Nearly 200 people packed a room at Pax Christi Catholic Community in Eden Prairie on a rainy May evening, eating cookies and discussing their own funerals.
Father Mike Byron and funeral director Scott Mueller of Mueller Memorial in St. Paul created the May 8 funeral pre-planning workshop to shed light on a subject that many would rather avoid. It may not be fun to consider a relative’s death, or your own, but it can smooth the funeral process, emotionally and financially, to have just a few ideas of what to do, Byron said.
“The less stressful situation to be in, in that moment, is to have some idea of what you’re going to do,” he explained. “We’d like to make them more comfortable in knowing what to expect.”
Arthur and Diane Welsh arrived at the workshop with prepared questions, ready to learn. Arthur, 85, wanted to know about benefits for veterans, and Diane, 77, was interested in who to call first after a death.
“We want to make it as simple as possible when we pass,” Diane said. “It’s important to give it thought.”
The talk was lighthearted, for a morbid topic, with many laughs from the audience. One attendee asked Byron and Mueller if they’d considered “taking their act on the road.”
The duo answered audience questions and described the the changing landscape of death as fewer people attend churches regularly, more request cremations and traditions are abandoned or created. Here are some takeaways from their workshop, and from the director of Eden Prairie’s Huber Funeral Home, Chad Willard.
Tradition and faith
In 2018, 62 percent of customers at Mueller Memorial had no ties to a religious institution, Mueller said, which often means families use facilities at the funeral home to hold a memorial service or funeral. However, most houses of worship will gladly hold a funeral or memorial for a lapsed member, Byron said, and traditions of faith to lean on in times of grief can be a comfort.
“It’s not often that we have to confront real mystery,” he said. “It’s coming for all of us. How do we best engage that reality with hope?”
While most of the people who come to Huber practice a Christian denomination, there are many faiths in Eden Prairie, Willard said.
“There’s a couple little sects that I’ve had the privilege of working with,” he said, including Buddhist, Hindu and Russian Orthodox communities.
The price for a funeral in any of these faiths all tend to be similar unless a tradition calls for more services from funeral home. For example, some Laotian and Vietnamese traditions require that relatives stay with a decedent’s body for an overnight vigil, which requires that a funeral home employee be on site, Willard said.
In the absence of faith, people create their own traditions. Mueller participated in a survey of funeral home directors that investigated what baby boomers want from their funeral. Fewer want their relatives to see their body, he said, and more want a festive celebration of life.
“They say, ‘if I die, I want a party,’” he said. “People are defining what their ritual is.”
In the mid-20th century, the Catholic Church ruled that cremation was acceptable for Catholics, which many practitioners don’t know, Byron said. One workshop attendee asked him how the church planned to preserve relics from potential saints if they’ve been cremated. Byron was stumped.
“The one question I get, and I don’t know,” he laughed.
Sharing your wishes
“I think the best thing people can do in anticipating the deaths of themselves or their loved ones is to be clear about what they want,” Byron said.
A frank conversation with relatives is the quickest way to do this, but it’s not always easy. For those who are tongue-tied about their own death or don’t know where to begin, there are workbooks with titles like “I’m Dead. Now What?” and “Peace of Mind Planner” with prompts to record final requests, last words and important information like account numbers and passwords.
In this digital age, there are also ways to plan for what happens to your social media accounts after you die. Facebook allows users to select “legacy contacts” who can memorialize a dead person’s account and keep the page running in their memory.
Several people at the Pax Christi workshop asked about green burials, an environmentally-friendly burial that allows a body to decompose directly in the ground as naturally as possible, without embalming or protective caskets. However, finding a cemetery that will do a green burial can be difficult, Willard said, and no one has asked Huber Funeral Home about the practice yet. Instead, around 60 percent of Huber’s customers request cremation and the rest opt for a traditional burial.
The good news: Funeral costs tend to rise at a slower rate than other services, Mueller said.
The bad news: As people live longer, health care and the cost of living can burn through savings intended for funeral services.
Some insurance companies have plans that reserve money specifically for funeral-related costs, which protects the funds from other uses.
Both Mueller and Willard recommended talking with a funeral director about a pre-funded funeral, in which you create an account with your funeral home of choice and pay for the cost of your funeral wishes before dying.
“We try to do as much as we can when somebody comes in the door like that,” Willard said.
He cautioned that at some funeral homes, this is not the same as being prepaid, and if any changes are made to the plan after dying, the cost can change.
Mueller also noted that burying someone’s cremated remains in the same plot as a casket is generally free or less expensive than buying another plot for the ashes.
As in any industry, there are popular trends that come and go, Willard said. The colors that people request for a decedent’s casket are usually in line with popular car colors, just a year or two late, he noted, and there’s even a “Camry”-style casket for automobile fans to be buried in. People will spend anywhere from five to 30 minutes viewing Huber’s samples, Willard said.
While there are many options for caskets — wood or steel, ornate or simple, any color of the rainbow — there’s even more for cremated remains. Any container can be an urn, from ornate mother-of-pearl jars to containers shaped like a golf ball. There are even tiny memento urns available, if a family wants to scatter or bury most of the ashes but keep some close to home.
Those seeking thrills even after death can have their ashes pressed into diamonds, turned into shotgun shells or shot into space, Mueller said.
The one thing not to do, according to Byron, is bring an urn home to sit on the mantle, where it collects dust and is eventually forgotten, broken or shuffled off to the attic. Bury them, scatter them or shoot them into space, but don’t leave grandma’s ashes next to the cuckoo clock.