How to Plan a Funeral

by A Manly Guest Contributor on May 5, 2010 · 33 comments

in Relationships & Family

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Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Nick Welch, a pastor who has worked in a funeral home doing removals (picking up the deceased from the place of death), assisting in embalming, preparing the deceased for burial & cremation, as well as meeting with families to make final arrangements for their loved one’s funeral.

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” -Benjamin Franklin

There are many challenges that men of all backgrounds relish. Some are extreme: going on safari, a climbing expedition, or building a house. And some are a little more mundane: paying the mortgage, splitting and stacking a cord of wood, or winning a great hand of poker. All of these obstacles, however, have a satisfaction in their completion that gives a man a sense of accomplishment and joy. But one of the biggest challenges any man will ever face, the responsibility of making funeral arrangements for a loved one, often brings more pain and frustration than satisfaction. Making these arrangements carries quite a bit of stigma and not a little bit of confusion. But by making a few preparations, you can greatly mitigate the stress faced by you and your loved ones when dealing with this inevitable event.

“There is in the act of preparing, the moment you start caring.” -Winston Churchill

Planning Your Own Funeral

One of the reasons making funeral arrangements is so difficult is that we rarely take time to discuss with those closest to us what their wishes are. No one likes talking about the day they’ll be gone, but if we don’t, we leave some of the most important decisions that will need to be made in life (or death) to chance and unnecessarily burden our loved ones. So set the example by taking the initiative, planning your own funeral and sharing your plans with those closest to you. Here’s what you need to know to get started planning your funeral:

1. Visit Your Friendly Neighborhood Funeral Director

The internet is great for vast amounts of information, but it can’t empathize with you or have a cup of coffee with you. Make an appointment with a service counselor, funeral director or pre-arrangement specialist to talk about funeral options face to face. It will be a huge help in the decision making process. There are basically two types of funeral establishments: locally owned mom and pop shops or nationally owned, locally managed funeral homes. Which one to choose is a matter of personal opinion based on your own impressions. I know a lot of people in the death care industry who differ on which is better, but it all comes down to what you think. But a few of the things that you want to look for are these:

  • An independent insurance holder instead of the funeral home “holding” the money for you. This basically means that there is a guarantee that the money will be there when you need it.
  • Your pre-arrangements are transferable. This means that if you move from California to Florida or just a few hours away your arrangements move with you.
  • Finally, but probably most importantly, make sure when all is said and done you feel like the people you choose to use for your final arrangements are people that you genuinely trust. Sometimes it just comes down to a gut feeling.

2. Don’t Commit…Just Yet

There’s no need to make a decision on the spot. Take the info, price lists, and service catalogues that you picked up at the funeral homes you visited to your wife, and if it’s appropriate, maybe even your kids. Set aside some time to talk about the different options, ask questions about the “what-ifs,” and come to a decision that seems the best to your family. You don’t need to put it off too long, maybe just a couple of weeks, but long enough to flesh it out, talk it out, and make a decision.

3. Speak Up

This is not a time to be reserved. Make sure those closest to you know exactly what plans you have made. In fact, most pre-arrangements you make with a funeral home will come with legal documents as well as a packet of info meant to be shared with those closest to you. Of course every family is unique in its comfort level with these kind of issues but come on, is there ever really a good time to talk about when dad dies? There’s no time like the present to take some of the sting out of the inevitable by putting it all on the table and talking about your plans. While it may be awkward to talk about now, knowing your wishes ahead of time will lighten your loved ones’ load when you pass on.

Bruce Preston, a family service counselor who spends his days helping people prepare for their death, says pre-arrangement takes care of the two biggest questions people have when a loved one passes away. “Did I do what my loved one wanted and did I do the right thing?” Guys, make sure you do the hard work of making these decisions easier for your wife and kids. The difference between doing it and not could mean thousands of dollars, hours spent filling out paperwork and a boatload of uncertainty and guilt. To wrap up the discussion on planning ahead, I’ll leave you with three reasons to pre-arrange according to Bruce Preston:

  • It financially freezes the cost.
  • It prevents emotional overspending.
  • It takes the burden off of your loved ones.

