Suns promotion drives home value of pre-planned funeral

August 17, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

"Baseball and apple pie" rolls off the tongue more fluidly than the odd combination of "baseball and death."

But, looking back, we see a "dead ball era" in the Major Leagues at the beginning of the 20th century when pitching ruled and home runs were rare.

In 1909, the heart of that era, Philadelphia Athletics catcher Doc Powers died a few weeks after running into a concrete wall while trying to catch a pop fly.

New York Yankees pitcher Carl Mays hit Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman with a pitch in 1920, killing him.

And, of course, perturbed fans want to "kill the ump" when they don't like a call.

This year, death has been the Hagerstown Suns' biggest promotion.

At the end of Saturday's game, team sponsor Gerald N. Minnich Funeral Home in Hagerstown gave away a funeral package worth an estimated $5,500 to $6,000 to John Davidson of Fayetteville, Pa. Davidson won for submitting the best essay planning his own funeral.


The funeral package will include a casket, a viewing, flowers, two death certificates, thank-you notes, a register book and memorial folders, said Bryan Kenworthy, who owns Gerald N. Minnich Funeral Home.

Kenworthy said the contest was a fun, lighthearted way to face a somber, inevitable topic. The promotion had legs, though, and was covered or mentioned by numerous newspapers and television stations nationwide, as well as Sports Illustrated and ESPN.

Publicity aside, people whose work involves death say funeral planning should be a sensitive but open discussion.

"People are finding that if they get everything done, it makes it easier on their survivors," said Paul Dean, manager of Bast Funeral Home near Boonsboro.

Advance arrangements

If a funeral is arranged in advance, "your family doesn't have to make decisions when they're in an emotional state," said Katie Monfre, a public relations coordinator for the National Funeral Directors Association in Brookfield, Wisc.

Monfre said a national study showed that interest in pre-planned funerals has gone up in the last 10 years, although people aren't necessarily following through and making arrangements.

In a 1990 Wirthlin Worldwide survey, 76 percent of the respondents said they would arrange at least part of their own funeral, Monfre said. That figure went up to 80 percent in 1995 and 84 percent in 2000.

However, only 28 percent said in 1990 they had actually made plans, Monfre said. The percentage was 24 in a 1995 survey and 26 in 2000.

Dean said that when he started in his job in 1991, Bast Funeral Home arranged about 10 pre-planned funerals a year. Now, the home handles about 100 a year.

"We're pushing it more," Dean said. "We'll advertise it."

The first step is simply filling out a form, providing facts about your life.

Kenworthy said the form at Gerald N. Minnich Funeral Home has 109 questions. About 80 percent to 90 percent can be answered in a short time, he said.

For someone else, even a close relative, it could take several hours.

"Nobody knows you like you know yourself," he said.

The information - including date and place of birth, parents' names, mother's maiden name, Social Security numbers and so on - is used for an obituary and a death certificate, Dean said.

Without a deadline, there's no pressure.

"If they don't know something, they can go home and look it up," Dean said.

From there, customers can arrange the casket, the service and other details of their funeral.

The more ambitious or meticulous may pick out clothes, songs, hymns, pallbearers, videos or photo displays.

"In life, they have been very organized. They like to be ahead of the game," said Gretel Hartley, a social worker for Hospice of Washington County, which cares for people with terminal illnesses.

Payment plans

There's also no pressure to pay in advance. Dean and Kenworthy said customers can set up an interest-bearing fund to cover the cost or they can pick an insurance plan.

Kenworthy said his funeral home will figure out the premiums and the number of payments that would be paid over three, five, seven or 10 years.

It's more difficult for a person who is 75 or 80 years old to get insurance to pay for a funeral, which is one reason to start thinking about it earlier in life, he said.

Kenworthy said the average pre-planned funeral customer is 50 to 65 years old.

"That's typically the age," he said. "The kids are generally gone. College is paid off. You have more disposable income."

Then, there's the obstacle of acceptance that death will come, sometime, and should be acknowledged and planned.

Some entries in the Gerald N. Minnich Funeral Home contest were serious. Many others proposed classic cars, cheerleaders, swinging music, Irish whiskey, exploding golf balls, the re-enactment of the 1966 Batman movie, a bobblehead doll and other elements that bordered on bizarre.

"If, even joking, you get someone to put something on a piece of paper, we're many steps ahead," Kenworthy said.

Thinking about death

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