Funeral Planning 101
Fortunately, most of us are novices at planning a funeral. We’ve all had loved ones die, but others have handled the ‘arrangements.’ Others have made the decisions and explored the options. Others have written the eulogy and planned the service.
We would like to provide you with a bit of guidance and information on funeral planning. None of it is new or revolutionary. It is just, for the most part, unknown to people like you and me.It is very possible (probable) that, eventually, you will be called on to plan a funeral or memorial service or celebration of life. If so, that means you have lost someone close to you. We are so sorry for your loss or impending loss.
Let’s answer a few of the more typical questions people have:
If a person is cremated, can he/she still have a funeral service?
Yes – and most do. Cremation, burial or entombment in a crypt are the typical methods of dealing with a person’s body after death. With any of these methods a family can choose to have (or not have) a funeral, memorial service or celebration of life.
Some people choose cremation for financial reasons, believing it is less expensive since they don’t have to have the expense of a funeral or memorial service. However, most families end up spend just as much with a cremation as they would for a traditional funeral or memorial service.
What is the Downside to Cremation?
The obvious downside to scattering your loved one’s ashes instead of having a burial is that there is no specific ‘place’ where family can go to visit. They can go to the lakeshore where the ashes were scattered or the mountains, but there is a legitimate sense that there is no longer any trace of the loved one there. Or, if the ashes are scattered on the family homestead, what is the emotional impact on the family if/when the property changes hands?
Is Pre-Paying funeral costs a good idea?
Simply stated – YES. If you can afford to pre-pay for funeral costs, you are paying with today’s dollars and costs. If you should live another 20 – 30 years, prices will have, most likely, gone up significantly. At that point, pre-paid funeral costs will save your estate and your loved ones significantly. A funeral may be the only thing you can have delivered in the future for the prices today.
Be sure to keep all paperwork and documentation in a safe and accessible location. Without it, funeral homes may not be able to honor the contract – especially if the funeral home has changed hands or been passed on to the next generation.
What Part of Funeral Planning Do People Find Most Difficult?
#1 – Indecision. The decisions made for a funeral or memorial service are the final ones made on behalf of a loved one. There is considerable stress to get it right.
Indecision, of course, comes from the fact that there hasn’t been proper communication. The family simply doesn’t know because you (or the passed loved one) hasn’t spelled it out in specific and sometimes not even in general terms. This causes those who need to make the decisions to feel as though they are ‘winging it’ or that they are being self-centered in that their decisions are what THEY want and not the one they’ve lost.
On the other side of the coin is the funeral that has been ‘over-planned.’ Another difficult situation is when the deceased over-planned their funeral, leaving such detailed instructions that getting it just right is nearly impossible – and sometimes doesn’t minister to the needs of the living. The only one who gets it ‘their way’ is the one not actually present.
Then, too, there is family dynamics in funeral planning. Temperaments and personalities clash and some don’t want to make waves while others have no problem being the wrench in the works. It is truly tragic when funeral planning divides a family and causes divisions that may last decades or lifetimes.
How Much Does a Funeral Cost?
Funeral prices vary widely. It’s like buying a house. A simple cottage is relatively inexpensive, but a house on a lake with a pontoon boat at the dock, can break the bank. It all depends on how elaborate you want a funeral to be and how many ‘extras’ you include.
In Michigan, where I live, the current average price of a funeral is $8000. That, of course, takes the most basic funeral into account as well as the most expensive. When you start adding things like newspaper announcements and obituaries, professional eulogy writers, visitation with food, printed programs, musicians, hearse, and flowers, the cost, naturally, increases significantly.
Your Funeral – Your Way – Your Last Wishes
Thus far, in all of human history, only two people have escaped death – Enoch and Elijah in the Bible. You and I? We WILL die eventually. Nevertheless, death is one of those topics that is seldom discussed, in relation to yourself or the one you are talking to. But wouldn’t it be comforting to know, when the day comes, that your wishes have been stated, written down, and will be respected and followed?
It can be a difficult conversation – unless you start it and it’s about you. Then, perhaps, you can continue the conversation and include that elderly person you’d like to have the discussion with, as well.
