Fond Farewell

Sparing your family the grief of funeral arrangements.

TJoseph Levine, president of Joseph Levine & Sons, one of the oldest Jewish funeral homes in the area. (Photo by Seth Shimkonis)he call came at 5 a.m. Reaching in the dark for the phone, I knew my father was dead. Six months earlier, a doctor told him to put his affairs in order. Pancreatic cancer takes no prisoners. At the time, I was living in Los Angeles. My parents were in Florida. The call was from my uncle in Devon. “Take the next plane to Palm Beach. You have to help your mother make arrangements,” he said.

Arrangements? The subject was taboo in my family. Death and dying were discussed in whispers or, preferably, not at all. I arrived in Florida totally unprepared. Suddenly, I was no longer the baby of the family, a role I’d happily assumed for more than 40 years. Someone had to identify my father’s body, accompany his casket and my mother to Philadelphia, pick out his coffin, and purchase his grave marker. That someone was me.

Papers had to be signed, checks written, relatives notified—all of it accomplished in a state of profound grief. Was I doing the right thing? Is this what Dad wanted? I’ll never know. I was afraid to ask.

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“Adult children should talk to their aging parents about their final wishes long before a crisis occurs. If you don’t, you’re going to have a problem,” says Joseph Levine, president of Joseph Levine & Sons, a longtime funeral services provider on the Main Line.

Levine also advises people to consider pre-need funeral arrangements starting at age 55. Doing so protects against rising costs and inflation, lifts the financial burden from survivors, and ensures that the deceased’s wishes are carried out, thereby avoiding conflict within the family.

Another benefit of a pre-need funeral arrangement is that all paperwork is in one safe place. “Many years ago, a woman made arrangements that included her contract for a burial plot at a Delaware County cemetery,” Levine says. “When she died, her children contacted the cemetery and were told that there was no such contract on file. Apparently, the woman had lost the paperwork long ago, and the children didn’t have a copy. Fortunately, we did.”

Making one’s final wishes known involves a myriad of decisions. Do you want to be cremated or buried? Scattered from the top of the Eiffel Tower or kept in an urn in Avalon? Embalmed or dust-to-dust? Many choices have religious connotations—and even then, there are variations. For instance, cremation and embalming are against Jewish law. “This comes with the understanding that nothing should be done to speed up or slow down the process of the body returning to earth,” Levine explains.

Still, some Jews choose to be cremated, and many are embalmed. “We have to ask permission to embalm,” says Levine. “It’s only required in certain circumstances, and in many cases, it’s not necessary.”

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Choosing a casket can be more intimidating than walking into a Porsche showroom. Orthodox Jews insist on a plain pine box and a simple linen shroud. Every Jewish funeral home has them, but they also have the high-priced spread—gleaming rosewood caskets with plush silk lining befitting Sleeping Beauty.

Squeamish about coffin shopping? Donohue Funeral Homes of Newtown Square and Wayne offers the convenience of choosing a casket online. Other funeral homes that offer website shopping include Chadwick & McKinney and William C. McConaghy, both in Ardmore.

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As for burial locations, the choices are many. Being a colonial city, Philadelphia is blessed with historic graveyards that attract thousands of visitors each year. Philanthropist Rebecca Gratz, who inspired Sir Walter Scott’s Rebecca in Ivanhoe, is buried in the tiny Mikveh Israel Cemetery in Society Hill. Ben Franklin lies at rest across from the Betsy Ross House at Third and Arch. And an eternal flame burns in Washington Square for thousands of unnamed Civil War soldiers buried beneath the park.

History doesn’t end at the city limits. The Main Line is home to several significant burial sites, including Montgomery Cemetery in Norristown where five Civil War generals are buried.

Perhaps the most fascinating cemetery in the area is Laurel Hill, a National Historic Landmark where Philadelphia’s elite staked out a permanent view of the Schuylkill River amid 78 acres of lavish sculptural monuments that recall a more romantic view of death. Started by a Quaker librarian in 1836, Laurel Hill is a veritable “who’s who” of 19th-century Philadelphia—home to such big names as Rittenhouse, Widener, Elkins and Strawbridge. Rear Adm. John M. Bird, Civil War Gen. George Meade and six Titanic passengers are also buried there.

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With today’s emphasis on the environment, many people are drawn to memorial parks that double as recreational areas or cemeteries with flat markers. At Haym Solomon Memorial Park in Frazer, there are no raised gravestones or mausoleums. There’s also an adjacent pet cemetery, for those who want to give Fluffy more than just a backyard farewell.

