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When There's a Death, You Need a Mortuary

Barb has been bereaved of both children, both, parents, and several close friends. She has a lot of experience dealing with grief.


Death is Usually Unpredictable.

When death occurs, someone has to start thinking about doing business with a mortuary. Maybe that someone is you. Chances are if this is the first time you have played the part of next of kin -- the one who has to make the arrangements -- you're a bit confused about what to do. I have been involved with making arrangements for five people close to me who have died. From each of these experiences I have learned something, and I'd like to pass on what I've learned about how to deal with a mortuary to those who may be facing this for the first time.

When death happens, those left behind feel very vulnerable and often don't know quite what to expect. They have just lost someone they loved and want to do right by them. If that someone did not make his or her own preparations ahead of time, then you, as next of kin, are the one who will have to make the decisions and figure out how the services you need will be paid for. The latter is often the hardest part, and, unfortunately, it often has to be thought of before you make the rest of the decisions. When you get to the mortuary and talk to a mortician, it pays to be prepared.

In the picture above, I am returning the wreath, made by a family friend, to my son Jason's grave. It had been hanging on my living room wall for years, and it seemed time to give it back. My mother, now buried in this same cemetery, took the picture.

All the photos in this article were taken by Barbara Radisavljevic or other family members. They are not to be used elsewhere without permission.

Your Loved One Will Get to the Mortuary Before You Do

I went to the back of a local mortuary to find a hearse, but this is what they have for the trip to the mortuary these days.

I went to the back of a local mortuary to find a hearse, but this is what they have for the trip to the mortuary these days.

It's Normally Easy to Get Your Loved One to the Mortuary

The hardest part is paying for it after they receive your loved one and start listing the charges. Normally you or the hospital or whoever is first aware of the death calls the mortuary that's nearest to pick up the body of your loved one. I have lost many loved ones. My dad died in the hospital and they arranged pick-up. My mom and my mother-in-law died at home with hospice care. I called the hospice nurse and she arranged for the transport.

I can't believe how quickly they arrived. Because my mom was having to go a long way, I had to have her clothes ready to go with her by the time transport arrived. Fortunately my mom's caregiver was there to help me. I wished I had asked my mom what she'd want to wear to her grave. The attendants were very respectful and patient. They took longer to prepare Mom for the trip because she had many stops before she would arrive in Long Beach.

We were burying my mother-in-law locally, so we could take her clothes when we went in to make the arrangements. She was being picked up by a different mortuary, and I was I little surprised at how unprofessional the people who came for her seemed to be. Perhaps they had had a bad day, but they were acting like slapstick comedians as they carted her to the van. I guess you can't take it for granted that those who pick up your loved one will be as respectful as those who will greet you when you come to the mortuary to make the arrangements.

If your loved one dies in a hospital or where a physician is in attendance, they will arrange for pick-up. If there's any doubt as to whether a crime was committed, the coroner will pay a visit and make arrangements for pickup. If your loved one died in an accident, normally someone on the scene calls 911 and they take it from there. For more information on complicated transport arrangements, you may find this FuneralWise site helpful. I have no commercial interest in this site.

Our local mortuary in Paso Robles, California

Our local mortuary in Paso Robles, California

Meeting Your Mortician.

The situation determines what you will feel and what you need to do.

I was first involved with making arrangements when my dad died in 1987. My mom was still alive and my dad had bought a plot. So we knew where he would be buried and which mortuary we would need to deal with. There was a trust in place to take care of the expenses because Dad had thought ahead for both himself and Mom. Mom was the one making the decisions in this case, but she needed support from me and my brother, and we met her at the mortuary the day my dad died.

The first thing you have to get used to in dealing with mortuaries is that they are businesses. Dealing with death and families is their business. They see families every day who have lost a loved one. You, however, do not do this kind of business every day, and it's a big deal to you. When you first go to the mortuary, you are grieving, not knowing what to expect, and the last thing on your mind is probably shopping. Unfortunately, callous as it may sound, a visit to a mortuary is really a shopping trip where you will spend a huge amount of money with little time to shop for the best deal.

