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Virginia Stem Owens

Grave Matters

I shouldn't have let my parents talk to those funeral salesmen unchaperoned.

One day last January I stopped by to visit my parents and found them in the dining room, sitting across the table from two men in ties and short-sleeve shirts. The table was spread with manila envelopes and ring binders. My father, 81 and unable to hear most conversations, was leaning forward, his hand cupped behind his left ear. My mother, who is 78 and suffers from Parkinson's disease, smiled at me uncertainly. After a moment's hesitation, she introduced the two strangers as representatives of a corporation specializing in "pre-need" funeral arrangements. Though my parents invited me to join them at the table, I excused myself and left.

I knew my mother had been worried for some time about arranging for their funerals. She has had that job on her hands several times in her life and wanted to spare me and my brother the emotional and physical exhaustion that usually attends such a task. So I figured my parents had arranged this meeting, and I didn't want to intrude. As I later learned, however, the salesmen had simply turned up at their door that afternoon.

The next day my parents proudly handed me the packet the salesmen had left with them, which included the contract they had signed with National Prearranged Services.

"It'll all be paid for," my father said with evident satisfaction. "No problem about price increases either. It's all locked in."

I expressed what I hoped was an appropriate amount of gratitude for their concern. But leafing through the packet, I found that most of the information had actually been supplied by my parents, data necessary for filling out their death certificates. The company had provided little besides the amount my parents had paid.

"Didn't they give you a list of services the policy provides?" I asked.

"They told us that would be coming later, from the local funeral home here," my mother said. That was the first time I asked myself why I hadn't taken a seat at the table that afternoon.

If I had read Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death ...

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