Quakers, meanwhile, have a tradition of cremation. “They are appalled by the funeral industry, and they like the idea of taking up less space in the world when they’re gone,” says Benjamin Lloyd, outreach coordinator at Haverford Friends Meeting. “Guided by concepts of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship, a good Quaker wants to make sure his house is in order.”

That means giving away possessions, making donations and, in some cases, moving to a Quaker retirement community. “Quakers try to speak simply, plainly and truthfully when talking to their children about death,” he says.

Funerals are expensive, and inflation is not our friend. At what point should we consult an eldercare attorney regarding end-of-life issues?

“The greatest fear of my clients is that they’ll suddenly become ill, need nursing-home care, and have to spend all of their assets, leaving nothing for their children,” says elder law attorney Jacqueline J. Shafer of High Swartz in Norristown. “Planning for end-of-life issues usually revolves around two factors: the wishes of the elder concerning their final arrangements and an honest assessment of their assets.”

Prior to entering a nursing home, a person may “reserve” about $10,000 in a separate account earmarked for funeral expenses only, or take advantage of a pre-paid plan with a funeral home.

Why invest your money in a pre-need funeral contract when you may be able to get a higher yield in another financial vehicle? Because there is no way your treasury note or CD is going to keep up with the rate of inflation over a 10- or 20-year period. A pre-need contract freezes the price against inflation no matter how many years intervene.

Then again, pre-need contracts are not for everyone. Some people have more than enough money to plan an extravagant exit party.

“Pre-planning, in their case, may be more of a factor of saving the family from having to do this chore and ensuring that the elder gets what they would want and not what the family thinks they should have,” Shafer says. “For married couples approaching retirement, any life-changing medical condition that might result in a nursing-home admission down the road is cause enough to seek out a good legal practitioner.”

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Regardless of your religion, beliefs or preferences, if you decide to invest in a pre-need funeral contract, “You must deal with a reputable funeral home, have access to your file, and the funds entrusted must be 100 percent funded with a Pennsylvania banking institution,” Levine says.

Ultimately, no matter how carefully you plan, those left behind are often overwhelmed. “People who are the wealthiest are often hit hardest because they have had charmed lives,” says Pam Weinstein, a bereavement counselor at Levine & Sons who runs a support group for recent
widows and widowers at Har Zion Temple in Gladwyne. “They are shocked by their loss. Some may have never paid a bill. When their spouse dies, they lose their identity.”

For others, the loss of a partner kindles a crisis in faith. They are angry with God. Weinstein reminds them it’s OK to withdraw, that God will be waiting for them when they are ready to return. She also lets them know it’s all right to laugh again, to distract themselves from their grief.

“In the first year following the death of a spouse, there is a period of adjustment—of acceptance,” Weinstein says. “Eventually, they find that they’re more resourceful than they imagined.”

Pre-Planning Your Funeral

Most adults over the age of 65 have a will and own a cemetery plot. But planning a funeral involves many other decisions and expenses that should be addressed while you’re still experiencing good health. Ask yourself the following questions and discuss them with your spouse and adult children.

1. Who do I want to arrange my funeral?
2. Where will the money to pay for funeral expenses come from?
3. Do I want to be buried or cremated?
4. Do I want my casket to be metal, hardwood or simple pine?
5. Do I want flowers or music?
6. What kind of monument do I want? What sort of engraving?
7. How much do I want to spend on my funeral?
8. Which funeral home and cemetery do I want to use?
9. If I choose cremation, do I want my ashes kept or scattered?
10. If I must go into a nursing home, have I made provisions to set aside $10,000 for my funeral expenses?

Funeral Myths and Facts

1. Cemeteries charge more for weekend funerals.
2. Pennsylvania law prohibits burial on private property.
3. Perpetual care of cemetery plots is mandated by state law.
4. Embalming prevents the body from decaying.
5. Metal caskets prevent the body from decaying.
6. Cemeteries receive kickbacks from monument companies.
7. The term “master engraver” is evidence of high quality.
8. Cemeteries can dictate where you buy your monument.
9. Granite monuments come in different grades.
10. There is a 19th-century Jewish cemetery in Gladwyne.
Key …
1. Yes, if you want to save money, be buried on a weekday.
2. Outside the city limits, it is legal to be buried on private property.
3. Perpetual care is not mandated by state law.
4. Bodies decay whether they are embalmed or not.
5. False.
6. Of course they receive kickbacks—it’s business.
7. There is no such thing as a “master engraver.”
8. You have the right to purchase the marker of your choice.
9. Granite comes in several grades and prices.
10. The Gladwyne Jewish Cemetery dates back to 1860.

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