Your salesperson will usually be very kind and understanding, but he or she is still a salesperson. He will know you are very vulnerable and he will be interested in getting you to shell out all you can (or can't ) afford. First you will sit down with your salesperson, and he will ask you all kinds of questions about the deceased, your relationship to him or her, the names (including maiden)and birth places of the parents and grandparents of the deceased. You might not even know all the answers, but you have to do the best you can. All this is for the death certificate.

You will also have to decide how many death certificates you would like to buy. These are needed for settling the affairs of the deceased -- closing bank accounts, claiming death benefits, and all sorts of other reasons. I suggest you start with ten or whatever amount you need to get a price break. It's more expensive if you have to buy one more because you didn't get enough.

You will also need to decide if you want the mortuary to write the obituary or whether you want to do it yourself and submit it to the papers. If you want them to write it, they will ask you more questions and there will probably be an added charge. The newspapers will often have their own charges by the line if you submit them yourself. Pictures are often extra.

I took this picture of my local mortuary when writing this article.

Chapel and Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Sunnyside in Long Beach, California, where most of my exended family is buried. Mom and Dad are in one of those walls.

Chapel and Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Sunnyside in Long Beach, California, where most of my exended family is buried. Mom and Dad are in one of those walls.

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Cremation or Burial?

Once you've answered all the morticians other questions, you need to decide whether your loved one will be buried or cremated. My family has always tended toward burial, the most expensive option. Burial requires a place to be buried and that involves a real estate purchase of some sort in the ground or in a wall. Since I have only made arrangements for burials, I don't know the ins and outs of cremation, but I know that some people buy urns and take them home and some people have services at sea and scatter remains in the ocean. Some hike to a loved one's favorite place and scatter ashes there. I don't know if buying an urn is required. I am sure you will be given the option of buying one. Your mortician will explain all your options.

If you choose burial, you will need to either buy a place to be buried or show that you have title to one. Sometimes you can choose a cemetery and sometimes your city decides for you. In my county, each city or district has its own cemetery and if you don't like it, you will pay high fees to go elsewhere.

My family members are all buried in the same cemetery, Forest Lawn Sunnyside in Long Beach, a city with more than one choice. We don't live in that city, and since it's far from us, we will probably be buried in our own town if we still live here when we die. We are getting to the age when we should start thinking about it.

A Cemetery in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada


Does It Pay to Buy Your Burial Plot Before You Need It?

The last real estate you will ever need.

If you need to buy a plot in the cemetery associated with the mortuary you are doing business with, your salesperson will turn into a real estate person. You will walk the grounds and/or mausoleum discussing the pros and cons of each vacant place until you decide on one. Then you will go back and make your purchase. At this time, payment arrangements might be discussed. It's good to think before you get to the mortuary about how you are going to pay for all this. If you have insurance, it will be a little easier. The price you have to pay will probably be more than you were counting on.

Your choices, depending on how full the cemetery is, will vary. This picture shows a rather ornate cemetery in Niagara Falls, Canada, where my husband's father had bought a plot he never used because he later came to the United States. As I understand it, the deed was not transferable, so the money was lost.

This is one of the disadvantages of planning ahead. You never know for sure where you will die. At the end of this article, you see a very simple grave where my son and daughter are buried -- Jason in 1991 and Sarah in 2009. It was a double grave, and if Sarah had not also died, I'm not sure who would have used the other half. We might have donated it to a poor child whose parents did not have the money for a plot.

So your real estate options might be a single plot, a double plot, a grave outside, a crypt in a wall, such as where my parents are buried, or a crypt in a mausoleum, such as the one where many of my relatives are buried. All these options were available at Forest Lawn Sunnyside in Long Beach, where we were shopping.

