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Life Health > Running Your Business

The death project

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I’m dying.

You’re dying, too.

Every last one of us, who’s ever breathed a breath, is dying. 

And we’re all a little closer than we were in the time it took me to write this sentence and the time it took you to read it.

Death toll

In 2010, the most recent year the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has published complete data, 2,468,435 people died in America. Of those deaths:

  • 597,689 died of heart disease
  • 574,743 died of cancer
  • 138,080 died of chronic lower respiratory diseases
  • 129,476 died of strokes (cerebrovascular diseases)
  • 83,494 died of Alzheimer’s

Those were not the only ways people died. They burned. They froze. They died of dehydration. They died with water in their lungs. They died of exposure. They died of intoxication. They died of snakebites. They died of bear attacks. They were murdered. They committed suicide. They fell asleep and drove off the road. They fell asleep and never woke up. They died every way imaginable. They died in ways no one should ever envision.

Some died in an instant. Others took years to die. People died never knowing death had come for them. People died after a living wake, time enough for loved ones to stop by and make peace, to say their goodbyes. 

Death does not discriminate. The elderly died the most but the young died, too. The obese died. So did the thin. Tall people died. Short people died. Vegetarians died. Carnivores died. The intravenously fed died. Men died, as did women, fathers, sons, mothers and daughters. The married, divorced, straight and gay died. Christians, Muslims, Jewish, Buddhists, Hindus, Atheists and Agnostics died; black, white, brown, red and yellow died. The rich died. So did the poor.

No, death does not discriminate. Death comes for those who wait and for those who do not. Ultimately, the only thread connecting the dead is death itself.

Death, a love story

When we think of death, we think of the body, how the blood pressure drops, the heartbeat stops — all those bodily functions that say no more. What doesn’t stop? The bills, the mounting debt, an avalanche of mail that keeps coming, and, if the deceased did not plan for his death, a maddening paper trail for his widow to sort through.

I say widows because women live longer than men, and widows, in particular, outlive their husbands. According to a 2010 study conducted by the Administration on Aging, there were over four times as many widows (8.9 million) as widowers (2.1 million).

One such widow, who I’ll refer to as Miss Jeannette, lost her husband on Oct. 26, 2011. Dates mean something to widows. They lock in a memory, a time and place, of when their loved one still lived. For Miss Jeannette, dates rattle off her tongue without aid. She takes me back to when her husband’s health issues began.

An engineer by trade, Phillip looked for ways to unwind after work. In his late 20s, he played first base on a local softball team. With the crack of the bat, Phillip would plant his foot on the bag and wait for the ball. But something weird happened during the season. As the ball got closer to him it would disappear. They thought he had a brain tumor. Test revealed he had macular degeneration. He was going blind.

In the following decades other health concerns would follow. He suffered a stroke at age 49 in ‘91 and another stroke in ‘94. He broke his hip in 2006. In 2010 doctors told Phillip he had diabetes.

“He was a strong, strong man,” says Miss Jeannette. “He kept on going.”

In February of 2010 they met financial advisor Mark Pruitt at a steak seminar at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Miss Jeannette and Phillip were interested in setting up a trust and having an IRA rolled over.

They scheduled a follow-up meeting with Pruitt at the Dallas office of his firm, Strategic Estate Planning Services, to go over their plan. Some missing pieces to the puzzle emerged. The couple had a living will drawn up when their kids were little. What they didn’t have was power of attorney on each other.

They also lacked a guardianship document. At that point, Pruitt referred them to an attorney, as he does anytime legal documents are required. “A planner should never do legal work. That’s the attorney’s job, but then the attorney isn’t handling the financial aspect.”

On June 17, 2011, Phillip had another stroke. “He couldn’t speak or see so it was important they had the power of attorney in place,” says Pruitt. “When he couldn’t talk, (Miss Jeannette) had to make all these medical decisions and she could because of the POA (Power of Attorney). Due to HIPPA Laws they won’t even release medical records to a spouse without the POA. ”

Over the next several months Phillip’s health deteriorated. He would go from hospital to rehab and back to the hospital. Miss Jeannette, who had been planning to retire soon, took an extended leave to care for her husband. After another stroke, Phillip communicated to his wife that he wanted to donate his body to science upon his death. He filled out those forms, ones in which Phillip signed an X, with a notary present. He spent his last days and weeks under a hospice nurse’s care at home.

