Author Biography: Lisa Carlson
Lisa Carlson is a full-time consumer activist and sometime hell raiser, working on behalf of Americans to protect their rights in dealing with the funeral industry.
For many years, she served as executive director of the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance, the national office with approximately 120 state and local affiliate organizations. From that vantage point, she has a long record of helping consumers to understand their rights and avoid exploitation by the funeral industry at a vulnerable time in their lives. She also lobbies for reform of federal and state laws and regulations and more rigorous enforcement of existing protections. Her current position is as executive director of the Funeral Ethics Organization, a group promoting ethical practices within the funeral industry.
Carlson is a popular public speaker, well-known for injecting hilarious and sometimes irreverent humor to make her audiences more receptive to thinking about the subjects that most of us prefer to avoid. She is also a sought-after guest for talk shows, having appeared on hundreds of national and local television and radio programs. Carlson also frequently testifies on behalf of consumers before legislative and regulatory panels, and often serves as an expert witness in court cases.
Her first book, released in the 1980s, provided information for people who wanted to care for their own dead, bypassing the funeral industry entirely, giving state-by-state information on laws, regulations, services available, etc. While the book was successful, she learned that most people do prefer to hire morticians for some parts of the funeral arrangements, and needed objective information about how to obtain only the services they want and the most reasonable price.
In the late ’90s, her landmark book Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love was published. While continuing to inform those who wish to avoid the funeral industry entirely, her new book also covers rights and options for dealing with death-care providers, thoroughly explaining funeral law in language understandable by lay persons. It is the major source of information for anybody wishing to understand and take charge of funeral arrangements for a friend or relative without being taken advantage of by people aggressively selling funeral goods and services.
In 2001, she published a very different kind of book, I Died Laughing: Funeral Education with a Light Touch. This is a collection of hilarious and cartoons on the subject of death, serving as an icebreaker for small doses of serious information that everybody should have. The publisher constantly gets letters and e-mail from people who say they read the book just for the humor but ended up learning important information in spite of the laughs.
In 2011, she teamed up with Joshua Slocum—a fellow consumer advocate who has succeeded her at her former position with FCA—to publish the ultimate handbook for consumer issues. The book, brand new at this writing, is Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death.
Excerpts from Reviews and Commentaries,
Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death
“Not much has changed in the decades since Jessica Mitford stunned America with her vivid description of deception and abuse in the death industry. Families are still exploited financially at a time of intense grief. They are charged thousands of dollars for goods and services they may not want or need. Prepaid funeral money disappears into thin air. Body parts are sold on the black market. In eight states, families are denied the healing that can come from greater personal involvement in caring for their own dead. And some in the industry are working to diminish consumer rights even further. But a funeral consumer movement is now rapidly awakening …
“The authors of this book are the most prominent leaders of that movement. Both Slocum and Carlson have a long history of proposing reforms and testifying on behalf of consumers before legislatures and other government bodies. They are widely sought by journalists as leading experts on all funeral issues. In this book, they join forces, to tell consumers how they can take back their own rights under existing law and to propose legal changes for the benefit of all American Consumers.”
For more information about the book, check our separate Web site at FinalRights.org.
Excerpts from Reviews and Commentaries,
Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love
- “Part estate-planning, part grassroots manifesto, part morbid intrigue, Caring for the Dead will educate, fascinate, instruct and infuriate.”
- “The most complete guide to DYIs can be found in Lisa Carlson’s Caring for the Dead.”
—LIFE Magazine, March 1999
- “Highly recommended for public libraries. Carlson, executive director of Funeral and Memorial Societies of America, has compiled an information-packed guide for those making funeral arrangements with or without a funeral director.”
- “Caring for the Dead is a comprehensive guide for consumers having to make funeral arrangements for a family member or a friend . . . . An essential reference acquisition for every public library system in every community across the country.”
—Midwest Book Review
- “Lisa Carlson has assembled with compassion the most comprehensive book ever produced on this subject. It’s of interest to every living soul so that their final arrangements—and those of their loved ones—will be conducted with dignity and affordability.”
