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Pre-planning funeral Ottawa Sun April 26, 2003

Did she want to wear shoes?

Norman Farrell didn’t know.

What dress would she have liked? He wasn’t sure about that either. His mother’s favourite light blue suit had a stain on the front. Dry-cleaning wasn’t an option. There was no time.

The funeral director was standing next to him in his parents’ home — his mother in a body bag — and needed to know.

Of all the questions that came at him that day, months later it’s the shoes that stick in Farrell’s mind.

After a minute or so, he could answer: No shoes. His mother, Mary, had trouble with her feet and hated wearing them. There was no way she’d be buried in them.

That was the easiest of many decisions Farrell had to make in the hours after his mother’s death.

Despite a lengthy illness and years of battling in a body that kept failing her, Mary had never planned for the battle’s end.
“There’s time enough for that when you’re dead,” Farrell recalls her saying. “She didn’t want to look at the finality of it. She didn’t want to talk about it.”

His father felt the same way. Neither would go to the funeral home to pre-plan.

“It gave them an uneasy feeling and I didn’t push it,” Farrell says. “When the thought of death is in their minds anyway, do you implant it in an indelible way so that they can’t get rid of it, having seen their coffin or picked out their flowers?”

Besides, they felt planning should be left to their kids.

“They didn’t buy into the fact it lessens people’s indecision in their time of grief,” Farrell says. “It shows them that someone else cared enough to go and do it for them.”

But it made the worst day of Farrell’s life even worse, filling it with an overwhelming sense of panic.

“Right away you know there’s a time pressure. You’re holding her hand one minute and the next (you’re) in the funeral home trying to make decisions.”

Knowing his mother’s body was downstairs while he picked out her casket was not easy. Nor was the responsibility he felt to do right by her and live up to her memory.

“Mom was getting nothing second rate,” Farrell says.

John Laframboise has seen this situation many times in his 30 years at Kelly Funeral Homes.

A funeral director, he says only 30% of funerals at Kelly’s six Ottawa homes are pre-planned — up from 10% a decade ago.

“I just don’t think it’s top of mind for most people,” he says. “Human nature is certainly one of the reasons no one wants to focus on their own funeral arrangements.”

He finds that strange, considering we see death all over the news.

“We just don’t connect it with our own individual demise.”

According to a national Pollara survey conducted in March, only 15% of Canadians have pre-planned their funerals, despite 75% agreeing it would significantly reduce pain and hardship on their family.

Mark Duffey is hoping to close that gap with his company, Everest.

Launched this week in Canada, the nationwide funeral planning package allows every detail of a funeral to be planned over the phone — without visiting a funeral home.

Duffey, the president and CEO, says people don’t pre-plan because they fear they’ll be taken advantage of.

“I think it’s a subject most don’t like to deal with and don’t have experience with. It’s a fear of the unknown,” he says. “That alone will make people not trustful about it.”
Everest is not associated with any funeral home, but offers planning counsellors, a planning guide and information to help consumers understand options, using its database of pricing for all homes in North America.

What makes it unique, Duffey says, is the ability to change plans. With no limit or penalty, a customer can plan to be buried in Vancouver today, but tomorrow decide they want to be cremated in Newfoundland. Plans can be implemented at any one of 25,000 funeral homes on the continent.

Upon your death, a phone call is all it takes for Everest to begin implementing your plans as covered by the $10,000 worth of insurance you buy as an Everest customer.

That money is guaranteed by Western Life. Remaining funds go to your beneficiary. It’s like life insurance and a departure from the status quo that sees plans made with a specific home. Duffey says baby boomers want that flexibility and control.

But Lynne Atkinson, executive director of the Ontario Funeral Service Association, is not sold on the idea.

“The problem with this is that you think you’ve pre-paid for your funeral,” she says. “I would just caution people that what they’re buying is a life-insurance policy.”

Since there’s no contract with a funeral home, no prices are locked in.

“They seem to suggest that this is so much more better than dealing with a funeral home and I just don’t buy that.”

Funeral homes offer options for families and a range of products, Atkinson says. In fact, they’re mandated to do so.

Laframboise says he often hears people say going to a funeral home to plan was not as bad as they expected.

“It’s a positive experience for many people,” he says. “It’s not a big time commitment and we all know that a pre-planned funeral is very much appreciated by the survivor.”

Pre-paid funeral deposits are placed in a trust in Ontario and offer tax-shelter advantages, he noted.

“It’s a very secure investment. There’s no huge penalty if you decide that you’re relocating to another part of Canada.”

For brochures on funeral planning, visit www.ofsa.org. For information on Everest, visit www.everestfuneral.com or call

By Holly Lake

© Copyright 2003 Ottawa Sun