Planning Someone Else’s Funeral

“Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.” -Mike Tyson

But what if you’re not the one who dies? What if you’re the one who has to make the arrangements for someone who hasn’t made them for themselves? Or worse yet, what if you thought the arrangements were all made only to have the rug pulled out from under you? Well, I’m glad you asked. First of all, don’t panic. No one expects you to have all the answers, but as a man you will be expected to get the answers. Here are some of the answers you’ll need.

Depending on the manner of death, you will likely be dealing with many different professionals who have specific duties. Long gone are the days of the undertaker on Main St. who measured your suit, built your box, and put you in it. In the case of an unexpected death you will be expected to contact the police who will contact the coroners. This isn’t because they think you did something wrong; it’s just procedure. Depending on what the coroner decides they will then release the body to the funeral home of your choice. It’s important to know that just because the body has been released to Bob’s funeral home doesn’t mean you have to use their services. If you choose to go down the street to Jim’s funeral emporium then you have every right to do so. Don’t be pressured into a situation you aren’t comfortable with. The funeral home’s primary responsibility is to care for your loved one with dignity and to treat you with compassion and honesty. If you doubt either of those things for any reason just explain that you will be going elsewhere to make the arrangements and would like to know what paperwork you need to fill out in order to make that happen.

Once you’ve decided what establishment you will use, you will be contacted by a funeral home employee, most likely a funeral arranger or director to make an appointment. At this appointment you will deal with everything from deciding the manner of disposition, i.e. burial or cremation, to what music and flowers you want at the service. Take it from me as someone whose job it was to meet with families and make funeral plans every day: there are a handful of things to keep in mind during the entire process. Here they are:

Don’t let too many cooks in the kitchen. Having a close-knit support system is important but when it comes time to go to the meeting, find out who needs to be there for legal purposes, designate who will be the representative, and have everyone else stay home. This makes the appointment run much smoother.

Do your homework. Even if there aren’t any pre-arrangements there may be insurance paperwork, financial documents, even military discharge papers that will come in handy at that meeting and provide much needed information that will help the funeral arranger. Plus having those items there helps minimize the potential that you will have to make another trip to the funeral home for any reason.

There is no free lunch and there are certainly no free funerals. Like it or not, the reality is that a funeral is one of the largest single expenses you will have to deal with in life. While the type of services offered vary immensely there are some constants. There are fees for transportation, refrigeration, and clerical as well as fees imposed by the state and local governments for things like disposition permit, death certificate, and the like. These fees alone can potentially reach into the hundreds of dollars.

“Do, or do not. There is no try.” -Master Yoda

Disposition of the Body

So you’ve come to the point where a decision must be made regarding disposition. The choice here is typically between the body being buried in a traditional fashion or cremated. Many faith backgrounds, cultures, or even societal pressures may hold one of these options taboo, in which case the answer will be fairly simple. But for argument’s sake let’s imagine that either one is a viable possibility. If you were fortunate enough to have had a conversation with your loved one then this decision is a slam dunk. But let’s assume that you have no clue as to what their wishes, if any, may have been. There are many options but here are the most common:

Traditional Burial. This usually includes embalming, a viewing, a chapel or church service, followed by a graveside service along with a reception following. This is the stereotypical funeral that pops into many of our minds because of books, tv shows, or movies that we have seen. In reality, this style of funeral is becoming less popular nowadays for many reasons, not the least of which is financial. These funerals can be expensive, real expensive. On average, a traditional funeral with burial costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $10k-$12k. These prices, like all funeral prices, rise an average of 17% a year and are more expensive on the East coast versus out West.

Cremation/Burial. This plan seems to be a good fit for families that want to scale back a bit on the cost and formal nature of a more elaborate service option but still want a sense of tradition. It can include a viewing and even an open casket with the cremation following the service. The urn can then be buried with the same ceremonial importance and value of a traditional casket burial.

Basic Cremation. The name pretty much says it all. Many times because of financial reasons or just the desire for simplicity, a basic cremation is chosen. Usually this option does not include embalming, a viewing, or burial. Many times the ashes, or more technically, the cremains are kept at home or disposed of in a more personal way. A chapel service is usually dispensed with in favor of a less formal and traditional service facilitated by the family in a home or church. This option is usually the least expensive but in no way less valuable. In fact, in many areas of the country this option is actually the most popular both in pre-arranging and at need funeral preparation.