—John Wasik, special projects editor, Consumers Digest magazine
Excerpts from Reviews and Commentaries,
I Died Laughing: Funeral Education with a Light Touch
- “This book proves that dying can be a laughing matter.”
—Advice Columnist Dear Abby
- “Few people find humor in death. But Carlson valiantly laughs in its face, giving those planning for the inevitable a refreshing spin on death and funerals. This icebreaker of a book aims to ease the taboo, and to help people such as aging parents broach the topic with loved ones. The book blends seriously useful funeral information with deliciously witty jokes, anecdotes, cartoons and quotes. For some readers, Carlson’s humorous yet accurate presentation of funeral information will be perfect packaging.”
- “Death be not proud, but at least you can laugh at it.”
—John Wasik, Senior Editor, Consumers Digest
- “For a fancier of wit, it is refreshing, and assuages fear and mysteries of death.”
—Ron Hast, Publisher, Mortuary Management and Funeral Monitor
- “Consumers and professionals will both enjoy some great information.”
—John McDonough, Founder, Funeral Service Professionals Association
More information and how to contact Lisa Carlson
The Web site for Funeral Consumers Alliance is at http://www.funerals.org. The site for Funeral Ethics Organization is www.funeralethics.org. A newer site, set up specifically to complement the Final Rights book, is www.finalrights.org.
Journalists wishing to interview Lisa Carlson can contact her through Upper Access at our e-mail or 802/482-2988. If you are seeking funeral information not necessarily related to her books, she can be reached at FEO, firstname.lastname@example.org or 802/482-6021.
Sample questions for journalists and talk-show hosts
Here are some sample questions and answers from interviews, to give you some idea of the kinds of information and insights Lisa Carlson can provide.
- What’s the biggest mistake people make when buying a funeral?
Not shopping around for a funeral home. And the industry knows this and counts on it. 45% use a funeral home that served someone else in the family in the past. If it’s the funeral home that Mom used when Dad died, it’s the funeral home you’ll call when Mom dies; 33% call the nearest funeral home, and it may be the only one in town; 10% pick a funeral home based on ethnic or religious affiliation. Yet there can be thousands of dollars difference from one funeral home to the next.
- What’s a fair price for a funeral?
I don’t like to answer that question because what one family wants is not what another family wants. But put it this way, the average cost of a funeral in England, France, and Australia is less than in the US. The National Funeral Directors Association pegs it at $6,700, but we’re seeing more like $10,000 and up at the chain-owned funeral homesâ€”and that’s not counting cemetery and monument expenses.
- Is it a good idea to pay for a funeral ahead of time, to lock in prices?
Absolutely not. These folks aren’t in the business of charity, so they’ll try to figure out how to get more out of your survivors after-the-fact. “Gee, I’m sorry the casket that your mother picked out is no longer available. You’ll have to pick out a new one, and, by the way, the price has gone up.” But the biggest problem comes up if you have to change plans for any reason—you may not be able to get all your money back.
- Aren’t there laws to protect consumers about this?
[Laws on preneed and problems are listed in each state chapter.]
- So it’s never a good idea to prepay?
About the only time when it might make sense to prepay is if you have to shelter assets in order to become eligible for Medicaid. And if you’re sure you’re not likely to travel or move. And if you’re sure what kind of funeral options you and your family want or no penalty for changing your mind. And if the funeral home isn’t likely to be sold or the staff change. Otherwise, you’re better off to put the money in the bank, in a joint account or a pay-on-death account, with next-of-kin or other person as the beneficiary.
- What are some of the things that people just don’t know about that keep the cost of funeral high?
Nothing the funeral industry sells will preserve the body forever! Also, many people think that embalming is a state law. If disposition of the body will occur quickly, embalming is almost never required. If you are planning a funeral with viewing, the funeral home will probably insist that it is their policy for the body to be embalmed. Shipping a body to another state may mean that the body will have to be embalmed, although most airlines will accommodate religious objections if the casket is a sealed one. A few states still have laws requiring embalming in the case of communicable disease, but that is probably the worst time for a body to be embalmed—it puts mortuary workers at risk, and body fluids are flushed into the common sewer system. The Center for Disease Control says no public health purpose is served by embalming.
