Jason interviews Nora Menkin from The Co-op Funeral Home of People’s Memorial regarding decisions around end of life and expenses.
Nora was working as a stage manager in Seattle when The Co-op Funeral Home of People’s Memorial was forming in 2007. She jumped at the chance to be involved with such a wonderful organization. She began as an intern and worked her way up to being named the Managing Funeral Director in 2013, and now Executive Director of People’s Memorial Association and The Co-op Funeral Home.
With a background in home funerals, Jewish traditions, and a passion for natural burial and modern funeral practices, Nora strives to help each family make their arrangements according to their needs and wishes. Nora lives in Burien with her husband Nick (yes, they are Nick and Nora) and 9-year-old, Sam.
Below is the full transcript:
Announcer: Welcome back America to Sound Retirement Radio where we bring you concepts, ideas and strategies designed to help you achieve clarity, confidence and freedom as you prepare for and transition through retirement. And now, here is your host, Jason Parker.
Jason: America. Welcome back to another round of Sound Retirement Radio. So glad to have you tuning in this morning. You’re listening to Episode 197. I’m bringing a guest on from People’s Memorial Association. I think you guys are really going to find value in this and hopefully it makes your life a little bit better as you’re preparing for and transitioning through retirement. Before we get started, as you know, I like to get the morning started right two ways. The first one is by renewing our mind and this comes to us from Revelations 2:7. “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life which is in the paradise of God.”
Jason: And then we’ve got a joke here for you, something you can share with the grandkids, put a smile on everybody’s face. How do you make a hot dog stand? Take away its chair. Make a hot dog stand. Take away its chair. Okay. All right everybody. It’s my good fortune to bring Nora Menkin onto the program. She’s the Executive Director with People’s Memorial Association. Let me tell you a little bit about her. Nora was working as a stage manager in Seattle when the Co-op Funeral Home of People’s Memorial was forming in 2007.
Jason: She jumped at the chance to be involved in such a wonderful organization. She began as an intern and worked her way up to being named as the Managing Funeral Director in 2013 and now Executive Director of People’s Memorial Association and the Co-op Funeral Home. With a background in home funerals, Jewish traditions and a passion for a natural burial and modern funeral practices, Nora strives to help each family make their arrangements according to their needs and wishes. Nora lives in Burien with her husband Nick and 9-year-old Sam. Nora Menkin, welcome to Sound Retirement Radio.
Nora: Thank you for having me.
Jason: This is going to be really good. This is kind of a hard subject though so before we dive to People’s Memorial Association or maybe we could just dive right in. Help us explain what People’s Memorial Association is and the work that you guys are doing there.
Nora: Well, People’s Memorial Association is the only Washington State nonprofit focused on funeral education and advocacy. We are hoping that all Washingtonians can have information about and access to death care options that meet their personal values and resources.
Jason: Awesome. So let me give you a little bit of background. Nora, you may not know this. I found out about People’s Memorial Association when one of my best friends’ mom passed away. She was a member of People’s Memorial Association. And this friend of mine just had a really good experience with that organization in terms of the cremation that followed. So that was my first introduction years and years and years ago. Today my wife and I are members of the People’s Memorial Association. You mentioned a Washington nonprofit. It’s my understanding, because we have listeners to our show from all over the country. There are other resources out there for people who live in different states. Is that correct?
Nora: That is correct. We are the Washington State Chapter of the Funeral Consumers Alliance or FCA. FCA is the national organization that keeps an eye at the Federal level on funeral rules and laws and makes sure that no laws are being passed that are consumer averse. There are chapters in every single state because every single state has its own funeral rules and regulations and all of them are a little bit different. So each state has its own chapter to keep an eye on its own state government and legislature and to provide resources for residents of those states.
Jason: Great. And so if people are listening in a different state and they want to find out about that organization in their state, is there one place that they can go to learn more and find out which organization represents the state that they’re in?
Nora: Definitely. It’s very easy, funerals.org and there’s a directory there for all the affiliates within the United States.
Jason: Okay. Now, I have to tell you a quick story and I’m sure you’ve probably heard many of these as well. We serve some amazing people and this one particular couple I’m reminded of, I got to know the husband and wife. The thing I loved about the husband was his laugh. He just had this laugh that I still today can remember. But when he passed away, that family had thought that they had prepaid for a lot of their funeral expenses and by the time his wife and daughter came in to see me, they had gone to a funeral home where they thought everything had been prepaid only to come away from there with another $20,000 of expenses and things that had been sold to them at the time.
Nora: Oh. Yeah.
