A life can end in a fraction of a heartbeat. You can’t plan when, how, or why life ends, but you can plan funeral pre-arrangements. Doing so allows your loved ones the ability to focus on grieving their loss, instead of stressing out over planning your funeral.
The National Funeral Directors Association reported in 2021 that about 43% of people have made pre-arrangements for themselves, but of that percent, only 17.3% of people have made written prearrangements. The remaining people only verbally mentioned it, which can easily get misunderstood or forgotten.
With such an important matter, why do so few people have a written plan?
Possibly, it's fear of facing death or life is just too busy. Maybe people simply don’t know where to start. That’s where we come in. Here is a guide to help you plan a meaningful and healing funeral service that will help relieve your family during one of the most trying times of their lives.
First, make sure you have an up-to-date will. If you don’t, a probate court judge can decide how to distribute whatever assets you owned to your heirs. Your loved ones might feel uncertain about what to do with your assets or even fight over them.
Decide who is responsible for carrying out the funeral
It’s helpful to choose one individual who is the designated contact for the funeral home and any other officials, chaplains, or vendors that you may be working with. Make sure this person knows where all the information they will need resides, and that they have a copy of your written pre-arrangements.
Gather important documents in one safe location
Get together papers that the designated person will need access to, such as the will, estate planning documents, mortgages, vehicle titles, monthly subscriptions, birth certificates, marriage certificates, military service records and/or discharge papers, health and life insurance policies, social security records, and any other written final wishes. While you may only need some of this information as part of the funeral plan, it will likely be needed in the future for whoever settles the estate.
Do you want a death notice or written obituary?
If you want a simple death notice that contains your name, age, date of birth, and date of death, then skip this section as it will be taken care of for you.
If you want an obituary, you can gather info for an obituary and keep it with those important documents or write your own. Deciding to write your obituary is a personal choice that can be quite emotional depending on the reason for writing. Traditionally, obituaries have been written either by obituary editors or loved ones with knowledge of the deceased’s life. Writing it yourself in advance ensures you can get all the important details and express yourself with flair. You can also choose a photo you like. According to the Fulton County Expositor, as of spring 2022, there is no charge for a simple death notice, but it does cost $9 per column inch for an obituary to run in the paper. An obituary doesn’t have to be published in a newspaper though; it can be displayed during the funeral service.
Consider having a Payable-on-Death bank account
Banks or credit unions allow owners to add POD agreements to their bank deposits. The POD allows for the transfer of all accounts, U.S. savings bonds, and certificates of deposits directly to beneficiaries. A transfer-on-death (TOD) arrangement is like a POD but pertains to an account owner’s investments. Talk to your bank and/or credit union for more info.
Decide how to take care of the remains
Do you want a funeral, direct burial/cremation, natural burial, green burial, or to donate your body to science?
Funeral – a funeral usually includes a viewing or visitation and service. Everyone grieves at the viewing, where it can be an open or closed casket, and then travels to the cemetery to hold the ceremony. Funeral home fees include embalming, dressing the remains, and renting the site for the service.
Direct burials/cremation – With a direct burial, the person is buried shortly after death in a burial container, and a memorial service can be helpful later if desired. This is a cheaper method since there is no viewing or embalming. With cremations, you can still have all the perks of a funeral with a service, while maintaining a low cost, as the body is turned to ash and stored in an urn. You can have your urn placed in a cemetery or your ashes scattered in a sentimental place. Here is a place that has a great customizable handmade urn.
Natural burial/green burial – These are designed to have a minimal environmental impact and conserve natural resources. A natural burial is another cheaper alternative where the cremated remains are put into a biodegradable container to be sent to a wildlife conservation area or natural woodland area. You can also have the remains interred in a gravesite to decompose fully and return to nature. The body will not have any environmentally destructive embalming fluids, cement/metal coffin vaults, or cloths from certain materials. Instead, some have used cardboard, or plant-based clothes/blanket to place the body in before burying.
Donate your body to science – Your donations allow medical researchers and educators to practice, learn, and create new techniques that continue to improve and save lives. Upon acceptance into the Science Care program, there is no cost associated with the donation. The program takes care of all expenses including transportation, funeral home expenses, and cremation.
Decide on a funeral service?
There are many different types. Here is a list to help you better decide what you may like.