Green Burial. Green burial is fairly new but beginning to gain ground as an alternative to many of the more common funeral plans. Bodies are buried without embalming fluid and are placed in a biodegradable casket or simple shroud, and the burial area is kept in a natural, non-landscaped or manicured state. It’s an environmentally friendly way of returning the organic compounds of the body back to the soil in a decent and respectful manner as well as what supporters call “a return to ancient and time honored funeral rites.” While this method is gaining popularity, its availability is still limited and will require a bit more research and investigation on your part.

Remember, in all of these options the two most important rules are: Did I do what my loved one wanted? And, did I do the right thing? If you can feel confident and satisfied with your answer to these questions then rest assured that you have done well and served the memory of your loved one in an honorable way.

Peace & Rest, Nick

What advice do you have for planning your own funeral or the funeral of others? Share them with us in the comments.

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Matt A. May 5, 2010 at 10:49 pm

One thing not mentioned, but still a good option – is to have your body donated to a medical school for the gross anatomy lab or for research. I know that this is the way I’m going to go someday. I have close ties to both my University and its med school and it is a way to benefit others from your demise.
I understand that this is not for everyone as many won’t want their body examined by 22 yr old med students or to not “rest in peace” or what have you, but I know here (USD, Vermillion, SD), the school has a formal thank you / funeral service (free of charge) for the families of the deceased.

2 Briain May 6, 2010 at 11:00 am

There is also the green “cremation” where the body is frozen with liquid nitrogen then turned to powder and put into a biodegradable box to be buried

3 Brucifer May 6, 2010 at 11:40 am

I did the pre-pay cremation package thing.. A really good investment. As I am a US military veteran, I was also able to prearranged for a cremation urn niche at a very scenic state veterans cemetery site near where I grew up. I also filled out the paperwork in advance for the free marker the VA provides. All’s my executor has to do, is attach the death certificate and mail it. Easy! As a side note, one can have the marker inscribed with one’s religious affiliation, or even, in my case, marked “atheist.” (there are indeed atheists in foxholes — I’ve met plenty of them!) You can also request a free US flag, which I would direct be given to a buddy to fly over his lake cabin as a small remembrance. I also updated my will so that my executor knows I don’t want any religious ceremony or any ceremony at all for that matter. I good old wake at the local Pub would do me quite nicely!. If left unchecked to the control of my born-again sister, I’d be roiling around in my cremation urn because she’d probably drag it to her church and have some holy-joe do his hocus-pocus over me. Yuck! I know some of you chaps have different ideas about death and religion than I. My *point* though, is to “man-up” and face your own mortality by thinking through what you want to happen and plan for it. Be proper warriors and write your death-song!

4 Ejay Hire May 6, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Cryonics is another option. I’m signed up for services with the Cryonics Institute.

5 Greg May 6, 2010 at 12:16 pm

@Brucifer: You make a great point about pre-planning. I work in the funeral business and have seen half-a-dozen sibling sit around the table saying they knew exactly what Mother wanted, and getting six different scenarios.

Most funeral homes will let you pre-plan your funeral at no cost. They usually stock pre-plan booklets where you can fill out all your preferences.

At the very least, it provides documentation of what your last wishes are.

6 Bill May 6, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Here are a few more things to consider …

0) Be a man and draft a will!!! We are all going to die some day and there’s no reason to give the government and courts any more money (probate fees, etc.) than they have already sucked out of us over our lifetime.

1) If the deceased is a member of a veteran’s organization (AL, VFW, etc.), contact them right away because they can be a wealth of support and guidance.

2) Don’t publish an obituary. There are lots of thieves, scavengers and predators out there.

3) If the funeral director offers some kind of “credit guard/lock” service, buy it! Even if you don’t publish an obituary, a death is a matter of public record. Shortly after my father died last year, over $3700 of attempted charges were made against his Mastercard. The credit lock service stopped that from becoming an additional liability.