Kosta's parents are buried in a double grave in Templeton, where we live. It is much simpler than at Forest Lawn cemetery. You must live in Templeton or be related to someone who is to be buried there.

Flowers and Alternatives

Many people sent flowers for Jason's service. Others lovingly assembled photo albums of his life, drew pictures, and used their talents to honor him.

Many people sent flowers for Jason's service. Others lovingly assembled photo albums of his life, drew pictures, and used their talents to honor him.

Shopping for a Casket Can Be the Hardest Part

Picking out a casket, deciding if you want a package deal

When my father died, this was absolutely the hardest part for me. The salesman had gone over the preliminary interview in the office, gotten the information for the obituary and death certificate, and helped us pick a plan. Then he ushered us into a room full of caskets. He was as causal about this as he would be if he were selling us a sofa. We discussed materials -- wood or metal, and lining fabrics.

My mother had brought one of Dad's suits along, as instructed. When we had found a couple of caskets and were trying to decide between them, the salesman brought the suit and laid it in each one. That's when I just about freaked out. We were picturing my dad in there, and we weren't ready for this visual display. It was almost as though one was trying on clothes in a dressing room to see how they looked -- that casual. This was routine for the salesman, but not for us.

If you want to avoid this, you can shop for caskets on line. I did this when Mom died. And I just did it for Sarah. Forest Lawn has a web site where you can see all their pricing You might want to check to see if your local mortuary has a web site with this information before your appointment so that you can have time to think through your choices before you are influenced by your salesman.

Recently, a friend told my husband that when a relative died, he saw the price of coffins and made his own, saving lots of money with a simple casket made lovingly with his own hands. So this is still possible. Check your state's laws and your rights to see what your state allows.

Do you need a funeral package?

Most mortuaries will try to sell you a plan that includes the casket, and sometimes a funeral. You will have to decide whether you want a funeral or grave side service that requires the use of their service staff or chapels. There are alternatives to this. For example, at Jason's service we had to postpone the grave side service until after the weekend because their service staff doesn't work on the weekend, or if they do, the charges for their services are much higher. For the grave side service, you can order some chairs to be put out and they will have the casket by the grave side at the time of the service, bring the flowers to the site, etc.

The chairs were limited and uncomfortable for Jason's service. They don't actually lower the casket into the ground until you are gone. At my mom's service (same cemetery) they put out metal folding chairs. For Sarah's service (same cemetery), we wanted it on Saturday so more people could come. It was to be her only service. We decided not to use any services of the mortuary or cemetery staff.

Family members had access to plenty of folding chairs and brought them. We just met around the grave site for a short service performed by family members. Then we went to the home of a family member afterward for a light lunch and time of sharing memories as a group. We could do that because we were a much smaller group than for Jason's memorial service. His was too big for our church to hold, so we had it outdoors. I will talk more about funeral planning below.

Another part of the packages they want to sell you include the price of the hearse and limousines for the family members. You pretty well have to have a hearse, but we opted out of the extra expense of limousines, since most of us had to drive long distances anyway. It seemed kind of silly to make a long drive and then have a limousine pick us up from a relative's home or motel. It helps to know that even if some things may be traditional, they may not be necessary or desirable for you.

That brings me to flowers. They are a lovely custom, and if you are going to have a funeral or graveside service where the casket is present, you may want flowers to adorn the casket. You also might just have a wreath and a few flowers planned and encourage people to donate the money they might have spent for flowers to a favorite charity in honor of the deceased.

If you have ever been part of the family, you may know that after the graveside service, the flowers will either be given to the family members or be disposed of by the cemetery staff after everyone has gone home. They may be allowed to stay until wilted but that depends upon the rules of the cemetery you choose. The picture above shows the many flowers people sent for Jason's service. A special family friend made the wreath you see. After the graveside service, we took it home and hung it on the wall in the kitchen for years. When my aunt died in 2003 we went to Long Beach for the funeral and left the wreath on Jason's grave. You can see it close up in the lead photo at the top.