Traditional funeral - There is a viewing/visitation first (sometimes the night before), followed by a service that includes music, eulogy, and a sermon by a pastor. Everyone travels to the cemetery for burial and possible graveside service. This is followed by a reception or lunch.
Graveside - This occurs at the cemetery, where family and friends pay their final respects before lowering the casket into the ground. Often a pastor will speak a few words of comfort. This is a fairly short and cheaper option.
Direct burial - There is no visitation, funeral, formal ceremony, or graveside service. The funeral home simply buries the casket with the immediate family present. The family can say a few words then or can plan a memorial service at a later date. This is the cheapest option and is good when a burial is needed in a hurry.
Direct cremation - Similar to direct burials, direct cremations are stand-alone events – no formal visitation or funeral. The cremated remains are returned to the family, who may choose to have a memorial service later on down the road. The funeral home will most likely return the remains to you in a very basic container. There are many more customizable and attractive urns available here.
Memorial service - This is very similar to a traditional funeral, except the casketed body/cremated urn is not present. The beauty of this is that it doesn’t have to take place within a certain time frame. The ceremony can happen a day after interment/inurnment, or a year later, when all the family can get together.
Celebration of life - This unique service can take the place of a traditional funeral service or occur days/weeks/years following a funeral. This is a service that celebrates the life of the deceased. Depending on the region or culture of the family, this celebration may include food, dancing, and happy memories of the deceased being shared.
Wake - (A.k.a visitation or viewings) This solemn service occurs just before the funeral and can take place in the home or at a funeral home. The origins of traditional wakes are in Catholicism, so the faithful may say the Rosary during the wake. Loved ones come together to pay their final respects. The body/remains do not have to be there.
Viewing - Like a wake, but the body is usually present to be viewed by the mourners.
Visitation - Again, this is similar to a wake, but the body is not present. The point of this is to “visit” with each other. Therefore drinks food, and potluck are all appropriate for a visitation.
Scattering ceremony - Similar to a graveside ceremony, this takes place when the family congregates to scatter the cremated remains. A favorite quote, scripture, song, or prayer is said. Keep in mind that, depending on the state you are in, there are laws surrounding where ashes may be scattered.
Is there anything specific you want in your funeral service?
Do you want a certain flattering photo of you displayed in a customized memorial picture frame or a memorial wall plaque? Is there certain sentimental music or scripture you would like to be read during the ceremony? Are there any specific religious traditions you want to be honored? Do you want to be buried in your favorite outfit? Do you want your ashes to be spread in a certain place? Do you want to gift your loved ones with memorial ornaments to help soothe the grief? Now again, your loved ones might not be able to accommodate everything, but if there’s anything really important to you, it’s worth writing down.
Unless you already have a family burial place, you can compare prices at other cemeteries. The Funerals Consumers Alliance has links on its site to see itemized lists of funeral costs as well as a list of funeral homes and their contacts near you. This will give you a better idea of what you can expect to pay in your area for everything from the casket to the cost of the final hearse ride to the cemetery. Don’t forget to include the cost of maintaining the grave, if that applies to you. Also, know that you don’t have to buy everything from the funeral home. You can save money by buying flowers, an urn, a gravesite marker, or even a casket, elsewhere. At the same time, remember you get what you pay for.
Consider prepayment, savings, or life insurance policy for your memorial arrangement.
Once you decide what you want to be done with the remains, contact the appropriate facility, funeral director, or program to fine-tune any necessities and walk through prices with you. You can prepay, but it also carries some risk. A family may be left holding the bag, if the funeral home goes out of business, or if, for some reason, memorial services are not held at the funeral home. The alternative is setting aside a sum in a cash/saving account or using a life insurance policy. Also, a beneficiary can assign all or a portion of life insurance proceeds to a funeral home.
If you want to use a prepaid plan, know your state’s laws to ensure you are protected. You can all ask the funeral home what will happen to the money set aside for funeral costs, as well as cancellation policies. Obtain everything in writing.
Consider joining a memorial society
If you really want to go the extra mile, there are nonprofit organizations that offer price surveys of local funeral homes and guidance in planning a funeral. Many negotiate discounts at local funeral homes for members. A one–time membership fee varies but generally costs less than $50. Check out the FCA’s state-by-state directory of local affiliates to find one open near you.
Talk it over and write it down
Talk to your loved ones about what you want and how much you’d like to spend. Be specific, but realize your loved one may not be able to deliver on everything you want. Ask them if there are any questions they have or if you forgot to write down anything important.