Before we end our conversation, Miss Jeannette tells me another story about her husband. Before he lost his sight he won trophies for bowling. He continued to bowl through the years though he couldn’t see the pins. “We would line him up and tell him how many pins were left and where they were,” says Miss Jeannette. “He could still beat us as long as he knew what was in front of him.”

Too often, though, people don’t have a plan, according to Pruitt. They don’t want to discuss death. They don’t want to plan for their future. “We find that most people plan their vacations better than they plan their estates.”

See also: 10 steps for avoiding estate planning mistakes

Pruitt is among a too small percentage of advisors who give their clients the “death” talk when the clients are healthy. Talking about getting the estate in order is time consuming and rarely results in an immediate commission, but it’s vital to the survivors, as it saves them from worrying about financial matters at a time when they’re already grieving about the loss of their spouse or loved one.

Pruitt provides every client with a three-page document related to death settlements. The checklist is voluminous and can take several meetings to complete. The document covers just about every aspect of a person’s life (and death), including temporary living arrangements for dependents as well as pets. Other items include valuables, checking accounts, promissory notes, pre- and post-marital arrangements, insurance policies, investments, property, IRAs and pensions just to name a few.

“We want to take care of all of this paperwork ahead of time, when you’re healthy, because when you’re grieving you don’t care about the paperwork,” says Pruitt, “but here’s the thing: these bills don’t stop.”

The widows don’t want to deal with it. So they don’t. They don’t know which way to turn. So they don’t move. They are stuck in a moment as if they could freeze time to the very instant when their loved one was still alive.

Pruitt has gone into homes where the widow hasn’t opened the mail in a year. In one case, the home was about to be foreclosed on. Hidden under a mound of bills was the husband’s life insurance policy. Open the mail. Sign the policy. Send it in and save your house. Sometimes that’s all it takes and sometimes even that amount of mental stress is too much.

The grieving process is unique to each person, says Pruitt, who served as a minister before turning to the insurance and financial industries. Some people are an emotional wreck. Others stay busy to the point that they never allow themselves the time to slow down. For those people, the nights can be especially difficult, when all the activity of the day stops and they crawl into bed, left alone with their thoughts.

Death calling

The phone rings at 2 a.m. Jim Olson stirs. He keeps the phone close. While most people mute their phone in the evening or turn it off altogether to get uninterrupted sleep, Olson keeps his turned on throughout the night, especially at night.

In those quiet hours, when most of us want nothing more than a good night’s sleep, the phone rings for Olson. He used to close his eyes and sleep soundly like the rest of us, back when he was a music teacher in New York. Back then, Olson taught piano and organ and voice, and, after a cacophonous day of music and song, he wanted nothing more than a night of quiet, dreamy dreams.

Now when the phone rings at 2 a.m., he answers without pause. He sleeps these days like the cowboys of the Wild West, with one eye open, knowing at any moment a phone call is looming. Usually, this initial call comes from his answering service. He listens to the voice on the other end of the line. He jots down the needed information—a name, an address. After more than a decade in his second career, he knows the drill.

When Olson hangs up with the answering service, he speed dials a man he has on call 24/7. He repeats the information. He tells the man to meet him in 30 minutes to pick up the car. Olson ends this second call and begins a utilitarian routine. He brushes his teeth; he runs a brush through his hair. He does not require caffeine: He is awake; he is wide-awake. The clothes, a pressed suit, wait for him in the bedroom closet. A body waits for him at a local hospital.


For more than a hundred years, the funeral industry had been a paternal one, with fathers passing the family business down to their sons who, in turn, would eventually pass it on to their sons. In the late 19th century when the industry really began to take off, American settlers had, for lack of a better word, settled. They had found a geographic region within the American landscape that agreed with them. They planted deep roots in small communities.

When people died, they died in the home. The funeral took place in the deceased’s front parlor. Those early “funeral directors” were often woodworkers who made the natural progression from making cabinets and other furniture to building coffins. As communities expanded, the idea of keeping a body in a home for days at a time, until the extended family could make the trek to the service, became unseemly. Thus, the traditional funeral home was born, and, they really were homes, large houses in residential areas, where the funeral director and his family lived, and where the body could be stored until the service took place.

That paternal tradition persisted mostly unchanged until recent decades, when corporations bought into the $12 billion annual funeral business. While corporations now own some 10 percent of funeral homes, the bigger shift in the industry is with people like Olson who have entered the business without the familial line to guide them.