4) Choose your executor/executrix wisely – and get their permission. Being an executor is very stressful and a lot of work (many trips to banks, courthouses, government offices, lawyers and lots and lots of phonecalls). Plus, the executor is personally responsible for income and estate tax liabilities. Unless you have a very simple, mostly cash estate and your executor lives in the vicinity, seriously consider using a corporate executor and naming a friend/relative as an advisory executor.

7 Paul May 6, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Over the past month my father died at 57 and my grandmother died at 89, so I’ve been involved in planning 2 funerals during that time. A good funeral home should be able to guide you through the process very easily… we were able to pick out everything needed within about 2 hours each time. We come from a catholic family, so it wasn’t hard to decide that each of them would have wanted a traditional catholic funeral. You have to decide if there was anything special they would have wanted along with anything you need for your personal grieving.

My father’s funeral was just under $6000, which included visitation in 2 separate states, transporting between the sites, coffin, and everything else. The funeral homes will try to make some extra money by making fingerprints and other memorabilia, and we took advantage of a few of those things, but those are definitely a personal choice.

Lastly, when you need some time for yourself, take it.

8 Herr Doktor May 6, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Herr Doktor left his body to the local medical school. His wife as well. This is due in part to the expense and overall barbarity of the embalming and burial process. admittedly this is not for everyone. But I would be happy to share details and recommend it to anyone.

9 Nick Welch May 6, 2010 at 1:12 pm

These are all great comments guys! It would take many further articles to examine all of the potential issues one might face when dealing with death but I love that all of you are doing what many men have refused to do & that’s to man up & plan it yourself! On that note it might be important to mention that there is a big difference between a will & a living trust. Too much to go into here but suffice to say that every guy has quite a bit of homework to do when it comes to these things. My suggestion: find a guy @ church, the moose lodge or the gun club who knows his stuff with insurance, wills & the like. Take him out for coffee & pick his brain. You’ll be glad you did. The saying, “If you want something done right then do it yourself” is never more true than when it comes to funeral preparations. Great comments guys, keep ‘em coming!

10 Donna Swain May 6, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Nick, nice job. Having worked in the funeral business for a few years, myself, I completely agree with you that it is a disservice to your family if you don’t plan ahead. I’ve seen so many families fragmented over the arrangements for a loved one. Everyone thinks they “know what he/she would have wanted”. I agree, also, with Bill, take it a step further and do a will. It will save so much heartache for your family.

11 The Baltimore Chop May 6, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Funeral Director: “It’s our most modestly priced receptacle.”

Walter Sobchak: “”Is there a Ralph’s nearby?”

12 Herr Doktor May 6, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Donna Swain

Herr Doktor agrees, a will is a great idea. But a will needs to be probated and may not be the best place for final wishes. The Doktor prescribes a frank discussion; it’s painful and unpleasant but in the end will leave no doubt as to your wishes.

13 Bernie W. May 6, 2010 at 5:37 pm

I’ve been through the nightmare of my mother dying without a will (or a living will, which also would have made things easier). It’s tough handling someone’s arrangements from three states away, even with some time off work. A little prep work can make things so much easier on the survivors.

I’ve got a single folder in a fireproof safe at home with my will, insurance info, and a few letters to be delivered to people I love. I’ve also got a master list in there of all my financial accounts (401K, copy of my yearly Social Security report, etc).

It’s not a lot of planning and I consider that one of the manliest tasks in life: facing mortality and dealing with it on my own terms.

“Let each man be judged by his deeds, I have paid my price to live with myself on the terms that I willed.” -Rudyard Kipling

14 Herr Doktor May 6, 2010 at 8:47 pm

Bernie W.

I salute you sir. Your planning will indeed make life easier for your family and loved ones. Financial arrangements are perhaps the hardest to make due to a general reticence of discussing money. No one is ever comfortable talking about it but I think your preparation is commendable.

15 Candy May 6, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Nice work! You make me proud of you! Nice style of writing, definitely an A paper on mechanics, Content – A+ very thoughtful. You make a good pastor, Pastor Nick.

