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The afterlife: Options abound

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

“The whole ceremonial experience, it isn’t for the person who died. It’s for the comfort of the living,” said Ryan Phelps, owner of Hood Mortuary, of the rituals of death. The National Funeral Directors Association calculated the average adult funeral cost at $7,775 in 2010, but that does not include the cemetery costs and a headstone.

By Chase Olivarius-Mcallister Herald staff writer

How much money do you want to spend when you die?

The question is awkward, morbid, even painful.

Setting aside that humane angst:

In a rampantly capitalist society, the sheer array of immediate post-life options can be dismaying.

Organic banana leaf caskets go for $845 on eBay.

They are not available at Hood Mortuary, Durango’s only funeral home.

Ryan Phelps, owner of Hood Mortuary, sighed.

“I’ve seen all kinds of things on the Internet. And Durango loves themed funerals. But it’s impossible to get anything shipped here in time,” he said.

At La Plata County’s Pine River Cemetery, a plot costs $400, said its administrator, Patricia Ludwig, and $300 if you live within the limits of Bayfield School District – regardless of the plot’s view.

But California’s Santa Barbara Cemetery will give you a burial plot on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean for $83,000.

For a mere $200,000, Arizona’s Alcor Life Extension Foundation will cryogenically freeze your corpse (cheapskates can opt for just the brain – a bargain at $80,000) “in the expectation that future technology, especially molecular nanotechnology, will be able to reverse the cryonics process,” according to Alcor’s website. (None of the 200 people supposedly frozen in liquid nitrogen have yet recovered. Have the estate keep the receipt.)

Or would you like to be mummified? For a “donation” of $67,000, Summum, a tax-exempt organization in Utah, will mummify you (“price subject to change”).

Or you might drop anywhere from $2,500 to $25,000 at Vermont’s Cremation Solutions, which will transform ashes into diamond jewelry. (The company’s website features a glittering pendant with the slogan, “Keep your loved one close to your heart with cremation jewelry.”)

Local tastes

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, everyone will at some point die.

Death is a giant industry. In 2007, it employed more than 102,877 workers, and the combined revenue of funeral homes and crematories alone was almost $12 billion.

The National Funeral Directors Association calculated the average adult funeral cost at $7,775 in 2010 – and this figure included only the most commonly selected items, such as caskets.

If you include cemetery costs – such as a headstone, and opening and closing the grave – the typical funeral costs $9,000 – without flowers, not to mention without liquor.

Phelps said it was generally cheaper to die in Durango than elsewhere in the country.

“We average about $5,500, flowers included, but cemetery costs typically come to a further $1,000, and maybe $1,200 for a headstone,” he said.

But like every local funerary merchant (there are about 12) interviewed for this article, Phelps said his business had suffered from the social decline of the traditional casket funeral and burial.

Financial necessities

Phelps said that, since the recession, about 80 percent of clients cremate.

“Partially, it’s the influence of the college. Our families are more socially liberal and less traditional,”he said. “But from 2008 on, we’ve had at least 10 families who mentioned it was the only option they could afford.”

Nationally, 41 percent chose cremation – versus 3.5 percent in 1960, according to the Cremation Association of North America. In 2010, in Colorado, 63 percent of bodies are cremated – the seventh highest rate in the country.

Nationwide, cremation costs $1,000 to $2000. Phelps warned that the cost of transporting cremated remains can be “significant. You have to mail via the U.S. Postal Service. Fedex, DHL – they won’t, unless with Fedex, it’s registered mail upon receipt.”

Hood Mortuary has tried to accommodate families’ increasing need for thrift.

Its cheapest funeral comes to $1,195, which means the deceased will be ensconced in a cardboard box that is inserted into an oak rental casket for the service.

“It’s a nice presentation, if that is important to the family,” Phelps said.

But even with traditional casket burials, there’s room for penny-pinching. About five times a year, Phelps has families that build their own caskets out of plywood or barn wood

Outfits such as New Mexico’s The Old Pine Box and Arizona’s Frugal Casket specialize in do-it-yourself casket construction, with cost ranging from $200 to $600.

When Brenda Short’s mother, Gail, died on a Sunday last June, expense was not a concern.

Still, her family chose a nontraditional funeral.

“Planning it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, the most taxing, the most exhausting,” she said. “Everybody got together that week and decided what mother would have wanted.”

Short said she was shocked by how inexpensive the funeral was. “Because it was nontraditional, we only used Hood Mortuary for the service. They were great,” Short said.

Phelps said: “We cater to people’s needs. If they want to bury someone in a cardboard box, golly, that’s what they’re going to get. Every individual is treated decently – in this business, that’s a moral responsibility. But this is not a recession-proof business.”

Search for meaning

German author Franz Kafka wrote that the meaning of life is that it ends.

The meaning of the ending – of how we choose to mark the permanent ending of each other’s lives – nonetheless remains puzzling and elusive, particularly as consumers: After all, a funeral’s guest of honor, even if corporally present, does not partake.

Mark Kimsey, who has worked at Family Craft Memorial, Durango’s storied headstone carver, since 1993, reasoned that funerals are like a wedding: expensive, but not much left to show for it afterward.

But he said a monument remains for the ages.

“Just speaking from my own experience, when my child died, I went every day to dress the grave. It was just part of the mourning process,” he said.

Later, Kimsey said Craft Memorials was moving away from marble headstones.

To most customers, “it’s too expensive,” he said.

cmcallister@durangoherald. com

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