In New York, Olson moonlighted from his job as a music teacher by playing the organ at church on the weekends. Sometimes he played at funerals. Music was a love of Olson’s but didn’t provide him with the financial stability he sought. He contemplated medical school and took a foundation of biology and chemistry courses to prepare him. But those funerals he occasionally played at struck a nerve.

In mortuary school, Olson says, a majority of the students were, like him, new to the business. While in school he noticed another trend shifting the landscape of the funeral industry — an influx of women and minorities, many of them entering the business as a second career. He says among the new blood becoming funeral directors are “a lot of teachers, medical professionals, policemen, firemen, clergy—all people who want to help other people.”

After serving an apprenticeship, Olson moved back to his home state of Wisconsin where he eventually became the owner of what is now known as the Lippert-Olson Funeral Home, a business that had been run by funeral families since 1892.

Today Olson employs 13 full- and part-time staff and over the past three years has averaged nearly 120 funerals annually as he competes against two other funeral businesses in Sheboygan, Wis., a town of 50,000.

Olson says in a community like his, “advertising does not necessarily work.” In New York you need traditional advertising to get your name out there against the competition. In small communities it’s all about “being in the community,” he says. “It’s serving on boards and joining Kiwanis and the PTA. Being in the community is huge. In a town this size, you really can know everyone.”

In the most recent 2 a.m. call, Olson and one of his drivers meet at the funeral home to pick up the hearse before driving to the hospital for the body. Olson signs a release form and takes the body back to the funeral home for the embalming. Arrangements for the body need planning. If they haven’t been arranged, Olson will need to contact a family member before proceeding. Several questions need immediate attention. Did the deceased want to be embalmed? Will there be a casket viewing? What about cremation? Was she an organ donor? If she planned to donate her organs, the embalming can take up to eight hours as compared to a typical two-hour procedure.

In this particular case, the deceased had been ill for a prolonged time and had recently been taken off life support. Olson had been in contact with the deceased’s daughter and together they had made all the necessary arrangements. Because there would be a public viewing Olson would need most of his team over the next few days.

“We’ll do everything,” he says. “In a case like this, we get the body and embalm the body. We have a makeup artist and a hairdresser. We also have people who park the cars and usher guests at the service.”

All of those services aren’t cheap. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), the average funeral in 2012 cost $6,500. To avoid sticker shock, Olson says it’s imperative that people make plans for what they want to have done with them upon their death. It’s a topic that too many people shy away from. It makes them uncomfortable. But it’s the one topic that won’t go away.

“It’s better to plan for it ahead of time,” Olson says. “Because it’s not something that’s going away. I guarantee you that. Death will happen 100 percent of the time.”


A CNBC special titled, “The Business of Dying” included a segment about a woman struggling with the idea of where she wanted to be buried. The woman wasn’t sick. She hadn’t been given a death sentence. She was of middle age, in her 50s or early 60s, and appeared to be in good health. And yet, she had spent several years looking for the exact piece of land where she wanted her body to reside for eternity.

She had settled on the cemetery of choice, the same one where her parents were interred. She often visited their gravesites and looked at a vacant space beside them. The cemetery salesman showed patience in giving the woman repeated tours of the property. Together, they viewed fancy mausoleums and shady, wooded areas, but somehow they always wound up at the flat, grassy space beside her parents.

Even with that familial tug, she never could pull the trigger on a purchase. For one thing, she wavered on making that plot her eventual resting place because, on those visits to her parents’ graves, she spent much of the time cleaning goose droppings off of their headstones. That didn’t sit right with her and she didn’t like the thought of geese pooping on her in perpetuity. Eventually, she purchased a plot in the cemetery located on a rise. The prime real estate, though more expensive than her parents’, had a nice view of the water, and, as evidenced by the lack of poop in the area, was far enough away to avoid the geese and their droppings.

This woman is not alone in her indecisiveness or her level of specificity regarding what she wants done with her when she’s dead. Finding final resting spots have become a decision with seemingly endless possibilities for Americans. In the past, according to Walker Posey, a fourth generation funeral director based in North Augusta, S.C., people stayed in one geographic region their whole lives. They lived near their parents and grandparents and when the decision on where to be buried came up, they had a parcel all picked out in the family plot.

