NY and Boston. T and I helped them move to Oregon so they could be part of their grandkids' lives around 2010. They established deep roots in their housing development, and Dad attended the church next door. So, we children felt that having the service in his church, overseen by his priest, would allow for the largest number of their old friends to attend. Because of how far some family needed to travel, we set a date 3 months out. Even still, getting everything done in time was a bit of a challenge. Our last bit of business was for a reception following the service. The church offered the new parish hall for the reception. Ironically, Dad was opposed to the construction of this hall, believing it was an unnecessary expense for a building which did not serve much of a purpose. Dad got the last laugh, though, as the heat in the hall failed the day before his reception, so we remembered him in a relatively cold room.

Print and Online Obituary
These days, if it doesn't happen on social media, it didn't really happen. So, efforts to craft a message are time-constrained by the number of people aware of the message you wish to produce. Someone along the way will let slip to someone else, and then a condolences post will appear and then you have lost control of the message. So, we did not tell anyone... for almost a month... while my brother worked and re-worked a 4-page obituary. A 150-word version was released to the local papers in Portland, Albany NY and Boston while the long version went on the web. For anyone else, I would encourage as short a time span as you can; any one of the dozen or so people who knew about Dad could have let-slip and we were just lucky. Be advised that print newspapers charge a hefty sum for obituaries since this is one of their last remaining revenue streams. I think just one paper cost upwards of $500US. FB is free, of course, but Dad still had a paper delivery subscriptions, and we felt it was important to run a traditional obituary. Besides, unlike a few years ago, not everyone still uses FB.

With the obituary formed, announcements about the funeral can be prepared. We chose to include a printed version of the long obituary with a note about the funeral specifics. We sent an announcement to everyone in the parent's contact list. Surprisingly, very few returned, which speaks to how well they maintained their addresses. My address book would have a far worse hit rate. Printing and postage will vary, but I think we spent around $300US. The envelope-stuffing was an activity for the grandkids when they were all here for Christmas. In retrospect, that may seem a little macabre, but with Christmas sweaters and holiday music, it was simply tri-fold and stuff, apply some stickers.

Dad on mantle
For those who are not dealing with cremation remains, the timing of the decision about a coffin would probably come before the obituary. In our case, the ashes were being held by the funeral home, so we had some time. There are lots of television shows which touch on funerals, and there is usually a scene about coffin selection. Having not had to select a coffin, maybe it really is like it was shown on 6 Feet Under. For ashes, television seems to focus on releasing or dumping ashes in the ocean or something similar. Dad did not want his ashes spread or separated, nor were they to sit in a cardboard box in the back of someone's closet. We discovered that there are literally thousands of sizes and styles of urn, ranging from something that fits in your pocket (if you want to take some part of someone with you) to something that fills the corner of a room. Mom selected a hard-carved/turned wood urn by a local Pacific NW artist. Dad's remains have resided in that urn since the day it arrived. Urns, like coffins, are not cheap, but an urn is less expensive than a coffin. I think the urn cost around $500US. A similarly constructed coffin would have been thousands since the urn was turned from a single piece of wood.

Because mom moved shortly after Dad's passing (I'll post on that later), she didn't have anything to wear to the service any longer. So, my younger sister E did a screen-share online shopping session with mom, ordering an outfit and having it delivered to us. Boo and I needed to fill in the edges (stockings, hat and shoes), and had a date-night at the mall to solve. It was a real trip to be in a mall for the first time in literally 3 years.

Plan the Service
Depending upon how detailed the final arrangements were, and how well those plans intersect with the spiritual leader involved, planning the service could be easy. Or, there will be multiple rounds of email, phone calls and meetings to discuss which Bible verses and hymns or who will perform which portions of the service designated for "not the spiritual leader". In our case, Dad had specific verses and hymns and after some research they fit with what his priest wanted to do. There were 2 readings to be performed by family members, and my brothers accepted those. My brother-in-law, an Episcopal pastor, performed the eulogy, complete with Biblical and historical references to Saint Francis (Dad's favorite).

Plan the Reception
For all of the detail in the final arrangements around the service, there was practically nothing for us to go on for the reception afterwards. Since the service was pretty much the priest and a few family members speaking, we wanted options for how attendees could express themselves. We started with many large round tables which fit 8 to 10 people. This created small group conversation spaces. We added a guest book at the entrance and sticky-notes on the tables for those who wished to share a story or detail about how Dad influenced them. You can see the guestbook in the picture above next to Dad's urn. Last, my younger siblings hosted a microphone where those who asked beforehand could speak a few minutes. We found a poem in Dad's final arrangements folder which he asked to be read, so I read that. We had over 100 people overall, we guessed, though only a handful of people spoke, and most of them were family members. Some of us (myself included) were concerned about what could happen with an open mic, but those fears were not realized. Again, YMMV.

