When it comes to funerals, Josh Slocum wants Americans to know that they have choices.
People who shop around before planning a funeral can save their families a lot of heartache, plus thousands of dollars.
Since 2002, Mr. Slocum has served as executive director of the national Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in Vermont. His new book is called "Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death."
Mr. Slocum speaks Sunday at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, 5808 Baum Blvd., East Liberty. The event, which is free and open to the public, begins with a 1:30 p.m. tour of the institute. Mr. Slocum will discuss what he learned about the industry while researching his book.
The most important piece of advice he gives consumers is to compare the prices charged by several funeral homes.
"The prices on funerals are going to vary a lot," he said, adding that a funeral can be a simple cremation with no ceremony or far more elaborate with embalming of the body, public viewing, an open casket, a church service, procession and graveside service.
"Most people choose a funeral home because it was the one they used in the past, it's close to their home or it has a perceived ethnic or religious affiliation," Mr. Slocum said. "These are not wise reasons to choose a funeral home. How do you know that your family's funeral home has been giving you good service at a reasonable price if you never bothered to compare prices?"
Under the Federal Trade Commission's Funeral Rule, which took effect in 1984, "You have the right to get price quotes over the phone. You have the right to get a printed, itemized price list. You have the right to pick and choose only the services you want," Mr. Slocum said.
He said most consumers mistakenly assume embalming a body is required by law because many funeral homes do it routinely. However, he said, no law in Pennsylvania requires embalming. Alternatively, a body can be refrigerated if a funeral home has refrigeration facilities, or it can be kept cool with dry ice.
"You are not required to have embalming. You are not required to have a particular kind of casket. That means that it's all optional," Mr. Slocum said.
Many Americans do choose to have a family member embalmed and laid out for a two-day viewing because that's become an accepted practice.
"Most people are shocked when you tell them that the U.S. and Canada are the only countries in the world that routinely embalm their dead and put them on display this way," he said.
What's important, Mr. Slocum said, is that people consider what they want well in advance.
"Talk with your family. Talk with the most important people in your life who are going to be called when you die. Share with them what you want and don't want in a funeral. Ask them what they do and don't want. Most of us forget that the funeral should be meaningful for the people left behind."
For more information, about Sunday's meeting, call 412-241-0705 or visit www.funerals.org/affiliates/westernpa.
Marylynne Pitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1648.