They followed a familiar storyline: a person died; the family held a service at the deceased’s church followed by a traditional casket burial at the local cemetery. But many of the traditions associated with death are evolving or being shunned. While part of that is due to a transient society, another factor is a less religious America that does not consider itself bound to what are considered by many to be religious customs.

According to a 2013 study conducted by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and Duke University, “Religious affiliation in the United States is at its lowest point since it began to be tracked in the 1930s.” The study cited that roughly 20 percent of the nation reports no religious preference. That number is a significant jump from 1990 when a mere 8 percent of Americans did not identify with an organized religion.

Posey, who lives in the Bible Belt, says religious affiliation or lack of it varies widely according to the geographic region a person calls home. Posey speaks to funeral directors throughout the country, often partnering with financial planners and estate attorneys to provide audiences with a full range of life and death options open to consumers.

In some Western states such as Nevada and Washington, the cremation percentage runs as high as 75 percent, while in Mississippi that number is a scant 15 percent. Even when there is a cremation in the Southern states, says Posey, the families almost always request a casket viewing prior to cremation. The more secular states, such as Washington, rarely have a viewing.

Posey guards against that idea and says it has nothing to do with religion. “As human beings, we have a need to come together at difficult times. What we’ve found is people want that closure.”

At a recent casket viewing of an elderly man, mourners filtered in for hours. Posey spoke with them, offering condolences, respectful handshakes, eye contact, a hug if warranted. As the day wore on Posey noticed a young man, the deceased’s grandson, who had been there from the beginning. Posey had spoken to him earlier, but that had been a brief conversation. The young man had gravitated to a corner of the room where he sat quietly. When there was a break in the crowd, Posey walked over to find out if the young man needed anything. He shook his head and said he wanted to stay as long as was allowed. Then he told Posey a story about his grandmother’s death. When she had passed away a few years earlier, the family chose to cremate her without having a viewing. “I never felt like I had a chance to really say goodbye,” the grandson told Posey. “I always regretted that.”

At 35, Posey’s young enough to be part of the technology generation that communicates through texting, social media and virtual events, and, with the idea of a mobile society as an impetus, he’s brought those methods to the family business.

“In the past people would bring a casserole over to those who were mourning,” he says. “Nowadays, you don’t know your neighbors. To reach the needs of our clients we need to be creative in how we add value for them.”

One of those ways is by creating tribute walls for the deceased at Built much like a Facebook page, these tribute walls allow family and friends to comment and say their goodbyes to the deceased through the virtual world.

Increasingly, though, where the biggest changes in the funeral business are taking place is with the current generations of the dying, many of whom are baby boomers who want to exert their individuality in death just as they have in life.

Cremation has opened up new paths for people in death and the trend of cremation versus a traditional burial is skyrocketing. In 1996, 21.8 percent of Americans chose cremation at death, according to the NFDA. In 2010 that number was 42 percent. The price is agreeable, too, with the average cremation under $1,700, roughly $4,800 cheaper than the average casket burial. With so many people opting for cremation over the traditional burial, the question then becomes one of what to do with the ashes.

James Doohan (Scotty from the original Star Trek series) elected to have his ashes boldly go into outer space. Other people are having their remains melded into hand blown glass figurines that can rest on a loved one’s mantle in shapes as diverse as flowers, mini-motorcycles and beer steins—whatever epitomizes their personality.

For those who harbor a love of the sea, there’s the option of having their ashes submerged in a cement tub that resembles a pottery cooker. Once on the ocean floor these “living memorials” form a man-made reef. Eternal Reefs is the company that started this trend when, in 1998, the owner’s father-in-law told him, “I can think of nothing better than having all that action going on around me all the time after I am gone. Just make sure that the location has lots of red snapper and grouper.”

Cremation is not the only way people are reaching inspired choices for their final resting spot, but sometimes it comes at great expense to have your wishes come true. In 2009 a widow who needed to pay off her mortgage placed her husband’s burial plot up for auction on eBay. Located in a vault in LA’s ritzy Westwood Village Memorial Park, the plot just so happened to reside directly above Marilyn Monroe’s. With a starting price of $500,000, the auction received 20 bids. The anonymous man who cast the winning bid of $4.6 million claimed his ideal spot — to rest above the platinum starlet forever.

Now, he must wait for death.

Part 2 of The Death Project will appear in the September issue of Senior Market Advisor. For more content, including online exclusives, go to


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