16 Pipp May 7, 2010 at 8:01 am

Donation to Science is also an option. This is different than the donate to a medical school option. You body is then used for things like improving the safety of helmets and other safety equipement. You body (or more usually the preserved pariffin imbedded organs) can also be used as ‘control’ or ‘diseased’ in medical research laboratories, which of course means that you might be part of a medical breakthrough that saves lives or easies pain and suffering for others. Many of you would be amazed to know how much research goes on world wide which depends on this kind of donation!
In most cases if you donate your body, to a medical school or to science, the costs of burial (or more usually cremation) are paid for by the place receiving your body.
It is a great way to give back, BUT like organ donation you must discuss this with your close family so they know your wishes and are willing to go along with them.

17 Gus May 7, 2010 at 3:00 pm

If the deceased is a veteran or Freemason he may want a graveside service or Color Gaurd at their graveside. The casket might be draped in Old Glory or other appropriate adornment.The deceased may be a member of other organizations they might want to be represented there. These have a signifigent meaning to the Brethren of the departed.

18 Daniel May 8, 2010 at 2:51 pm

A “Green Funeral” is hardly new. Those of us of the Hebrew persuasion have been planting our dead in the same manner for millenia.

19 Mike Crosby May 8, 2010 at 3:10 pm

I don’t like the idea of paying even after I die.

I’ve always thought: I’ve eaten enough cows, let them have at me.

20 bob May 8, 2010 at 3:51 pm

I had the honor to plan a good friend’s daughter’s funeral. He just lost his job and I felt that nobody should pay to bury their own child, so I went to all of his family, friends and fraternity brothers to open their wallets and donate what they felt was right. In the end he did not have to pay for anything. I thought it was a bit outrageous that we were charged 800 dollars to write and submit two obituaries. Car ads in newspapers only go for 20-50 dollars. Also I wrote and delivered the eulogy in a few hours, so time to man up and help some friends and family.

21 Gary May 8, 2010 at 5:00 pm

My wife died on a flight back to US from her dream vacation. We had long before agreed on cremation, which was handled by a friends contact with a funeral home in the city where we landed. A simple service @ our home church without services of a funeral home followed. We also agreed the ashes would be scattered over several sites that had meaning for us. This resulted in an extensive trip with great meaning to me. I would recommend this to all. I have directed the same at my death, except a celebration at a local venue be held instead of a church service.

22 Impulse Magazine May 9, 2010 at 12:50 am

Planning a funeral is a lot harder then it sounds. You only have a couple days to get a funeral together

23 Granny Miller May 9, 2010 at 5:54 am

I’d add make sure to write your own obituary.
I wrote my own. I mean how in the world would other people know that my life’s greatest achievement was learning to knit and not climbing Mt.Everest?
Nothing is worse than doing that for someone else.

For persons with children that live away – leave a list of instructions, names & details in the event of a sudden accident.
My grave clothes on a marked hanger in my closet complete with detail instructions. Who wants to pick out Mom’s outfit or worry about her wedding ring?

24 The Counselor May 9, 2010 at 9:37 am

As an attorney, I cannot stress enough the importance of having a will in place before you die. Intestacy (dying without a will) is an absolute nightmare for the survivors, particularly if you had any property to speak of. Rather than leaving that nice legacy in your checking account to send your kids to college or keep your wife from having to work, dying intestate all but guarantees that a significant portion of what you leave behind will be siphoned off by the courts through legal fees and other expenses. It also guarantees that (particularly in larger families) the knives will come out as all of your relatives fight over every teapot, picture frame or hunting rifle that you supposedly “promised they could have as soon as you were gone.”

For most people in most places, a simple will that leaves everything to either your spouse or kids will cost probably $300 or less. For people with larger estates or who wish to do something fairly complicated (setting up a trust, for instance) a good estate planner can advise you of the tax advantages and consequences of drafting a will in a certain way.

Bottom line, having a will gives you a certain peace of mind in knowing that everything after your death will be taken care of in the way that you want, and it gives your survivors a certain peace of mind in knowing precisely what you want done with your stuff. Keep it in a safe place and look over it every five or so years to make sure you don’t want to change anything.

25 Erich May 9, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Herr Doktor,

I’m interested in achieving maximum use from my remains. Whether for organ donation, medical studies, or science. Is there a way that I can prioritize the use of my remains? For example, can I donate to science after having needed organs removed?

