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Experts advise discussing burial options with loved ones

  • "Flat" grave marker at St. Mary Cemetery in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Holy Rosary Cemetery in Hadley.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • St. Mary Cemetery in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Last week's mystery photo was of the Plainville Cemetery on Mount Warner Road in Hadley.<br/><br/>FILE PHOTO
  • St. Mary Cemetery in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • St. Mary Cemetery in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

Will you be buried, and if so, where?

These are questions that cause many to squirm. And despite their degree of importance — not to mention their inevitability — questions about cremation, burial and picking a cemetery are ones that few people want to think about.

And so they don’t, leaving family members rushing to buy a grave site during emotional times, often without careful thought or a personal visit to the cemetery.

“Let’s face it, most people aren’t going to think about this until the time comes,” said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance in South Burlington, Vt.

Funerals are among the costliest one-time events in a person’s lifetime. A traditional funeral service costs, on average, between $6,000 and $10,000, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Unless someone has decided on cremation, a funeral isn’t complete until a burial site is chosen.

That’s why experts like Slocum advise families to do advanced research, visit potential grave sites, compare prices and study regulations, and, most importantly, talk with relatives.

“It’s a really helpful thing to know about ahead of time and most people don’t,” said Carol Coan, past president and volunteer at the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Western Massachusetts. “Do your research, as much as you can stand. Get an idea of options.”

Though funeral homes can and do help families select the right cemetery for loved ones, that service is not included in the list of prices that must be disclosed as part of the “Funeral Rule,” a set of laws that requires funeral directors to provide itemized prices in person and over the phone.

Cemeteries in general are not governed by federal law, a situation advocates like Slocum hope to change. While there are private companies who run cemeteries throughout the nation, most graveyards in New England are under the control of local cities and towns, churches and veterans organizations.

Location, location, location

For many families, this question is easy to answer. They’ll want to be buried with other members of their family or at a cemetery that matches their religious beliefs, said Jay Czelusniak of Czelusniak Funeral Homes in Northampton.

But for those who aren’t sure, cemetery hunting is very similar to house hunting, as morbid as it sounds.

“I recommend driving around and looking at different cemeteries in different communities,” Czelusniak said. “But be sure to visit where there are no existing markers to decide if that’s where you want to be buried.”

Slocum challenges people to think about whether they need a graveyard at all. He believes society’s sentimental attachment to cemeteries is waning, especially now that people are more mobile and tend to remember their loved ones through pictures and letters rather than visiting a grave.

“Don’t make the assumption you are fulfilling a universal need for your survivors,” he said. “Cemeteries don’t serve the same purpose they once did. All of us, even older folks, move around the country now.”

For those who do want to be buried in a cemetery, Slocum agrees that shopping around is a key part of the equation. He recommends touring cemeteries in small and large communities, not only for aesthetics but also because prices can vary widely.

Prices: wide range

Cemetery plots throughout Hampshire County in general will range between $500 and $1,000. An additional “opening” and “closing” fee in the same price range is also required to dig and cover a grave.

That means people will pay between $1,000 and $2,000 to buy a lot and be buried in it, at today’s prices, above the cost of the funeral.

Some lots are much cheaper in smaller communities. The Hilltowns, for example, charge as little as $50. Westhampton gives away two plots in its cemetery to residents or immediate families who have lived in town for at least five years. Residents can also buy up to four additional plots at $200 each, which is half price.

The city of Northampton operates four cemeteries — Bridge Street, Park Street, Spring Grove and West Farms — and charges a universal fee for lots no matter which cemetery someone chooses, said Bill Sullivan, parks and cemetery foreman.

Single lots that are flush with the ground cost $600, while two, side-by-side lots are $1,200. The only lots where upright monuments are allowed are four-grave lots, which cost $2,410.

Cremation lots in Northampton cost $600, which allows for a traditional burial and three sets of ashes, or four sets of ashes. There is also a fee for cremation openings.

The town of Amherst manages three cemeteries — North, West and South — though only one, South Cemetery, has space left, said Guilford Mooring, superintendent of the Department of Public Works. The town also has one cemetery called Wildwood that is governed by a private association.

The cost for a lot in Amherst is cheaper, at $700, but people are required to buy two lots at a time. Opening and closing costs for a full burial are also cheaper, at $350, while cremation burials are $50 in the summer and $75 in the winter. Like most communities, the town charges extra for weekend or holiday work.

Easthampton, meanwhile, charges $700 for a single lot and $400 for a cremation lot, with the opening and closing prices either $700 or $850, depending on the time of year.

Czelusniak also advises safeguarding the deed to the lot and the regulations that apply to it as you would for the deed of a car.

“If they don’t have a deed, nobody has a right to be buried there,” he said.

Debate over pre-pay

While some advise pre-paying for a cemetery lot as a way to secure future space at today’s prices and to ease the minds of survivors, Slocum strongly recommends against it.

“Are you absolutely certain you will live and die in town 20 to 30 years from now?” he said. “No, you are not.”

Instead of tying money up in a grave, Slocum advises people to save for end-of-life expenses by opening an IRA for that purpose. Relatives can use that account to cover funeral expenses. Slocum said this will only work if families talk to each other.

“We don’t like to talk and think about death, but that is such a huge mistake,” he said.

He recommends creating a detailed plan with the help of survivors, and be as specific as possible to avoid later confusion.

“Ask what’s meaningful to them and tell them what is important to you,” Slocum said. Czelusniak agrees the discussion is important, but has a different take on the question of pre-paying for a lot. Costs, he said, never go down, so the longer you wait the more you’ll spend.

People who are fairly certain they know where they want to be buried might want to lock in the price at today’s rates and take steps to pay so survivors won’t have to. Such a move will also secure space in a specific cemetery.

“If you have the finances and aren’t going to miss that money right now, securing space can give peace of mind for the rest of the family,” he said.

The FTC urges people to make decisions about arrangements in advance, but does not take a position on whether to pre-pay. The FTC advises reviewing decisions every few years, and keeping the family aware of those decisions.

Czelusniak agrees, saying, “Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, we have plenty of time. But it is going to happen. You need to talk about it.”


Funeral experts offer tips for choosing burial plots

Monday, October 15, 2012

Experts advise people to request price and regulation lists from each cemetery they are considering for burial for themselves or their loved ones. This paperwork should answer these and many more questions: ∎ Does the cemetery require a vault? ∎ Are there residency requirements? ∎ What are the rules governing plantings, flowers and other ornamental designs? ∎ Are headstones allowed? …

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