There is really nothing morbid about thinking about and discussing mortality and final wishes. Death is a natural progression of life. Talking about it can be awkward at first but, in the end, the resulting conversation will relieve family members of a lot of pressure and the making of tough decisions on the spur of the moment. Talking about death is a GOOD thing.
Step 1: Talk About Your Final Wishes With Your Family
You know your family. The first thing you need to determine is whether facing the subject of final wishes should be directly approached or something a bit more nuanced.
If your family is a ‘no nonsense’ kind of family, you may want to simply broach the subject directly: “I’ve been thinking about my memorial service when I die. I’d like to sit down with all of you in the near future to talk about it, let you know what I’m thinking, and get some of your input. When can we all get together?”
It is usually better to say ‘let’s get together soon’ rather than ‘let’s talk about it now’ in that allowing your family members to think about it a bit and process the whole idea of you dying and having specific wishes.
But some families don’t work that way. For some, it is necessary to approach the subject more casually and to bring it up in the course of talking about other things – such as the death of someone you know and the beauty (or lack of) of their funeral or memorial service. “You know, I really liked the way their service flowed and the music and the eulogies. Let me tell you what I’d like at my funeral or memorial service…” Hopefully, this more casual approach – and more natural in some ways, will allow people to talk and listen to your wishes and have input.
Once the subject is in the open, it is much easier to let them know where you want to be buried, what you want to service to look like, whom you want to give a eulogy (or perhaps several eulogies), what music you’d like, what poems or scriptural passages you’d like read. It can be as detailed and specific as you want. You could even broaden it by asking them “What kind of funeral would you want?... Let me tell you what I want…”
With either approach, there very well may be family members who are upset or uncomfortable and will not want to talk about it. Our culture is so death-talk averse, that this would not be uncommon. The very thought of you dying is unthinkable and, most certainly, unmentionable.
Let them know that you aren’t trying to upset them but that, if they are honest, they know that you WILL die – everyone does – and that wisdom says making preparation and letting people know your final wishes is the only way those wishes can be honored. Reassure them that you aren’t planning to die any time soon – you want to talk about these thing because you love them and want them to not be overwhelmed with indecision when the time comes.
If the topic is so odious that it cannot be discussed openly, we would suggest that you write out your wishes and enclose them in a clearly marked envelope. Tell someone in the family (if not everyone) that you have done this and where the envelope is.
Talking about it is preferable, but if uncomfortable conversation is not an option, having it written out is a good alternative.
Obviously, any of the three approaches – direct, indirect, or writing it out – is much easier if your death is not imminent. These things should be decided well ahead of need.
However, if your health or prognosis is not good, it is still not too late to discuss final wishes issues. It will just be considerably more emotional. Hopefully family members will be able to take part in these discussions and not use their denial as armor against talking about them.
Step 2: Try to Get Agreement on Your Final Wishes
The person or persons responsible for making funeral or memorial decisions when you die are under no legal obligation to do as instructed. THEY are the makers of all final decisions and, of course, you can do nothing about it. Come to agreement on what you want. That really is the only way your final wishes will happen.
In addition, if your family hasn’t agreed on what you want, it is not uncommon for family disputes to happen when you pass. One child may want you buried in their locale, another in theirs. YOUR final wishes need to be known and agreed upon by all.
If you have a Legal Will (which is a good idea for many reasons, including minimizing estate taxes), ensure that your executor understands and agrees with your final wishes.
You can, of course, make your final wishes legal by including them in your will. The down side to that is the fact that often the will is not even opened until after the funeral or memorial service so those wishes may not be know until too late.
Step 3: Create a “Final Wishes” File and Let Everyone Know Where it is
Even if you have discussed your final wishes, it is a true gift to your family to have those wishes written out in as much detail as you’d like. It will quell arguments. It will relieve stress. It will give a sense of confidence that family is honoring you in the best way possible.
The first document in the file should be your ‘Last Will and Testament.’
The funeral director may ask that your estate executor give evidence that he/she has the authority to make decisions about your funeral or memorial service. This is usually not necessary unless there seems to be some kind of family dispute about who makes those ‘final wish’ decisions, but it does happen. Your will should spell this out clearly so there is no doubt.
