SPECIAL REPORT: The cost of death

Updated: Sep. 30, 2019 at 9:24 PM CDT
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LAKE CHARLES, La. (KPLC) - Many of us figure the cost of living into our budget, automatically accounting for expenses like groceries, housing, and healthcare as part of our daily existence. One of the things we often underestimate, however, is what it costs to die in the United States.

Losing a loved one is hard enough, but for many families, the pain gets even worse when they see the price tag for the funeral.

The Mackey’s shared their story with 7News detailing the process they went through planning the memorial service for their beloved godchild, Ethel “Patrice” Smith.

“Ethel was everywhere and you couldn’t help but love her,” said Brenda Mackey.

Brenda and Elbert Mackey can still fill the presence of their late godchild, Ethel.

“She got into everything. We’re grateful for those memories of her and we hold them dearly in our hearts,” Brenda said.

When Ethel “Patrice” Smith died last year after a courageous 23 year battle with cancer, it impacted her family in more ways than one.

“Even in hospice, we really didn’t expect for her to pass as abruptly as she did. So it really kind-of caught the whole family off guard,” said Elbert Mackey.

During that time, the Mackeys had to readjust their family dynamic and say – they were unprepared for what was to inevitably come to pass.

“She was unprepared, the family was unprepared for Ethel...no one knew," Brenda said. "You don’t know when you’re going to lose a loved one or when that time is going to happen.”

With no life insurance to fall back on and little money saved, like any family they turned to each other to seek answers on how Ethel would want to be remembered.

“There wasn’t any insurance, there wasn’t any type of burial plan. None of that had been talked about...It was tough because you want to take some of the decisions and the pressure off the remaining family members," said Sonjia Mackey.

With the help of Ethel’s sisters, Ethel’s cousin, Sonjia Mackey ended up taking on that task through an unconventional but convenient resource.

“I knew about crowdfunding, I knew about social media about how people raise money to help bury their loved ones,” Sonjia said.

In the last few years, GoFundme has become an asset for families who find themselves in a bind when trying to fund major life expenses. The company’s website averages over 125,000 memorial campaigns per year and raise over $330 million in funeral donations. The page dedicated to Ethel’s funeral expenses only missed its goal by two percent. However, it was more than enough for a proper cremation and memorial service for a woman who was loved by so many.

“Altogether, it ended up being 4,000 dollars or so," said Sonjia. "Between all of the donations, with the crowdfunding effort, we actually had a little bit of money left over that we were able to give to her son.”

Policygenius shows that 60 percent of Americans are waiting until after the age of 45 to buy life insurance. But when is the right time to get coverage? The data shows that price increases with age.

The Federal Trade Commission estimates the average cost of the basic funeral between $7,000 and $9,000.

“We see more cremation now," said Zeb Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Funeral Home. "Cremation used to be about two percent in 1972, now it’s about 35 percent in this area.”

Zeb Johnson has served as owner of Johnson’s Funeral home for the last 50 years.

“When I first started in the funeral industry, complete funeral service and casket was about $900 and now that same service will run you close to $8,000," Johnson said.

Although Johnson said compared to other states, Louisiana falls on the less expensive side, it can still come as a shock to the families of the 1,200 funerals they officiate each year.

“Half of our services are people who haven’t pre-arranged their funeral and that is up tremendously when in 1980 about 10 percent of the people had pre-arranged their funeral...now it’s about half the people have pre-arranged their funeral.”

Johnson said it can be easy for the price to rise dramatically. That’s why it important to know what you want beforehand and to share those desires with those who it will impact the most.

“And those are all the important things you need to consider. Who’s going to be here to make my arrangements. I saw this ad many years ago..I think the question was, your bro-n-law is a nice guy, but do you really want him making your funeral arrangements...and I’ve always thought about that. I want people to make arrangements that are concerned and know and not necessarily be concerned about the money and or what’s going to happen..even though all of those things are to be considered," said Johnson.

However, considering who will plan final arrangements is just one part of the puzzle.

“Estate planning is extremely important for families. Often times people think that I don’t have enough to do an estate plan. Estate planning includes powers of attorneys, medical powers of attorneys, as well as a will," said Genia Coleman-Lee, SWLA Law Center.

According to AARP, 6 in 10 U.S. adults do not have a will or estate plan in place and that figure has stayed steady over the years.

Genia Coleman-Lee said in Louisiana, it’s important to be aware of the laws about what happens to your estate if there’s no will in place.

Every state has what are known as rules of intestate succession that determine what happens to your property if you don’t have a will. That’s important not just if you never get around to writing a will but also if there’s a problem with the will you do prepare. In the case of an invalid document, these laws will govern your estate.

“Our laws are very different from the other 49 states that we have. The children of the decedent will first be heirs if there is no wife. If there is a surviving spouse, the surviving spouse will have use of the home and the children will be the naked heirs of the property," said Lee.

If there is a will in place, but it maybe didn’t cover all its bases...

“Sometimes we have bank accounts with only the decedent’s name on it--not mentioning in the will who should inherit this. All of that money would be divided between all of the heirs and it would function as if there was no will in place," Lee said.

If you opt to write your own will, Lee says it’s important to write it in your own handwriting, each page must be dated and signed and it must be signed by 2 witnesses and a notary to be valid.

She said although in theory, it might seem difficult, it’s a process that can be quite simple with a little bit of guidance.

“Just look at where you are in life, what have you acquired in life and what you’d like to do with that when you’re gone.”

After dealing with the grief and hardship of losing someone they love, they’ve learned from their life experience. Sonjia Mackey and her parents say, as a family, they’re all prepared for that final stage.

“We’ve sat down and talked about the will. They sat down with each of the kids and explained it all. Did we have any questions or anything....so, those were all conversations that we sat down and actually had," Sonjia said.

Although that conversation may not be the easiest for some, the Mackey’s say it’s definitely necessary.

“It’s not something we want to talk about but it’s real..and it happens," Brenda said. “If all that’s in place and you talk with your children about it, It’ll work out. That’s the last great gift that you can leave them.”

Helpful tips when planning your estate/funeral:

  • The Federal Trade Commission has put consumer rights in place when it comes to funerals.
  • The “Funeral Rule” allows you to buy only the services you want. For example, you don’t have to buy an entire package. You can buy caskets and certain services separately.
  • You can also provide the funeral home with a casket or urn you bought somewhere else and they can’t charge you a fee to do it.
  • Funeral directors must give you price information over the phone and you’re not required to give them your contact information.
  • They must give you a written statement listing every service and its price, as well as the total cost before you pay.

You can find more tips on how to plan your estate here.

In addition to having that conversation with your family, Funeralocity.com is also another resource that can be of help when making those final plans.

Funeralocity is a comparison website that lists prices for funeral homes and crematories in several major cities throughout the U.S. including Southwest Louisiana.

For example, you can choose a traditional full-service burial and it will show you an itemized list of what everything costs.

It’s a good place to start.

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