The Iowa had not one, but two personal preference bills pending before its Legislature for the 2007/08 term: SF 473 and HF 2088.   The Senate version, SF 473, was backed by Iowa’s attorneys, and the House version, HF 2088, was backed by the Iowa Funeral Directors Association. 

What caught my attention about these bills was the IFDA statement published by the Des Moines Register on February 22nd. The death care industry would have been better served if the IFDA had given more thought to their position against SF 473. The IFDA statement started with the following:

I must clarify your Feb. 14 article, "Bill Gives Deceased Control of Remains." Iowa funeral directors have always believed funerals are about loved ones gathering to commemorate the deceased person’s memory. Funeral ceremonies are not about the dead forcing their intentions on loved ones.

There’s no argument that funerals have been for the living. It is a ritual that is meant to help survivors to take the next step on life without the individual who just died. But how can the IFDA reconcile the highlighted statement with the preneed transaction that most funeral homes endorse.  Yet, I believe the IFDA correctly identified the issue that should be addressed before a preneed contract is ever signed:

If someone has specific requests for his or her funeral, those must be communicated to their loved ones. Funeral directors bring families together to decide how to remember the dead. SF 473, backed by the Iowa State Bar Association, allows a "final disposition directive," which forces everyone to listen to a document, and not to the emotional needs of survivors.

The [attorneys bar] association’s proposal could conflict with other legal instruments. What if the decedent’s will, pre-need funeral contract and final disposition all request burial, but in different cemeteries? What if the final disposition designates some distant cousin to be in charge?

The IFDA is asking the right questions, but failing to look in the mirror to understand how the death care industry is contributing to the problem. 

First of all, each individual should have the right to control the disposition of his or her body. Period. But in contrast to our ‘inalienable’ rights, we are powerless to defend the right to control our own disposition.   After we cash in our chips (pardon the pun), we are completely dependent on someone else respecting our ‘instructions’. Most individuals seem to have a strong personal preference for what should be done with their body. In a sense, there seems to be a certain selfish aspect to one’s last act or wish being one of “this is what I want”.   Unfortunately, many preneed programs seem to cater to this self-indulgence. 

What may be galling some funeral directors is that the written document, whether it is disposition directive or a preneed contract for cremation, may not be in the best interests of the surviving family members.

First preneed, and now enforceable disposition directives, are underscoring that the role of the funeral ritual needs to be for both the deceased and the living. But to accomplish such a goal, the individual must overcome the reluctance (or denial) that precludes the discussion of mortality with family or friends. 

Preneed introduced our older generation to the issue of their own mortality, but hasn’t provided them the resources to share fears and values with the next generation.  And now the death care industry is being forced to redefine the preneed transaction from being about “me”, to being about “us”. To incorporate family members into the process, key decisions about the funeral must be deferred. Individuals will continue to want to address the financial burdens of the funeral, but the industry needs to become receptive to allowing the family the freedom to reach a common decision about what ritual is best for everyone. 

Bill Tammeus, a Kansas City Star columnist on issues of spirituality, addressed these issues from a theologian’s perspective in a September 2, 2006, column titled “The Cremains of the Day”.  

So which Iowa bill should be favored? In this situation, the attorney’s version provides a lower hurdle for the individual wishing to establish an enforceable disposition directive, and therefore I would endorse it over the IFDA bill. SF 473 should better protect the interests of the elderly and the gay community.