Your file should contain an entire checklist of your final wishes. At a minimum, it should outline your wishes for:
You can get as specific as you want in your final wishes documents. You can include items such as:
Step 4: Encourage Your Loved Ones to Discuss Their Final Wishes
People die. Often unexpectedly. You want to make your final wishes known, but you may well not be the next in your family to die. While you are discussing YOUR last wishes, open up the discussion to include everyone’s. Not everyone will be as intentional as you, but getting these things on the table may be very helpful to family members down the road. ‘Remember what mom said she wanted at her funeral when grandma brought up the subject? Let’s do that.’
Discussing Final Wishes With a Terminally-Ill Loved One
Terminal illness is emotionally devastating for most people. Your loved one may not want to discuss anything about their mortality. Let it go… Allow them NOT to talk about it.
It is possible that your loved one will, as death approaches, be ready to talk about their last wishes. Be alert for subtle cues. Never force it. It is possible that they will never be ready to talk about what they want. That’s OK.
In this case, when you have to make decisions after they die, you cannot make wrong decisions. You simply do what you believe would be respectful of their life.
Family members and friends may be able to help you piece together a plan that makes sense, given their personality, beliefs and values.
Choosing a Funeral Home
When a loved one dies, there are dozens of things that need to be done. One of the first, of course, is to find a funeral home (and, of course, find someone to write and present a eulogy – we’d suggest TheEulogyWriters.com for your eulogy writing needs). A good funeral director can guide you though the entire process, making it as little stressful as possible. Most are highly trained and, by nature, very sensitive people.
Following are some simple steps to follow to make sure the person you have and the facility they represent are exactly what you need and want.
Step 1: Decide What You Want
Location: This is priority one. The funeral must take place in a location that is convenient to family and friends to get to on short notice. Weddings are great for ‘destination’ events, but funerals need to be accessible. This, of course, severely limits your choices. Some cities and suburban areas have dozens of choices, but smaller communities may be limited to one or two or, maybe, a couple more in a neighboring town.
Loved One’s Wishes:
Did your loved one express a desire for a traditional funeral or for cremation? Did he or she have a connection to a particular funeral home – perhaps because one of their loved ones was buried from there? If cremation is the desire, your choices will be limited to those who provide cremation services.
It is sometimes (although not always) preferable to work with a funeral home that also operates a cemetery or memorial garden. It may be more cost effective and the chances of everything working seamlessly are more likely. However, even those not associated with cemeteries are usually quite experienced with working with whichever cemetery you might choose. But again, physical location of the cemetery in relation to the funeral home is an issue.
Knowing what you want at the beginning of your search makes the whole process so much easier and less stressful.
Step 2: Discuss – Make Decisions After Consulting Family and Friends
Nearly everyone has had a loved one die. Most will readily give a review of their experience with any particular funeral home and director. Word-of-mouth from trusted friends and family may be the best advice you will ever get.
Even if friends and family have not actively participated in the planning of a funeral at a funeral home, many will have attended a service and can share with you their impressions – how well it was coordinated, how friendly the staff was, how the celebrant did…
If you get rave reviews about a particular funeral director, you will still want to check to see if that director still works at the funeral home. Unless they are owners, funeral home personnel is often quite fluid and your reputed director may well have moved on to another facility (in which case you’ll want to find out where and see if that one fits your needs).
Step 3: Do Your Research on Local Funeral Homes
Research is easy in today’s world. Just go to the internet and you can find what you want. First, determine the location and services or a particular funeral home, (as well as any cultural and/or religious affiliations, if that is important to you).
Search this Directory for the Very Best Funeral Homes in Your Area
Next, read customer reviews. People who leave reviews are usually passionate one way or the other. The outstanding reviews probably make more of it than necessary and the negative ones probably exaggerate their dislike. The truth is somewhere in between.
Sometimes the funeral home website will have videos or other helpful things to give insight into who they are and what they do. Most funeral home staff are not overly web proficient, so be aware that what you read and see is put together by a web designer and may not give an accurate picture of what the funeral home is really like. But it will give you a hint. It was their input the web designer used.
We recommend that any funeral home you use be a member of a state or national funeral home association. This means they are up to date on the latest regulations and have certain ethical and professional standards to meet. Such affiliation is easily determined. It will be on their website or you can simply ask.
