DUNN – Jeff Burch Sr.'s memento mori sales pitch sounds like a dead loss.
There aren't many businessmen who confront potential clients with the sobering reminder that, sooner or later, they are going to be pushing up the daisies, shuffling off their mortal coils, popping their clogs or sleeping the big sleep.
Unwound from its shroud of euphemisms, being plain old dead is not something we tend to want to talk about. And we certainly don't like looking ahead to that unknowable moment when our bodies assume room temperature, and we face life's only certainty outside of taxation.
But Burch, who owns Moultrie County Memorial Park near a bump on Illinois 121 called Dunn (it's near Bethany), isn't afraid to dig in where others fear to tread. He urges us all to think about being dead in advance of actually being dead.
Burch preaches the gospel of preplanning your burial or interment arrangements and has advertised specials. A sign tacked up at his bucolic memorial park offers free plots to veterans as a nice little salute for their service to their country. And veterans who preplan their cemetery arrangements will earn their spouse a free plot, too. Preplanning means you pay in advance over time for your grave vault, grave marker and associated accessories.
Burch points out he's not a licensed funeral director, so he can't help you with embalming and the collection of your mortal remains; that must be arranged with a funeral director. But from planting you beneath the green, green grass of the memorial park to discount casket shopping, he's got you covered, up to a point.
“Now even as a veteran, you have still got your other expenses, like the opening and closing of the grave,” Burch says. “But we're at least giving you that hole in the ground.”
Burch says whether you wind up taking his deals or not, the time to talk about being dead is when you are alive. He indicates it's a lot less hassle to check out potential resting places while you are riding in your own car as opposed to being a horizontal passenger in a hearse. And getting it all squared away before you exit after fretting your hour upon the stage of life is much better than leaving suddenly and saddling your loved ones with big bills and no idea how you wanted to script your departure.
“You know who the consumer's worse enemy is?” asks Burch, 55. “Themselves. Because of the nature of the stigma attached to the fear of dying, people fail to do their research ahead of time.”
He says the terminally thrifty who made their final arrangements early always unearth the cheapest prices. And that way, you can decide what you want, where you want to be, and how you are going to get there. Burch says it's the most harmonious way to bow out, and leaving without preplanning sows seeds of confrontation that bear bitter fruit: “I've seen situations where relationships between the surviving adult children (arguing over dad or mom's funeral arrangements) have deteriorated to the point where they don't want to have anything to do with each other,” Burch says.
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A self-described “cemetarian,” he's been involved in the burial business for some 25 years. He ran a discount casket store in Decatur 10 years ago, which caused quite a stir and made national headlines with its cheap prices. He says he's always had a soft spot for the dead and needy and recalls once agreeing to pick up the burial costs of a departed and penniless Decatur drag queen.
“I did the burial, then their friends did a drag show benefit and paid us what they could,” he says.
His longstanding efforts to help veterans with their funeral costs brought him to the attention of Medal of Honor winner Col. Donald Ballard. Ballard invited Burch to join him in Kansas City, Mo., to help arrange economic and dignified sendoffs for veterans, and, beginning in 2008, Burch spent several years working closely with veterans groups and Ballard himself, who operated two cemeteries and a funeral home.
Burch's efforts were crowned with an invitation to a star-studded gala evening put on by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in Los Angeles. The guest list included Jon Voight and Gary Sinese, and Burch has a picture of himself and his friend, Ballard, all looking very much alive and happy and standing on either side of actor Robert Duvall.
But home is where the heart is interred, and Burch settled back in Central Illinois after his labors in Missouri. He lives in Mount Zion and runs Moultrie County Memorial Park with the assistance of Jamie Burch, a former employee who wound up marrying him four years ago.
“His brain never shuts down; he's always coming up with new ideas for the business and to help people,” Jamie Burch says. “He's pretty good at what he does.”
Another Burch idea is treating Fido and Felix as members of the family, too, especially when Fido is doggone and Felix has used up all of his nine lives. The cemetery features a burgeoning pet section and, yes, vets' pets qualify for a free space.
“Pets really are members of the family,” says Burch. “Why not treat them like one?”
And, of course, you can save money and angst by preplanning your companion animal's cemetery arrangements.