Planning and paying ahead for your own funeral gives some people thepeace of mind to enjoy living.

Vincent J. Zito, 66, is a healthy,active man who lives in his own home on Cedarhurst Road in Finksburgand, little by little, is paying off the costs of the funeral he'll ultimately need.

After his wife died two years ago, Zito decided to make his own arrangements to save his son and daughter the expense and burden of making decisions.

"I'm not a fanatic about it; I'm not looking to die," Zito said, adding he enjoys playing with his two grandchildren, working part time as a maintenance man at Leggett department store andvisiting the Finksburg Senior Center. "I just think it's something that should be taken care of. At least I've got peace of mind."

A Westminster woman displayed the same matter-of-fact attitude about thearrangements she made.

"I know it's all taken care of; that's allthere is to it," said Ethel Butler of the Locust House senior apartment building in Westminster.

The 87-year-old woman worked several years at Hartzler & Sons funeral home in New Windsor, and has made her arrangements there.

"The only reason I did it is my family is all dead," Butler said, noting she outlived her husband and children, and her nieces and nephews live in Baltimore and out of state.

Zitoand his late wife, Betty, bought a plot for themselves and their twochildren at Evergreen Memorial Gardens in Finksburg in 1969.

At the time, he also wanted to prepay as many other costs as he could, but she didn't like the idea. When she died 20 years later of heart disease, her funeral cost about $4,500, he said.

Seven months ago, his sister died, and her funeral cost $5,000. Zito said he figures prices will only go higher, so he wants to make his arrangements now.

His plot long paid for, he plans next to buy a vault -- the metal structure that protects a casket underground -- from the cemetery. That will cost $500, he said. The next service he plans to prepay will be the grave opening, or removal of earth so the casket can be buried. That will cost another $500 at Evergreen, although prices vary greatlydepending on the cemetery.

After he takes care of those, he will visit Eline Funeral Home in Reisterstown, Baltimore County, to arrange and pay for the casket and services. It is the same home that caredfor his wife when she died, and he already has told them of his plans to make his own arrangements.

He remembers how difficult it was when his his wife died. The hardest part, he said, was choosing a casket.

"That's something to take care of myself and get it all over with, then it will be no worry to my kids," he said.

Robert A. Myers, owner of Myers Funeral Home in Westminster, said people find it emotional to talk about their own funeral.

"It's very hard for people," he said. "I tell them, 'Now you've made these arrangements, go home and forget about it. Go on with your life. You need to think about living, not dying.' "

There is no state-regulated prepayment of funerals in Maryland and each funeral home may have a different policy. But most should offer a plan in which a buyer can lock in at today's prices, no matter how much the same funeral costs when they die. (Please see accompanying chart for average costs.)

The hedge funeral homes have against inflation is the interest the prepayment accrueswhile sitting in the bank. If the interest earned is more than the inflation rate, the money goes back to the estate. If it doesn't coverthe increase, the funeral home takes a loss.

Katherine Pritts, a director in Pritts Funeral Home and Chapel in Westminster, owned by her father, said the business recently lost between $200 and $300 whena woman whose account was open less than a year died.

Myers said that in general, the more time an account is open, the more likely the funeral home won't lose money. Sometimes, he said he has given money back to the deceased's estate when excess interest was earned.

Myers and Pritts said they know of no abuse of prearrangements among Carroll funeral homes, and that word of mouth would put any disreputable funeral home out of business quickly.

Both places have the buyer put money into a certificate of deposit account at a bank, in the buyer's name. The funeral home is named as trustee, and can withdraw the money only after the person has died, and the funeral director presents the bank with a death certificate.

The buyer is free to rescind the deal by taking the money out at any time. However, the state does have what's called an irrevocable funeral trust, in which the person may not use the money for any other purpose.

The irrevocable trust is used mostly by people who are entering a nursing home and eventually will need to go on Medicaid and welfare once they use up their own money, Myers said.

Before draining their assets, they may put into the trust as much money as it costs to pay for the desired funeral arrangements, Myers said. The money would be returned to the buyer if the funeral home goes out of business or for some other reasoncan't fulfill the service, according to the state form used for the trust.

Those who don't have the money to prepay, or prefer to havethe cost taken out of the estate or life insurance, still can make all the arrangements ahead of time and keep them on file with a funeral home, said Katherine Pritts, a director in the funeral home her father owns.

Whether someone prepays or not, she said some of the things they like to arrange ahead of time are: which minister will speak, what music will be played, any jewelry or other items they want to be buried with, and even what color nail polish they want or how their hair will look.

Often, when the client first comes in, Myers said, they will feel awkward about making the arrangements.

"They'll come in very bubbly," he said. "Usually they're apologetic -- 'I don't know whether I need to do this, but I want to do this. My daughter knows I'm coming in today and she won't have anything to do with it.'

"Our role is just to sit back, listen and guide them along."

Myers starts with getting biographical information and family history,which is easy and calms the person down. He asks what kind of funeral they want, whether they want public or private visitations, if theywant the casket open and other decisions.

He asks if they want tolook at caskets, leave that for another day, or let the survivors choose. Looking at caskets, whether for oneself or a loved one, is always the hardest part, Myers said.

"Here they are, imagining themselves laying in one of these caskets," he said.

Emotions range from crying, tension or even no display, usually from people who are terminally ill and already have accepted that death is near, Myers said.

Still, there always will be people who don't want to think about their deaths or who see no need to make such formal arrangements ahead of time.

"I don't know whether that's a good idea," Shirley Griffith, 75, said about prepaying a funeral. "I might not die until I'm 110."

Griffith, of Taneytown Road in Westminster, said she has done some informal prearranging by telling her daughter what she wants, and expects the costs to be taken out of her estate.

"I told (my daughter's family) what I wanted, and they better do it, or I'll come back to haunt them as long as they live," she said.

Another Westminster woman who asked that her name not be used said she decided to save her family the expense and burden of funeral arrangements by donating her body to the Anatomy Board of Maryland. She said she had brain surgery several years ago at Johns Hopkins, and the Baltimore hospital asked her to consider the donation.

The Anatomy Board, a state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene agency, will cover the cost ofpicking up a body from a hospital or nursing home.

The body goes to a medical school or hospital training program in the state, and eventually is cremated and the ashes either returned to the family or buried at no charge at a memorial grave at the Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville. To make arrangements with the board, call 547-1222.

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