Let There Be Food and Wine
remembrance table
If you have a service at 10AM and the reception immediately follows, there must be food. It's like an unwritten rule. Well, maybe it's written in an etiquette book somewhere. Anyway, Dad was a total foodie. For example, for lunch, I might slap together a sandwich, consisting of 2 pieces of bread, a small stack of lunchmeat and maybe some spread and call it lunch. Dad would add lettuce, slice tomato and definitely have at least 2 kinds of spread. Then, he would add potato chips. Last, he would add a pickle, and wash it down with a beer that he poured into a glass. That's Dad, and he would have fixed your lunch the same way. So, of course there would be food, and not just a deli spread and a veggie tray. No. It was catered like a mid-afternoon wedding with 2 meat proteins, vegetarian and vegan options, desserts and, of course, wine. Since it was relatively early in the day, we offered different juices (and optional prosecco), coffee and tea.

Like any other time you need a caterer, you need to know how many to feed. For a wedding, that's almost easy. For how many invites did you receive RSVP's? Add a couple for folks who failed to respond and you're set. For a funeral? Who knows? We sent notifications across the country, placed obituaries, had announcements at Dad's church and put up an announcement at their old housing development. We could imagine 20 people and 200 people. Dad's priest, and our brother-in-law counselled that planning for 100 - 125 was probably safe. We had leftover food, but the desserts were pretty much cleaned out. I guess 125 was the right number. As you can imagine, this was NOT cheap (like $6kUS), but we felt that feeding Dad's friends the way he would have fed them was very important to us. Oh, that cost was the friends-and-family rate from the caterer and did not include tipping out the servers, but it did include things like dishware, utensils, etc. Linens and chairs/tables would have been more.

Let's not forget the flowers. My sister-in-law J hit Costco for the wine, prosecco and flowers. For $500, there was wine and prosecco left over, and there were flower centerpieces for every table, plus some arrayed around the room. The picture at the top is an example of one of the centerpieces. This may have been the most efficient of all of the expenses. There were multiple sources that supported Costco as the flower source versus a regular florist, and we could see why. Great job, J.

Transportation and Housing
rented van (from web)
With so many folks coming from out of town, and some having never been in Oregon before, the locals became tour guides, of sorts. My younger sister, E, helped by creating some optional events around the service/reception including a large dinner that night and a big brunch the following morning. Sister-in-law J and my brother E hosted a party the night after the service where they served leftovers from the reception.  All of these events were within the city limits, making attendance easy. Boo and I hosted my sister R and her husband C, while sister E and her family stayed with her mother-in-law (another Portland transplant from the NorthEast). Other out-of-towners solved with downtown Portland hotels and rental cars. Contrary to ridiculous national news stories, Portland is not on fire nor has it been taken over by homeless and anarchists. Quite the opposite, it may not be as bustling as pre-pandemic, but there was a definite hum while we were down there on a no-Saturday-market Sunday morning.

The big transportation challenge was for mom. She is effectively wheelchair bound now, and cannot be safely transferred by one person from wheelchair to bed, so getting in and out of a car is no longer possible. Boo rented a wheelchair accessible van (from here) for $100US that looks and drives like a minivan, only it has a disappearing ramp from the right slider door and a removed center row for the chair. The driver seat is also removeable, if you ask for that configuration, and the pedals have hand controls. While the acceleration of the van was not too great (it is geared for an extra 1000 pounds or weight for powered chairs), it otherwise handled like a minivan. We were so impressed with the service that we intend to do it when the weather warms up for things like grandkid baseball games or picnics.

rando pic of Tuukka
All-in, the total for all of the funeral arrangements pushed up against $8kUS. I guess this validates some of the things I've read where every individual ideally has a life insurance policy for at least $10k to cover their funeral expenses. I suppose, if we needed a casket and a burial plot, $10k would not be enough. Food for thought.

A funeral really is very much like a wedding, except it doesn't come with planners, happy pre-parties, a jubilant couple running through a hail of rice with a tear-filled parents/elders watching from the side. We did have after-parties, and there were tear-filled parents and elders. What is really missing is a funeral planner. Had we chosen to use a package at the funeral home where Dad was cremated, we probably could have picked off the menus for something. We chose to cut our own path, and it took some doing. The event, however, was a great reflection of him and his family, so I'm glad we carved our own.

That's it for this week. At some point, I'll touch on one of the other sides of burying one parent: solving for a now-single parent who just lost their lifetime/fulltime caregiver, as well as solving for almost all of their belongings. A third aspect is dealing with the legal and financials, but I don't know if I really want to get into that; I will say, however, that the money part is the most time-consuming of all of this stuff. Someone once said "life is what happens while making other plans". These days, I really feel that sentiment. Thanks, as always, for following along-

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