Many funeral homes in America today are no longer ‘family’ owned as they were in the past, even though they may still carry the family name. The funeral home industry is being bought out by mammoth corporations. This is both good and bad. The corporation requires certain standards of conduct, aesthetics and professionalism, but also takes away some of the personalness of the experience. Directors have little ‘wiggle room’ when dealing with clients.
Step 4: Tour the Funeral Homes That Meet Your RequirementsAfter you have finished steps 1 to 3, you will, hopefully, have a list of no more than 3 funeral homes that fit your criteria. Call and set up a meeting, letting them know you are shopping. If they are aware that you are doing some comparisons, they will put their best foot forward and may give you discounts in order to get your business (here again, corporate funeral homes probably won’t be able to give discounts – directors don’t have that discretion).
Most funeral directors are very friendly people, but you may find some that give off a bad ‘vibe.’ These informal meetings are good to find this out before you sign up. Taking a friend or relative with you is probably a good idea, too. He/she can observe things that you may have missed.
Be sure to get assurance that the director you meet and talk with will be the one who works with you for the funeral. Often there is a representative for the funeral home that does not actually do the directing. You want to meet the actual person who you will be working with.
Before meeting with the funeral director, compose a list of questions:
Step 5: Make Your Decision and Get to It
After you have gone through all the above, it is time to make a decision on a funeral home to work with. They will ask you to complete and sign a service agreement and, once done, they will get to work.
The funeral for your loved one will be a special event because you have thought about and considered all the options and made rational decisions.
Don’t forget to send your funeral director and the officiant a thank you note. Such acts of appreciation are rare but are truly appreciated.
Choosing Cremation is an excellent and ever more popular option.
What You Need to Know
Cremation is the disposition of a body through the use of intense heat – fire. It usually takes from two to four hours for the body to be completely decomposed into a fine, sand-like consistency. These ‘ashes’ are typically spread in some meaningful place or placed in an urn for keeping or burying.
Cremation Does Not Mean You Can’t Have a Funeral ServiceWhile it certainly is often the case that cremation means there is no funeral (what funeral homes call ‘immediate disposition’) the is not always the case. In fact, more and more frequently, there is a formal service of memorial held either before or after the cremation. Often families want to have a service but the crematoria won’t have completed their job by the time a memorial service has been planed for. In these cases, a photo is typically displayed in place of a casket or urn. Cremation is, by no means, a substitute for a funeral or a memorial service or a celebration of life.
The Pros of Cremation
The Downside – there always is at least one
The Cost of Cremation
The Cremation Research Council says that, currently, the average cost of cremation is $1,100.
Check with the funeral director to find out what all is included in cremation fees. That $1100 usually doesn’t include any type of funeral or memorial service… only the cremation.
Be aware that there are some “fly-by-night” cremation operations out there. Be sure you are using a reputable cremation service.
Choosing a Cremation ProviderMost funeral homes (even ones that offer cremation services) do not actually own their own crematoriums. They send the bodies out for the service.
Begin your search for a cremation service provider by:
All documents you request should be easily available. Transparency is of utmost importance. If you are not permitted to see a full price list; operating license; certificate of insurance; policy and procedures manual, that is a red flag. Find another provider.
Regardless of price, the most important thing is that you want a cremation provider that will treat the body of your loved one with utmost dignity and will act in a professional and compassionate manner throughout.
With Cremation, Do We Need a Casket?
If cremation is after a period of viewing or after a traditional funeral or memorial service, yes. However, usually such caskets are of light weight, disposable material so the cost is reasonable. Some funeral homes will even ‘rent’ you a traditional casket (this will often depend on state and local laws regulating the reuse of a casket).
A rental casket is a casket that looks like any other casket, but has a removable interior, which is a simple wooden box, making it reusable. The body is fully contained within the interior box, which is easily removed after the funeral. The body is then cremated in this box. Since the deceased never came into contact with the outer casing of the casket, the funeral home can re-use the casket by inserting a new removable interior (again, according to state and local rules).
If cremation happens before the funeral, the family will still have to purchase a consumable casket. The law requires that a body be enclosed in a container during the cremation process to protect the health and safety of the crematorium workers.