- Can consumers supply their own caskets or buy them somewhere besides the funeral home that is handling a burial?
Absolutely. There are a number of retail casket stores that have opened around the country. You can even shop on the Internet in the privacy of your own home and then order one via an 800 number. Of course, someone in your family could build a plain pine box, and there are growing numbers of casket artisans—skilled woodworkers who are eager to build whatever kind of casket you want. The funeral director won’t be happy at missing out on the casket profit, but it is illegal to charge a handling fee on a casket supplied by someone else. They certainly don’t when a body is shipped home from war, for example, in a military casket. But if you are purchasing a casket from the funeral home, watch out for subtle pressure to buy a “sealer” or “protective” casket. The rubber gasket used on these costs the industry $8, but the retail price is usually bumped up $800 or more. What they don’t tell you is that anaerobic bacteria take over in a sealed casket, and the body putrefies—instead of the natural dehydration that would otherwise occur.
- Well, how about the sealed casket vaults you have to buy?
Some of the same principles apply here—you don’t want a “sealer.” During the floods in the Midwest in 1993, the sealed vaults popped out of the ground, and they had a terrible time trying to figure out where everyone belonged. A much better choice—if you want to stay buried—would be the less-expensive “grave liner.” It’s several slabs of concrete . . . four sides, a top, and sometimes a bottom. No state law requires a grave-liner or vault, but many cemeteries require them, to keep the grave from caving in. It’s a maintenance convenience for the cemetery.
- What else can the average family do to reduce some of the funeral costs that they’re facing?
One of the most important things is for family members to talk ahead of time so that they are in agreement about what is best for them. But they’ll need to know what the cost of various choices would be if money is a concern. Sometimes people spend a lot on a funeral just to prove how much they love someone. But if they know that that someone wanted just a pine box, perhaps they’d be more likely to honor those wishes. So talking with family and getting prices ahead of time is terribly important. Then the family can decide if it wants a fancy funeral or a simple memorial service, for example. Fifty percent of widows live on $10,000 per year or less. Maybe with that in mind, it will be important to help Grandma plan a simple low-cost burial.
- Why would there be a big difference in price?
For a funeral service, the body is present along with the funeral director. Every time the funeral director is involved or needs to move the casket into the visitation parlor, or to the church, and then to the cemetery, costs will go up. However, if a family were to choose an immediate cremation, they could plan a memorial service later at the convenience of out-of-town relatives. A memorial service can be held without the funeral director—in a church, in the home, in a park, the VFW, just about anywhere.
- What would be an inexpensive alternative if a person did not want to be cremated?
An immediate burial is one option, or perhaps a graveside service only.
- What about body donation? Can’t you sell your body?
No. No medical school will buy your body, but body donation is probably the least expensive of all, if there is a university nearby. Then the only cost is likely to be the cost for transporting the body to the college. Some do require that you enroll in the body donor program while you’re alive, but sometimes next-of-kin can make that decision. And actually, it can be considered sort of a “loan.” After medical study, the remains are usually cremated and can be returned to the family if you let them know ahead of time that that is your wish. You do need to have alternative plans in case your body is not accepted. Obesity, some diseases, and mutilation are several reasons for rejection. Keep what’s there but add:
There are also non-academic body donation programs, some run for-profit. These companies make body parts available for research and surgical practice.Â They generally pay all transportation costs. More information is available at <www.finalrights.org>.
- What questions should a person ask in order to find the best cost and the best funeral home?
Funeral homes are required by law to give you a General Price List if you visit in person. Some may even be willing to mail you one. They are required to give prices over the telephone, too, but you learn more about a company when you can look at how they word things on the price list. Do they use disparaging language for the low-cost options—such as “Basic Disposal” for an immediate cremation—or refer to the least-expensive casket as the “welfare casket?” I’d get the prices from as many funeral homes as possible, because there can be a huge difference in prices. Our active funeral information groups have already done a price survey and may have negotiated a discount for members. They monitor consumer satisfaction with any that they recommend.