26 ftr May 9, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Cremation only. My wish is to die quietly at home away from doctors, hospitals, morticians, funeral homes, embalmers, casket makers, newspapers, Priests/Ministers, and everyone else hoping to make money off of my death.

27 Alone2 May 10, 2010 at 2:01 pm

@Mike–If you wish to be eaten you can have your body sent to the Body Farm.
Its anbout the only way I can think of to decompose naturaly. My family knows my wishes and I have told them that I will come back and hunt them if I’m not shipped to the farm!

28 David @ Super Awesome Dating May 10, 2010 at 2:52 pm

@ Alone2 I have never new you could do that. My view is that when your dead your dead, so if you want to be eaten by cows more power to you :)

29 Herr Doktor May 10, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Erich May 9, 2010 at 2:08 pm

That will probably depend on the medical school; let Herr Doktor be frank: You have left a gift, they can do what they want and that usually means they want the whole enchilada intact. Call around and check, but make sure the institution is local as to make pick-up quick and easy. Herr Doktor thinks it’s important to remember that just because your left an anatomical donation, doesn’t mean that they have to take it. There are exclusions like traumatic injuries, homicide, suicide and certain wasting diseases that will preclude an institution from taking the the donation.

30 Next Of Kin May 10, 2010 at 10:05 pm

One thing that could save money in a cremation case is if the funeral home has sample urns. When my relative died last year, our funeral director told us he gets samples from urn manufacturers, and he never charges for them. It doesn’t hurt to ask, and it could save several hundred dollars. The person doing the pre-planning might even be able to pick out his or her own urn.

Also, if pre-paying, make sure you can get a refund of the difference if something beyond your control happens. In the case of my relative, she had been dead for 5 days before we found her, and that meant no viewing. Had she pre-paid for a traditional funeral, I don’t know if her estate would have been able to recover that money.

And be prepared to deal with other relatives who will second-guess your decisions and be angry with you over things you have no control over. At least a dozen relatives criticized the cremation — they felt they needed to see the body to achieve “closure”. I would have gladly traded my months of nightmares (I’m the one who found the body) for their “closure”. An aunt requested that we give her an heirloom quilt that she had given the relative. When we couldn’t find it, I called the coroner, described the quilt, and he checked the photos he had taken, and it had been on the bed. All the bedding got cremated with the relative, because it was considered biohazard. When we told the aunt, she was furious, threw us out of her house, and hasn’t spoken to us since. I heard from other relatives that she thinks we’re lying and that we “stole” the quilt. My spouse and I have considered not informing that branch of the family right away if one of us dies.

31 The Fundertaker May 12, 2010 at 12:55 am

When making plans for a funeral don’t worry about what the other people think and don’t feel guilty if you have done something that someone else disagrees with. The service is for the survivors and a well coordinated event will lead to healthy grieving.

32 Ryan May 12, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Excellent article, being a funeral director/embalmer for the past 3 years and doing everything from cremations, embalmings, officiating to exhuming and most importantly meeting with the families, this touches on a lot of great points.

The one thing i stress out there is to make sure you get what YOU need and don’t worry about tradition. Most families i deal with aren’t religous and find no meaning in a traditional service. I’ve done funerals with harleys leading the procession out of the funeral home, i have carried a casket out of the home to the musical stylings of Eminem, Being a funeral director we will always try and make this event in your life special, this is what it is all about, this is why we do it!

On a personal side note: funeral directors DO NOT make good money, in Canada the average salary of a funeral director before taxes is 30,000 dollars a year. which translates into about 21,000 dollars take home. I went to college for three years and apprenticed for 2 to have this job. Every single person who works in my funeral home has two jobs, the only suit i own was bought by the funeral home, the only Cadillac i drive is the funeral coach. I love my job but when people come in and accuse me of swindling or lining my own pockets with their grief it just breaks my heart. I don’t set the prices, i will let you know who offers these services cheaper because i am a professional. Just ask…

33 Mark A S May 12, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Does anyone know if it’s possible to get a culturally traditional funeral, here in the United States?

This may sound crazy, but I hope it’s possible – Do we allow Indian style funerals, where a body is placed on wood and cremated outside? Or like old style viking funerals? Or like Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi?

Is this still legal?

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