Prices and quality of caskets starts at the bottom with a no-frills cardboard box (also referred to as an “alternative container”), and goes all the way up to premium caskets that are also used in traditional burials. Some crematoriums will include the alternative container in their standard fee. Since it will all be consumed anyway, we recommend the ‘alternative container.’
Even if you choose to use a more traditional casket, most crematoriums will only accept caskets that are fully combustible, with no metal parts. Solid wood caskets work best, as are cloth-covered wood caskets and wood veneer caskets. Most “green” caskets are also ideal. Whatever is ‘fully combustible’ will work.
Dealing with the Ashes
After the cremation, the family is given the ‘cremains’ (the person’s cremated remains). The cremains are commonly referred to as “ashes”.
When people who choose cremation, nearly half request that their families scatter their ashes after they have passed. This is often done in rivers, ponds, golf courses, gardens, flower beds, at a lake or sea, or a location that is personally significant to the deceased and his or her family. However, it is important to inquire if your local laws permit the scattering of ashes.
Burying cremains in an more traditional option. The urn can be buried in a cemetery plot or an urn garden or in the back yard.
Burial within the cemetery is usually marked with a grave marker, making the site a permanent memorial. Some family members may find solace in being able to visit and care for the burial site.
A columbarium is an above-ground building that houses cremation urns. Inside the building, the walls have “niches” (or a small opening in the wall) that can hold a single cremation urn. Once the urn containing the cremains has been interred in the columbarium, a bronze plaque is placed on the outside of the niche. The plaque is a permanent record of who is inside the niche.
As with burial, some families find it comforting to be able to visit the place where their loved one has been laid to rest.
Some people prefer to keep the ashes of their loved one at home, either in an urn on display, or in a simple urn kept in a private place within the house, or buried in the garden.
A memorial tree is a beautiful tribute to someone’s life and legacy. It is also a gift to future generations. In addition, symbolizes the circle of life, and our return to nature after our death.
When memorial trees are planted on a family’s private property, the ashes can be sprinkled around the base of the tree or buried under the tree.
Some also install a simple bronze plague at the base of the tree that displays their loved one’s name, date of birth and date of death, along with a personal message or quote.
My mother died recently. There were all kinds of arrangements to be made, relatives to comfort and host, pastors to talk to, dinners to be put together, eulogies to write. Mom gave us a gift by having her wishes all spelled out, her funeral paid for in advance, and a cemetery plot in waiting.
If you want to do your family a HUGE favor, have it all written out – and the cemetery plot already purchased. Following are some issues you will need to consider as you make those final burial place decisions…
The first decision to be made is, of course, where? Which cemetery appeals to you, is in a good location for relatives to occasionally visit, and is of the nature that you wouldn’t mind being part of that landscape going forward.
Questions to Ask and Things to Know When in the Cemetery Plot Market
1. What is the cost of a plot and what additional fees are there?
The first part of that question is pretty straight forward. The cemetery will have a price list, probably based on location in the cemetery. The second part of the question is much more crucial and often more obscure – what ADDITIONAL costs will there be – now and in the future?
Sometimes cemeteries will give you an ‘out the door’ price. Compared to other cemeteries you’ve visited, their price may seem high until you consider that that price covers everything – grave opening, closing, maintenance, security, and any number of other items. Often cemeteries with ‘bargain’ rates, don’t include all of those extras in the price but in the end could cost considerably more. Admittedly, many of those costs will come after you’ve passed, but your heirs or estate will have to pay. Paying ahead of time is often wise simply because costs constantly rise and paying the opening and closing costs and others in today’s dollars makes much more sense… and is kinder to your family.
2. What are my plot options?
A cemetery plot is a small piece of real estate and like all real estate, price is determined by ‘location, location, location.’ Size and location are key factors. A plot in an open area, always sunny and hot will probably be less expensive than one situated under a beautiful Weeping Willow or beside a bubbling brook. It makes sense. Please be smart. YOU WON’T CARE where it is nor how beautiful it looks. Your family may, but aesthetics are really only worth so much…
You can also buy plots for urns for your ashes, if that is the way you want to go.
Another possibility is to purchase two or more plots for other family members who may want to be eternally resting nearby. Usually there is no discount for multiple plots, but it can’t hurt to ask.
