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  • By Johanna Salinas and Mar-Vic Cagurangan

The cost of dying is as high as the cost of living

Guam has the highest funeral cost in the United States

Death is an occasion for grief and on Guam, it’s a social occasion for Chamorro families and clans to gather and pray the rosary for the repose of the spirit of the deceased loved one. Relatives take turns cooking for the ceremony, the mayor lends a canopy and chairs for the mourners.

But in the atmosphere of grief, there is something more tangible and more uncertain hovering in the hearts of mourners. How can they pay for it all? And what exactly is it that they’re paying for?

“It all depends on what people want and expect and the social aspect of funeral is expensive. Funeral and social occasions and like weddings you can go all out or get hitched in Vegas. What people expect or consider traditional has a price,” said Adrian Cruz, of The Arimathea Society, a local nonprofit organization.

The cost of traditional funeral could reach up to $15,000 or more—which is well above the national average of between $8,000 and $10,000.

Cruz provided the following estimates of middle-of-the-road funeral cost: $4,100 for a basic funeral service with a cheap casket; $800 for an average quarter page of a newspaper announcement; $350 for a basic three-piece flower arrangement; $6,500 for a single crypt to about $10,000 for a double occupancy ground plot at private cemeteries, $500 for a plot in a public cemetery; about $1,500 for catering for 500 people during the nine-day rosary. The costs vary depending on the material preference for the casket and crypt location. “It depends on what kind of plot, Cruz said.

The cost of cremation is the cheapest at $1,800. “But people don’t want that by far and large,” Cruz said.

On Guam, where the death rate is 6 per 1,000 population, the death care industry is alive.

Ada’s Funeral Home’s average showroom casket can go up to $3,500. “The service and casket together can be about $4,075,” said Annette Ada. “This doesn’t include flowers, booklets, and cemetery. Those are additional.”

Mahogany casket

Their cheapest casket is $2,600, which is a glossed, light wood described as “similar to tangan-tangan.” Ada’s also has more chic styles such as their “senator classic cherry glossed wood” at $9,264 and their most expensive hand-carved mahogany at $11,000.

Guam Memorial Park has one of the more economical choices for coffins. “Our cheapest casket is $995 and it’s metal,” said director Len Mayer. “For our payment plan, we require a down payment before the service and then full payment seven business days after the funeral.

This mahogany casket cost $11,000. Photo by Johanna Salinas

While the funeral home was reluctant to estimate their prices, customers shared that they’ve paid almost $5,000 for a plot in Guam Memorial Park, which is considered a public cemetery. But what about locals who’d prefer a traditional Christian resting place? With over 85 percent of the island being Christian, Our Lady of Peace is available for families seeking a religious setting. Our Lady of Peace sells plots in their regular property for $8,150 each.

“The price all depends on what the family needs or what they’re looking for,” said Angie Sunga, of Our Lady of Peace. With the price of plots being very expensive, some families might prefer to cremate their deceased until they can afford to properly lay them to rest. “The two types of cremation we offer are the traditional with the viewing which is $5,750 and the simple direct cremation, which is no viewing and no preparation,” said Sunga. “The direct creation can be from $1,000-$2,000.”

Ada Funeral Home also offers cremation. “The direct cremation is bringing the body straight from the hospital which is only $1,795,” Ada said. “Ada’s require half of the down payment for any our services before the funeral and bill the other half after.”

Despite the trend of cremating relatives until families can pay for a plot, Guam Memorial Park plans to expand the cemetery to add about 2,500 more graves, Mayer said. “We’ve been on island for quite a long time and we have good service. People just like us.”

Both Our Lady of Peace and Guam Memorial Park offer pre-need payment plans for families that wish to be prepared for the certainty of death.

On its website, Guam Memorial Park noted the advantages of purchasing funeral or cremation package “before need.” It gives a peace of mind as your family won’t be burdened with funeral expenses. The price of the average funeral increases every five years and substantial savings are realized by investing “before need” as opposed to walking in the door at the time of need.

But those who don’t have much to set aside for such “peace of mind” would rather use their limited funds for present and urgent expenses. Therefore, families may be unprepared when a loved one unexpectedly passes. So, what can families do to cover this tragedy? Many local families rely on the Chamorro tradition of chenchule’. However, relatives’ donations can only go so far.

Having life insurance is very helpful. “In Guam, funeral expenses can range between several thousands of dollars. Life insurance can assist with those expenses, whether it’s a burial or a cremation,” said Charice Esteban of Cassidy’s. “We provide access to a full range of life insurance products. We assist our clients in finding the type and amount of insurance that suits their present needs and future goals. Life insurance proceeds can cover final expenses, as well as any outstanding debt that the insured had left behind.”

While life insurance is certainly helpful, not all life insurance plans are the same. “We do not provide life insurance for funerals or cremations,” said Roberto Bumagat of Great National Insurance. “We provide a basic life insurance. It is up to the beneficiary of the life insurance plan as to how and if they will use the proceeds to pay for the funeral costs after a claim is made.”

Of course, with chenchule’ and insurance, many families may still struggle to cover the burden of death. Therefore, some locals have even considered fundraising to cover funerals. One resident of the south told Pacific Island Times said fundraising for funerals is becoming acceptable among families. “Funerals are just too much. It’s very expensive to die,” he said.

Because funeral fundraising is a recent trend and not a part of the island’s culture, Len Mayer is unaware of any particular families doing so. “If families fundraise, they do it on their own. Guam Memorial doesn’t help families fundraise for funerals,” said the funeral director. “If a family has a hard time paying for our services, we refer them to Personal Finance Center.”

One funeral home employee said he has heard of some families fundraising for a funeral. “They’ll sell food plates or have car washes, but those things really don’t put a dent on the cost,” he said.

In 30 years, the price of funerals in the United States has risen almost twice as fast as consumer prices for all items, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Statistics showed that funeral expenses rose 227.1 percent, while prices for all items rose 123.4 percent from December 1986 to September 2017.

Data from the National Funeral Directors Association showed that the median cost of a funeral in the United States is $8,000 and $10,000. A burial plot in a public cemetery averages between $1,000 and $2,000, and in private cemeteries, between $2,000 and $3,000.

Just like in life, the cost of dying varies depending on the cost of living in each state. A comparative analysis of funeral costs in the United States indicated that Guam is the most expensive place to die in the nation.

The top five states with the priciest funeral costs are as follows: Hawaii ($13,712), California ($10,378), New York ($9,855), Alaska ($9,634) and Maryland (9,597).

The five states with the least expensive funeral cost are: Mississippi ($6,182), Oklahoma (6,499), Michigan ($6,528), Alabama ($6,536) and Arkansas ($6,536).

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