Jason: So one of the things I know you guys do …
Nora: Unfortunately that’s a regular occurrence.
Jason: Yeah, and you’re advocating for people so that this doesn’t happen to them. Help us understand what to expect at the end of life. What does this process look like for people?
Nora: Well, it really depends on what kind of arrangement the family wants. Prepayment is not necessarily the best way to ensure that things go easily for your family as unfortunately that story of yours illustrated. Especially with people who want to be buried, there are a lot of things that cannot be prepaid. But when people think that they’ve made all the arrangements and everything’s take care of, even if they’re told at the time like, “Well actually these will be some things that will have to be paid for at the time”, that information kind of gets lost in translation because so many people think that, “Oh, I did this. It must be all done. My family won’t have to deal with it.”
Nora: Unfortunately there’s just some things that funeral homes and cemeteries don’t take advance payment on because it could be 20, 30 years before people use the services and the facilities just can’t afford to guarantee that pricing for that long. And so things like the service fees of like opening and closing a grave, people can’t prepay for that because we don’t know what the cost of paying the people to do that will be in 20 years. The cemetery doesn’t want to take that payment in advance for fear of coming up short on paying their employees when the time comes. And so kind of the more complicated burials and stuff, there’s definitely going to be additional expenses even if you do want to prepay.
Nora: If you’re going with a little bit more simple arrangements, there may be less that gets added on in the end but things like you picking out your casket, in 20 years that casket may not be manufactured anymore. Caskets are kind of like cars. They change a little bit every year. The prices go up. There’s different finishes. So if you’ve prepaid for a casket that’s not available in 20 years, the funeral director may advise, “Well, this is the similar version but it costs $1,000 more”, and the family is on the hook for paying that extra fee.
Jason: Okay. You know my dad, he thinks he’s pretty funny. He said he always wanted a tombstone that had a little video player on it so that when you stood in front of the tombstone his face would pop up and then he’d say, “Hey, get off of me.” But maybe that’s not an appropriate joke but I think …
Nora: I think those things exist actually.
Jason: Does it, really?
Nora: I haven’t seen them in person but I’ve seen advertisements for like little digital videos that are somehow solar powered or something. I don’t know how long they would last but there’s folks out there trying to do all sorts of different things on markers, definitely.
Jason: Oh, man. Takes away some of the reverence and the respect. My dad, he’s pretty funny or at least he thinks he is. It’s where all these bad jokes come from. I do want to ask you more about People’s Memorial Association specifically. One of the reasons I wanted to have you back on the program or have People’s Memorial Association back on the program, there was an article recently that I read about a couple of new options for remains in the State of Washington. I don’t know if it was true or if it was just some kind of bogus article out there. Are you familiar with these two new options for … You know, instead of just burial or cremation. One I think had to do … I can’t remember the word. Maybe it was aquafication or something and … Are you familiar with what I’m talking about?
Nora: Yeah. Aquamation and recomposition. Yes, I am very familiar with both and it’s something that People’s Memorial is involved with, trying to get legalized in Washington State because our mission is to make sure people have choice. We’re not here to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t do at end of life, but we want to make sure that people know what their options are and that there’s a variety of choices available so everyone can make the decision for their family that’s best for them.
Nora: So aquamation, which is officially alkaline hydrolysis … It goes by many other names as well, water cremation, green cremation … is the process of reducing the body using water instead of fire as cremation does. It’s a much lower energy-using process and there are no emissions that are created through this process unlike flame-based cremation. We just want this to be available, especially in Washington State where so many people are very eco-conscious, that to have an option that is greener and has less environmental impact, I think would be very well received here.
Nora: And so the other one is known as recomposition or it’s a natural organic reduction and it’s converting the human body to soil in a rapid process. There’s a company here in Washington that’s been doing the research and really spearheading this effort but it’s gotten a lot of good traction. We are very focused on recycling and reusing all materials here in especially the greater Seattle area, and so it seems to make perfect sense that if people are focused on recycling their food scraps that why wouldn’t we want to use all this energy that’s within our bodies and be able to convert it to soil for use after we’ve passed away.
Nora: Recompose is the company that’s focused on it right now, that has been doing the research and is really spearheading the effort to get it legalized in Washington State. They ran a pilot program at Washington State University both to prove that it could be done and to test the effectiveness of the reduction of the different pharmaceuticals in the body and everything, the questions that come up when people say, “Is this safe?” And the end result is, “Yes, it is very safe”. Again, it’s just another option that if it speaks to a family and it’s within their values and their interests, we just want it to be an option for people to consider at end of life.
Jason: And do you know if either one of those options are available in any other state or is this just something that Washington State’s considering?
