Most people don’t want to think about their own death, much less plan their own funeral. But thinking through your funeral wishes now, regardless of your age or health—and sharing your desires and guidelines with your loved ones—helps ensure that the arrangements will be handled as you would have wanted. It also will reduce stress on your family when you die…and might even head off disputes among loved ones who have strong opinions. And it easily could save your family thousands of dollars.
That doesn’t mean you have to pin down every detail. But giving your family an idea of what is most important to you about your funeral—and why—could save them a lot of steps. Remember that this process has as much to do with defining who you think you are and how you want to be remembered as it does helping your loved ones deal with the process.
Here’s how to create a plan that can put your mind at ease now and help your family and friends later…
Identify one family member or friend to take the lead. Choose someone you believe will understand and appreciate your wishes about your funeral but who is flexible…who will make sensible decisions in emotional situations…and who will communicate well with other loved ones. Name a backup, too, in case this person is not available. In most states, you can complete a form to officially name someone your “designated agent for body disposition.” (At the website Funerals.org, enter the words “designated agent” into the search box and then select “Who has the legal right to make decisions about your funeral?” to obtain the appropriate form if one is available for your state.) Give your agent a printed copy of your detailed funeral plans, and give copies to other trusted loved ones, just to be safe. Don’t forget to include practical information such as where your will is and whether you want any of your organs donated.
In choosing burial, cremation, body donation or another option, consider costs as well as your wishes and those of your loved ones. In general, costs could range from nothing for donating your body to a medical school…to $1,000 for a simple cremation…to a few thousand or many thousands for burial.
If you already have a family plot, crypt or mausoleum, it might be an obvious choice. Otherwise, it’s worth comparing costs among various cemeteries. While it is thoughtful to choose one that is convenient for loved ones to visit—or pleasing to pick one with a beautiful setting for visitors—keep in mind that people tend not to visit cemeteries as often as they did in earlier decades. These days, they are more likely to remember the deceased by sharing stories and looking at photos and videos. It may make sense to choose a cemetery that costs thousands of dollars less than the most convenient or attractive one so that you can leave the family a smaller bill or larger inheritance. Besides, people move around, so your survivors might not live nearby for long. That’s one reason it’s often unwise to prepay a cemetery before you need it.
Comparison-shop funeral homes. Different funeral homes in the same area often charge vastly different prices, so you should comparison-shop—call at least four in your area. When you find one that seems reasonable, get details in writing so that your family can refer to them when it comes time to lock in the arrangements. Keep in mind that you don’t have to accept all the options that a funeral home suggests. For instance, embalming, which could cost around $500 or more, typically is appropriate only when there will be a public viewing. Embalming is rarely required by law—some states require it when the body cannot be buried, cremated or refrigerated for more than a few days, for example. And although a limousine for a funeral procession is traditional, it can be sacrificed to save on costs. By specifying these choices in advance, you lessen the chance that a high-cost provider will prey on family members who are too rushed or emotional to shop around following your death.
If my nonprofit, the Funeral Consumers Alliance, has a chapter in your area, you can get a price comparison of local funeral homes. At Funerals.org, click the “local fca” tab. Keep in mind that your place of worship may have special arrangements with particular funeral homes and/or cemeteries.
Warning: Don’t prepay a funeral home. Money that is prepaid often is wasted—heirs forget that funeral bills already have been paid…or unforeseen circumstances alter funeral plans.
Consider providing input into how your funeral service will be conducted. Your religious beliefs and/or family traditions (or lack of them) may determine some or many of these decisions, including where to hold a funeral service…whether a certain cleric will preside…whether to also include a graveside service…what sort of prayers will be recited…and what kind of “event” to suggest before or after the funeral, such as a wake or the Jewish tradition of visits after the funeral, called shiva. But there are many options that may depend more on your personal beliefs or desires or family considerations.
For instance, should mourners be able to view your body at your funeral? Some people think it isn’t a funeral if there is no body to see…while others prefer to be remembered as they were alive and/or consider viewing dead bodies morbid. A compromise is to have your body present but your casket closed.
You even might want to specify what clothing you want to be wearing, especially if there will be a viewing. You might prefer something formal to show you at your best…or something that you have found to be very comfortable or that evokes your personality, especially if it’s a quirky one.
You might want to mention some things about your life or personality—certain memories—that you would like the cleric or your friends or family to speak about…and that you might want mentioned in an obituary or a funeral notice.
You also might want to suggest that certain people be included among those who serve as pallbearers and/or who deliver eulogies. Keep in mind that when the time comes, some of them may not want to speak because they are too emotional or uncomfortable doing so.
Consider picking some favorite or meaningful songs, poems, verses and/or readings…and possibly what kinds of flowers you prefer at the service (or naming a charity in lieu of flowers). You even can suggest which loved ones should be asked to read which passages, but consider leaving this flexible instead so that your family and friends can participate in ways that are most meaningful to them.
Check whether you are eligible for veterans’ burial benefits. These may include a headstone or marker…a Presidential Memorial Certificate…and, if desired, burial in a national cemetery with military honors, all at no charge, plus, if certain eligibility requirements are met, a burial expense allowance of as much as $2,000. Call the Department of Veterans Affairs at 800-827-1000 for more information.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR CASKET?
The following recommendations apply if you plan your own funeral—but will help your loved ones choose a casket even if you don’t…
Choose a casket based on price and appearance, not on materials or construction quality. Family members often feel guilty about choosing less than the best, agonizing over what type of wood or metal to choose and whether the handles are brass or something less impressive. But a casket made of inexpensive materials can approximate the look of a higher-end one, and any casket is capable of holding the body until it is in the ground, which is its only job. By exploring and discussing this in advance, you can make things less stressful (and less expensive) for your family.
Also, don’t go overboard in choosing a type of burial vault. This vault typically is made of concrete and helps prevent the grave from sinking. Any vault can do that, so there’s no need to pay extra for a high-end option. Laws don’t even require a vault—though most cemeteries do. And despite what a cemetery or funeral home might tell you, no burial vault will protect a body from groundwater for long.