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The Survivor's Guide: What You Need to Know & What You Need to Do When Someone Close to You Dies. V.K. Thornton. Silver Lake. 296 pages. $17.95
(Click here or on the cover image to purchase this book.)

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Originally published on Monday, February 16, 2004 in The Miami Herald.

Death be not proud, but does it have to be so expensive?

Dealing with death is big business. The General Accounting Office estimates
that more than $9.3 billion is spent annually on funerals in the United States. Like many industries, the funeral and burial business has undergone considerable consolidation during the past decade. Mom-and-pop funeral
homes, as viewers of HBO's Six Feet Under well know, face larger, sometimes predatory conglomerates that are eager to absorb them.

The peculiar needs of their clientele place these businesses in a unique position. Though there are many caring professionals who provide funeral and bereavement products and services, as we've seen here in South Florida, here are others who take unfair advantage of their customers.

Think about how vulnerable the survivors are. A loved one -- mate, parent, spouse, sibling, child or other close relative -- just died, either after a slow deterioration or a sudden event. The loss is almost always disturbing and traumatic, and the grieving survivor at the same time must deal with funeral and burial arrangements, which are not a cheap proposition.

Purchases of this magnitude are often subject to research, contemplation and comparison. But grief-stricken survivors must usually make a series of quick, complicated and expensive decisions. They're often at a distinct disadvantage in dealing with the providers of the requisite products and services.

Journalist V.K Thornton's new book is an attempt to prepare readers for the unexpected -- and the inevitable. Here, she tackles a very difficult subject with sensitivity, insight, curiosity, toughness and fairness.

Fair, because she doesn't assume an adversarial stance toward the business aspects of the process, though she's clearly on the side of the consumer. Though mindful of the built-in disadvantage of the bereaved, Thornton is appropriately skeptical as she goes through each of the questions that must be addressed as part of the process (from when and why autopsies are performed to what expenses are negotiable and which are fixed).

The book includes checklists and other resources such as contact information for state consumer organizations and a fairly extensive bibliography.

The author does a very good job, though I did catch one error: Rep. Mark Foley, who joined Sen. Chris Dodd in requesting a study from the General Accounting office that showed the disparity of states' regulation of funeral costs, is a congressman from Palm Beach, and not a senator, as Thornton
states. (Dodd and Foley subsequently introduced legislation to extend existing regulation of the industry as a result of the study, by the way.)

Though Thornton forces readers to think about things that are often ignored until the last minute, she also brings up a few other items that are worth considering, including the nontaxable status of religious organizations and how that affects their profitability in providing funerals and burial, and
the other competitive advantages that such institutions exploit.

Thornton also may inspire readers to investigate their own loved ones' plans. I did, especially after experiencing a challenging situation with a parent a few years back (which I recounted in a Tropic magazine article, available online here).

It's a question well worth asking, and after reading The Survivor's Guide, just the first of many that ought to be addressed by us all.









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