Nora: Alkaline hydrolysis is available in I believe 16 other states. It has been legalized all along the West Coast except for Washington so far. California, Oregon and Florida. I believe it’s 16 states that it has been legalized in. I think it’s going to keep going. It’s just every single states has their own legislative process and how it becomes legalized. Like in Oregon it was very easy to legalize because it was just a committee that had to approve it whereas in Washington we actually have to change the law in order to have it as a legal form of disposition which is why it’s going through the process at the State Legislature at this point.
Jason: Okay. We want to help people avoid mistakes. This is a very emotional time for people and there’s so many choices that people.
Nora: Oh, definitely.
Jason: What are some tips that you have for our listeners to help them avoid just making a mistake at this time in their life? What are some of the things they need to be thinking about? I’m talking about [crosstalk 00:12:58].
Nora: One of the main things is …
Jason: When I say these people’s lives, I’m obviously talking about the family that is trying to take care of the deceased family member.
Nora: Yeah. The main thing is to actually do the research and talk about it ahead of time. It is so much easier to make decisions when you’re not grieving, when there hasn’t been a recent death. The more information you give yourself ahead of time and the more conversations you have with your family definitely the easier it will go when that time comes. So many people don’t want to talk about it because they think by talking about it they’re inviting it to happen. There’s a phrase out there that … “Just because you’re talking about death, it won’t kill you”.
Nora: The more information and the more conversation that you have with your family about what’s important to you and what your family traditions are, the better and easier the process is when it comes. So many people try to make the plans and have it all taken care of so the effect on their family is minimal when they pass away but in the end, when you’ve died your family is going to be going through some stuff. You can plan for everything. You can’t plan for the grief and people make all sorts of different decisions. You don’t know what your frame of mind is going to be when you’re in grief so the more that you’ve had the conversation and figured out what is important to you ahead of time, the easier that process will be when the time comes.
Jason: One of the things I enjoyed about becoming a member of People’s Memorial Association is the packet of information you guys provided to us so that we could write down exactly what our wishes were, my wife and I, and we could keep that with our will and our other important documents so that our family knew. They don’t have to try to remember. It’s actually written down and I thought that was very helpful. I really appreciated that.
Nora: Yeah, and so when you become a member of People’s Memorial we do give you planning paperwork and some of it’s very dry and it’s about putting in writing what your wishes are. “I want to be cremated. I want to be buried.” Making it a legal document. Gathering all the information you need for the death certificate. Kind of a checklist of things to think about as you’re planning for end of life.
Nora: The main thing we want to make sure is, yes, you put all that in writing but you also have to tell your family what you’ve done and where all your important papers are. We unfortunately get calls every week that, “Oh, my mom died a month ago. I’m just going through her papers and I found all this information. What do I do with it?” And they should have had access to that information right after the death occurred and they just didn’t know it existed.
Jason: Yeah. We talked about mistakes to avoid. What in your experience has been … Like how can this just be a seamless, the best process possible for family members? What does that look like?
Nora: Well, ideally you become a member of People’s Memorial and then you get your planning paperwork and you fill it out and you show it to your family. You have discussion as to why you made those decisions. If someone has a question or an issue with some of your decisions, it’s best to have that conversation ahead of time. An example I like to use is that my uncle was diagnosed in his early 50s with lung cancer. He had three children in college. It was not the right time of life to be facing this at all, but he was trying to make things as easy as possible for his family and getting his affairs in order. He said, “Well, just cremate me”, because he just didn’t want to bother the family with any expenses, anything else. He thought that would be the simplest and easiest thing to do.
Nora: But, he didn’t have a conversation about it. He just said like, “Oh, this is what I want.” It wasn’t until later on when he was really getting sick that my aunt kind of blurted out that she was really uncomfortable with the idea of cremating him. That didn’t feel right for her. She wanted to have a place to visit him in a cemetery. She wanted to have that part of the ceremony. We have a Jewish background and the idea of cremation she didn’t realize how much it bothered her until her husband was saying that that’s what he wanted for himself. She realized, “I don’t think I want to do that to him but that’s what he wants so I don’t feel I can argue with it.”
Nora: Opening up that line of communication, he of course said, “Well, of course you can have me buried. I was trying to just make things easier for you.” If they hadn’t had that conversation, the guilt she might have had with either following through with his wishes or deciding not to, could have been much more detrimental to her than the fact that they had the conversation before he passed and were able to have that open dialogue so that they could make the best choice. Because in the end, it was my aunt that was surviving him and so she would be dealing with a whole lot more. So being able to do something that made her feel better about the situation rather than having to follow this decree from him, thinking that that’s what he wanted. It’s always good to have the conversation to hear, especially from the survivors, what their opinions might be.