- What if the prices you get for a funeral still seem too high for what you can afford? (This question is good in every state except Connecticut, Illinois,Indiana*, Louisiana*, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, and New York*. *A family could transport a body in these states, once the funeral director obtained all permits, but getting the body out of the clutches of the mortician may not be easy.)
Most people don’t know that in all but eight states you do not have to call a funeral home—a family could handle all arrangements themselves. Those who have done so have found it therapeutic and caring—not to mention all the money they saved. My book, Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, tells what permits are required, where to get them, and where and when to file them, for every state. A pediatric oncology nurse in California says that there is a dramatic improvement in the healing for those parents who handle all funeral arrangements themselves. This isn’t a new idea. At least some of your listeners may remember when Grandma was laid out in the front parlor. We’ve forgotten the common lore of what to do at a time of death, simply because we have turned those arrangements over to the funeral home for so many years.
- What role can churches play in helping their members avoid the high costs of funerals?
Many families don’t involve their clergy early in the funeral-planning process and don’t take advantage of the help their churches might offer. In other situations, the clergy have become beholden to local funeral homes by accepting gifts from the local mortuaries—a pager, a vacation retreat, a freezer full of beef. Many churches could, in fact, offer a free funeral to their members—not counting cemetery or crematory expenses. A Funeral Committee could take care of body transport, supply a plain pine box, assist with hospitality for out-of-town relatives—just about everything that needs to be done. What more logical support group is there at a time of death?
- What is the difference between a Living Will and a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care?
A Living Will is your indication of not wanting extreme measures to be used to keep you alive when the end is in sight. One significant study showed that Living Wills were not always being honored, probably because the medical profession is dedicated to saving and prolonging life. A Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care gives the right to make medical decisions to someone you trust if you are no longer capable of communicating your wishes. Sometimes that is needed before “the end is in sight.” The same study also found that Living Wills were most often honored only if there was an aggressive intervention on the part of the family or other designated person. The Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care gives such a designated person the authority to act on your behalf.
- What other end-of-life forms should a person have?
One of the thoughtful things you can do is to keep important information that will be needed by your survivors all in one place—information needed for the death certificate, such as your mother’s maiden name and your social security number, a summary of your education and accomplishments—the kinds of things most people list in an obituary but might not remember at a time of grief, any death benefits your job might provide, assets and investments, where your will is-and you should have a will . . . those kinds of things. FCA has a planning kit and booklet “Before I Go, You Should Know” with illustrations by Edward Gorey. I call it the Gorey Details kit. It comes in a plastic document pouch so you can keep it in your freezer, with a magnet on the door—”Matters of Life and Death Inside.” It belongs in the freezer of every adult American.
- Do we have legislative issues in this state that folks should know about regarding funerals?
[See state chapters.]
- What should people do if they have a funeral complaint?
Unfortunately, some things do not constitute a legitimate complaint at all. If Mother’s hair didn’t look just like Mother, you probably can’t blame the funeral home, unless you asked them to call Mother’s usual hairdresser. Other funeral complaints should be filed with the state funeral board or the Consumer Affairs Department of the Attorney General’s Office. In some cases, a copy of the complaint should also be filed with the regional office of the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC does not act on individual cases, but it does track the patterns of misdeeds being reported. Complaints can also be sent via e-mail to our national office for posting on the “Consumer Alert” page of our web site. If a funeral director was rude because you made your Dad’s casket, you may not find a funeral board dominated by the industry particularly sympathetic. But you can warn others.
- How do I get information like this for my uncle who is in a different state?
Call the national office of FCA to find out where there are local funeral consumer alliances—800-765-0107. Or check their Web site:http://www.funerals.org. Or, check our Web site at the Funeral Ethics Organization, or call me at 802-482-6021.
Catalog listings for Lisa Carlson’s books
For the complete listings of information about the books Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death and I Died Laughing: Funeral Education with a Light Touch Click Here to go to our Books page.