3. Be sure you are actually getting what you think you are buying.
Is the actual burial plot the one you are looking at or one ‘like’ it? Often a cemetery will sell different levels of burial plots at different prices. It is in their best interest to show you the best example from each level. Is the one shown the actual purchase? Or is the one you’ve purchased in some back corner of the level you’ve chosen? You don’t want your family to be surprised when they arrive for your intement.
4. Know about any ‘extra’ fees – like opening and closing the grave.
Cemetery personnel get paid to open and close the grave. You need to know what those charges will be. It MAY be that those costs are rolled in with the plot price, but it is wise to check this out ahead of time. The cemetery, of course, gets a cut. Sometimes this makes these extra fees exorbitant. Ask.
5. Annual maintenance fees are common in some locales.
Maintaining a cemetery is costly. Who pays? Many cemeteries charge a one time fee, knowing that collecting annually forever may be an unrealistic expectation. Ask what the maintenance fee includes and what it doesn’t.
6. You may be responsible for maintain the grave site itself – leaving flowers, weeding, etc.
Some cemeteries include everything, but others expect family members to stop by periodically for basic maintenance. Again, ask. If family members live at a distance, maintaining a grave is often an impossible expectation.
7. Find out if there are restrictions or rules about the type of casket and/or vault used.
The FTC regulates the funeral industry. It requires that cemeteries allow you to use the burial casket of your choice, whether or not you purchased it from the cemetery or funeral home. As strange as it may seem, you can actually purchase a casket at Costco to be delivered to the funeral home – and save some money.
Cemeteries can, however impose limitations or requirements on what they allow to be buried. For instance, “green burial” cemeteries only allow eco-friendly caskets or maybe even burial shrouds, and some cemeteries require a vault or liner. Caskets and vaults are the bread and butter of the funeral home and cemetery industry. They will work hard at getting you to buy the best for your loved one. But the least expensive or the most elaborate all go into the ground, never to be seen again, and eventually return to dust.
8. Determine whether a grave liner, or a vault is required.
A burial vault or grave liner ensures that, after the casket is buried and begins to deteriorate, the ground does not cave in. Sometimes such things are required, sometimes not. Most cemeteries prefer them simply because it keeps the grounds looking nicer. Nevertheless, it can be an additional expense, so be sure to ask about this, shop around, and compare prices.
Local laws and ordinances may come into play. There can be some paperwork (and, of course, more fees) associated with the purchase or use of a burial plot. Ask the cemetery official or the funeral director.
10. Sometimes funeral homes and cemeteries are ‘connected.’
If the cemetery and funeral home are operated by the same company or individual, you can sometimes save money on transportation fees or packaged deals. This is usually not the case, but certainly worth checking into.
11. Tombstones and Grave Markers
There are tons of options for headstones and grave markers but most cemeteries have restrictions or rules about the type they allow. Usually these are for uniformity or aesthetic reasons. Sometimes for convenience and efficiency – as ‘in ground’ only markers would be. Lawn mowers can simply go right over the top of them without having to do any trimming or other kinds of labor intensive work. Before you buy, check out their policies.
Some cemeteries are “memorial parks” that only permit flat markers of bronze or granite; others have rules concerning the height, colors, or materials of the headstone.
12. Headstone and marker costs.
Whether you buy a marker or headstone from a dealer or from the cemetery, there is almost always an installation fee. You may be able to get the maker of the monument to install it for a lower fee, or even for free (his profit comes from the sale and the engraving. Ask about these options at the cemetery.
13. Future cemetery plans
Cemeteries are among our most stable institutions. But sometimes ownership changes or additional land is required or there is a need to use the current land more efficiently. Ask about their plans for the future. This is information you may need to know.
Steve Schafer is the founder of TheEulogyWriters and is probably the most prolific eulogy writer (and, no doubt, the best) anywhere. He lives in Michigan and has been writing eulogies for well over thirty years. The articles in this blog are designed to help people through the process of losing loved ones.
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West Bloomfield, MI 48323
Writers: Steve Schafer, Ralph DiBiasio-Snyder, Abi Galeas, Miriam Hill
Steve's Personal Cell Phone: (734) 846-3072
Our email address is: Write4Me@TheEulogyWriters.com