Jason: Communication, why so much hinges on good communication.
Jason: So, what are the benefits of being a member of People’s Memorial Association?
Nora: Well, it’s a one-time lifetime membership fee. We don’t do annual premiums or anything like that. You are part-owner of the Co-op Funeral Home. The Co-op Funeral Home is the member-owned funeral home we opened in 2007. We’re the only co-operative funeral home in Washington State and we’re the largest co-operative funeral home in the country. Our members get discounted rate for cremation and burial plans at our contracted funeral homes. In addition to the co-operative funeral home, we have about 25 contracted funeral homes across Washington State that we negotiate prices for our members at, so that they are getting discounts on those services and they know what to expect when they walk in the door.
Nora: And then if the family wants something that’s outside of our negotiated plans, they get a 15% discount on caskets and urns and other services offered by that funeral home. We have a very popular education curriculum. We have a Ducks in a Row workshop that we have an estate planning attorney, advance directives and funeral planning. We do individual classes completely for free on different end of life topics. Of course those forms that you talked about and tools to identify your preferences and share your wishes with your family and loved ones.
Jason: So who can join and what’s the fee?
Nora: Anyone in Washington State can join. We say anyone over the age of 18 should join. If you have children under the age of 18, they are covered by your membership until they turn 18. You can sign anyone up. You can sign yourself up. You can sign friends up, your parents, spouses. We even have a gift membership program that is an excellent way to start the conversation. We have people who decide to give memberships to families at different life events, at weddings, at births, anytime that you need to think about the future and what your plans might be.
Nora: Anyone in Washington State can join and it’s very easy to join, online. We can mail you a brochure. If there’s an immediate need, unfortunately a lot of people only find out about us when a death is imminent and they start doing research. You can just call the office during business hours and sign someone up over the phone as well.
Jason: Okay. And what’s the fee? How much does it cost?
Nora: It’s $50. A one-time lifetime membership fee of $50.
Jason: Is that per person?
Jason: Okay, so a married couple, they’re looking at $100 to become members, one-time fee.
Jason: One of the things that you talked about there was this pre-negotiated arrangement that you have with funeral homes so that when the time comes you can bypass the high-pressure sales and just say, “Look, I’m a member of People’s Memorial Association. The is the pre-negotiated fee and this is what we want.” Is that my understanding of how that process could work?
Nora: Exactly. And we only work with funeral homes that do not do any upselling or sales pressure for anyone, let along our members of course. And so those funeral homes are ones that we’ve screened that have good ratings. We do satisfaction surveys on each of our families that have used any of our contracted funeral homes to make sure that they got quality service. If there were any issues that come up, we try and make things as right as possible. Most people don’t go through this process very often. We want to make sure that they were treated right and had the best experience they possibly could have during this terrible time.
Jason: And they’re given options whether they want cremation or burial or even some of these newer options that may become available. You guys can help represent all of these different options people have?
Nora: Definitely. I mean, Washington State has the highest cremation rate in the country, so about 76% of Washington State residents are cremated. That is by far the most popular plan. But any funeral service at all that the family wants that is legal currently, can be provided. While alkaline hydrolysis is not legal in Washington yet, it is legal in Oregon and there are a few of our funeral homes including the Co-op Funeral Home, that work with a facility in Oregon to do aquamation or alkaline hydrolysis. And we’ve had a few families that that really spoke to them and they wanted to do that even though it meant transporting their loved one to Oregon for that process. But it is available and once it’s legal in Oregon, we will have more negotiated pricing on what that service will be for our members. But at the moment since it’s not widely offered. If a family wants to use that service, it’s just the 15% discount off what the funeral home normally charges.
Jason: You said it is legal in Oregon now, right? It’s just not legal in Washington yet. Is that right?
Jason: Okay. And then if people want to learn more about People’s Memorial, what’s the best way to learn more about your guys?
Nora: Oh, we have a very good and robust website, peoplesmemorial.org. There’s a lot of information on there and it’s very easy to navigate. We’ve just revamped our whole website and so we’re really proud of how it looks now. If folks don’t navigate the Internet that well, we have a full staff that we have in the office during business hours, 9:00 to 5:00. Our phones are answered by real people and we give advice all day long and talk people through whatever level of planning they’re at and any questions that they have.
Jason: Awesome. Nora, thank you so much for being a guest on Sound Retirement Radio today.
Nora: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
Jason: All right. Take care.
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