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All human societies have developed rituals associated with death, including remembrance of the deceased, disposition of the body, and assistance to families and communities in the grieving process. These customs differ across cultures and religions.
You may have a clear idea of your wishes, or you may want to seek the guidance of family, clergy, or some other adviser, in addition to a funeral director, in making your decisions. If you want to ensure that your wishes are carried out, and are comfortable doing so, you and your loved ones can plan for your funeral and body disposition while you are still healthy enough to participate. This planning might include decisions concerning cultural and religious considerations, cost, and the participation of family and friends.
Many people turn to a funeral home to help with the funeral planning process. Others join memorial societies - membership groups that can help with the planning and offer information, support, and access to lower-cost funeral arrangements. The Federal Trade Commission regulates funeral homes at the federal level. The Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs publishes a consumer fact sheet on funerals, with basic information on issues related to purchasing funeral arrangements. This agency also publishes Buyers' Guide to Pre-Need Funeral Arrangements, which funeral directors must give you as part of any discussion of pre-paid funeral arrangements.
There are many options to consider when choosing a funeral home. Some people may choose a funeral home close to where they live or near where they plan to be buried. Others consider religious, cultural, or ethnic affiliations when making this decision. In Massachusetts, there are more than 700 licensed funeral homes. Funeral costs can vary widely for similar products and services, so there is value in exploring more than one option.
Federal and state regulations require that funeral homes follow certain procedures regarding funeral arrangements and costs. They must provide consumers with an itemized general price list and must not require that specific funeral packages be purchased. They may not require that you purchase a casket from the funeral home. These requirements, as well as guidelines and suggestions for funeral planning, are included in Funeral: A Consumer Guide, published by the Federal Trade Commission.
Paying for a funeral can be a financial hardship. Some limited options for financial assistance may be available. Social Security pays the direct survivor a small lump sum. Veterans may be eligible for a burial allowance. The Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance pays for part of the cost of a funeral for MassHealth (Medicaid) members and other low-income, financially qualified individuals. Some unions, fraternal organizations, and mutual aid societies may also offer funeral benefits.
Caring for the Body after Death
Another decision is whether the body should be embalmed in order to slow down the natural decay process. Embalming extends the time available for family and friends to gather for a service and viewing prior to burial. Massachusetts does not require embalming, except in special circumstances.
While most people use the services of a funeral director to assist them in the handling and disposition of the body, Massachusetts does allow families to care for their own dead. In these cases, it is important to understand the state and local regulations and to carefully plan in advance. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health publishes consumer guidelines to assist you.
The most common choice for disposition of the body is burial. In this case, you must arrange for a casket and a burial plot.
The casket can be one of the most expensive costs in a funeral. Caskets can range in style and price from very simple and inexpensive to very ornate and expensive, costing from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. Most people purchase caskets through the funeral home, but federal regulations require that funeral homes allow caskets to be purchased independently. Consumers have the right to buy a casket directly from a casket retailer or over the Internet or even to make their own. Massachusetts law also allows caskets to be rented. The burial site must also be considered. Many issues, both financial and personal, may influence the decision about where to be buried and whether to purchase a burial site in advance. Contact different cemeteries and carefully compare options and costs.
Veterans, along with their spouses and children, may be buried in a national cemetery free of charge. Massachusetts also provides a cemetery for Massachusetts veterans. The Massachusetts Secretary of State publishes a fact sheet on veterans' burial benefits.
Cremation, the incineration of the body, can take place only after a 48-hour waiting period and must be performed at a crematory licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. Prior to cremation, an additional certificate must be signed by the medical examiner stating that he or she has viewed the body and determined that no further examination or judicial inquiry is necessary (M.G.L. c.114, s.44). Individuals can make arrangements for cremation directly with a crematory and even arrange for pre-payment for this service. However, it is required that transportation of the body from the place of death take place in a vehicle licensed for that purpose, and thus the transportation is normally handled by a funeral home, which will also store the body for the 48-hour waiting period. A memorial or other service can occur before or after the cremation process.
By federal law, a casket cannot be required for cremation. However, Massachusetts regulations require that the body be placed in a "suitable container" for cremation (M.G.L. c.114, s. 44A). This container may be a plywood or strong cardboard box that may be obtained from a crematory or funeral director.
In the process of cremation, the body and its container are both incinerated with intense heat. While commonly called "ashes", the remains following cremation are calcified bone fragments that resemble finely broken seashells.
The crematory is responsible for careful identification of the ashes so that they may be returned to the proper family. Most crematories do this by placing a numbered metallic disc in the container with the body to provide for identification of the ashes.
There are several options in disposing of the cremated remains. The ashes may be placed in a niche in a columbarium, a special structure at a cemetery or church; be buried or put in a crypt in a cemetery; be kept at home; or be scattered on land or at sea.
It may be important to talk with a member of the clergy before choosing cremation. Some religions forbid the practice, including Islam and Orthodox Judaism. Other religions, including Mormon, Eastern Orthodox, and some conservative Protestant denominations, look on the practice with disfavor. The Roman Catholic Church permits cremation within certain guidelines.
Some people choose to donate their bodies for medical teaching and research. This practice differs from organ donation, in which organs are removed from the body before being released to the family for burial or cremation.
In addition to filling a societal need, donation for research can be the least expensive means for disposition of the body after death. Since not all body donations are needed at the time they become available, and therefore are not accepted, it is a good idea to have an alternative plan. In Massachusetts, the donor must personally arrange the donation before death. It is also important that issues about transporting the body and its final disposition after research be clarified in advance. The National Anatomical Service provides information about medical schools that accept body donations.
Additional information can be found through the resources listed below and in our blog on Alternative Burial Options.
For more information:
Cremation Association of North America
Funeral Consumers Alliance
(Funeral and memorial societies)
Green Burial Council
Green Burial Massachusetts
Internet Cremation Society
Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts
Massachusetts Cemetery Association
Massachusetts Department of Veterans' Services
600 Washington Street, Suite 1100
Boston, MA 02111
Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association
536 Broad Street, Suite 4
Weymouth, MA 02189-1395
Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs
Division of Professional Licensure
Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors
239 Causeway Street, Suite 500
Boston, MA 02114
National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association
Secretary of the Commonwealth
State House, Room 337
Boston, MA 02133
Toll free: 800-827-1000