This is part 2 in our series on funerals. Read part 1 here.
When Amy Martin’s mother-in-law died last year at the age of 96, the funeral arrangements were easy. Her mother-in-law had discussed her wishes with her two adult children. Everything was specified in writing: the burial plot, the chapel for the funeral service, the hymns to be sung, the scripture to be read, even the brightly colored pantsuit and shoes she wanted to be buried in.
“She really gave it some care and some thought,” said Martin. “It was done out of love. She didn’t want any of her kids to have anything to worry about.”
Having seen how smoothly things unfolded, Martin, 66, is glad that she and her husband also have plans in place for their own funerals—with people designated to handle them—especially, given that they don’t have children.
But the Martins are in the minority. While most people agree that preplanning a funeral is a good idea, only about 15 percent of those over age 40 have prepared plans, according to a 2015 Harris Poll survey for the Funeral and Memorial Information Council.
Why do so few of us make funeral plans?
“We live in a death-denying culture,” said Joe Reardon, vice president of marketing at Keohane Funeral Home in the Boston area. “We don’t talk about death. We can kill dozens of people in seconds on a video game, but otherwise, death is removed from our presence and our conversation. People die in hospitals, not homes. They’re cremated in a crematorium, with no family members present. It’s as if, ‘If you don’t talk about it, it’s not real.’”
Also, death has no place in a youth-oriented culture that’s averse to emotions like grief, sadness and loss, according to Alan Wolfelt of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. Some families now opt for direct burial or direct cremation, with no viewing, no service and no memorial gathering. Others bypass traditional funerals for festive “celebrations of life.” Wolfelt has even heard some dismiss somber memorial services as “barbaric.”
“We lack an understanding that there are times in life when it’s appropriate to be sad,” he said. “We want to go around our grief instead of through it. Funerals are critical rites of passage. Rituals help us when words are inadequate. That’s why we’ve had these ceremonies since the time of the Neanderthals.”
Studies show that a family moves faster through the grief process when a funeral is held.
Procrastination is another factor. If you’re healthy and busy, planning your funeral never rises to the top of your to-do list. Others avoid planning because, subconsciously, they fear it’ll hasten death. Gail Rubin, blogger and author of A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die (2010), addresses that fear with a joke: “Talking about sex won’t make you pregnant; talking about funerals won’t make you dead.”
Reardon says many people neglect planning because they “don’t want to make a fuss,” spurred by a sense of self-deprecation that’s well-intentioned.
“George Washington wanted a simple burial, with no fanfare, no oration, no state funeral,” he said. “He ended up having over 300 funerals. That’s not what he wanted, but that’s what people needed. America was a fledgling nation. He was a war hero.”
Funerals are for the living, adds Randy Anderson, a funeral director who teaches funeral psychology at Jefferson State Community College in Birmingham, AL.
“Psychologically, a funeral gives family and friends a chance to talk about the person,” he said. “Studies show that a family moves faster through the grief process when a funeral is held. We’re not made to grieve alone.”
Anderson cherishes stories he heard at his own father’s funeral.
“My father had always kept a $100 bill in his pocket,” he said. “It was his way of being prepared to help people in trouble. At his funeral, I heard so many stories I’d never heard before from people who said my dad had given them $100 after a house burned down or after a death in the family.”
While many efforts have emerged in recent decades—such as The Conversation Project and Death Over Dinner—to reduce that fear and stigma, and to encourage people to talk openly about death and end-of-life wishes, it seems we have a ways to go before the process is an easier one.
A Big Buy
For many of us, a funeral will be the third-largest purchase we’ll ever make, exceeded only by buying a home or car. In 2021, the national median cost of a funeral with a viewing and burial was approximately $7,848 (or $6,971 for a funeral with cremation), according to a study by the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA.)
While homes and cars are typically purchased after comparison shopping and much planning, most funerals are arranged within days after a death, while the planner is in the fog of grief. Within hours of a death, the family must choose a funeral home or otherwise specify a place to send the remains.
Funerals pose a significant financial burden on many families. When arrangements are made “at need,” the burden is likely to be worse. Studies show that families who’ve discussed final arrangements prior to death incurred much lower costs than families that did not. Without time pressures, and without the presence of raw grief, consumers can ask for less expensive options, compare prices and clearly understand what is required versus what would be nice to have.
“When a person dies, there are about 125 decisions that have to be made almost immediately,” said Anderson, who is also a former president of the NFDA. “Will the deceased be buried or cremated? Where and when will the service take place? Who will speak? What music will be played?”
Most people making funeral decisions have no experience and no clear grasp of what’s involved.
All of this happens while the family is grieving and possibly grappling with trauma, family conflict or feelings of guilt, according to Rubin.
“People don’t shop around ahead of need,” she said. “So when somebody drops dead, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I need a burial plot,’ and ‘Oh my God, I need a funeral.’ And that is not the time to be shopping around if you want to compare prices and to be an informed consumer.”
Most people make these decisions with no experience. Many don’t even have a clear grasp of the basic components involved in funeral arrangements.
“We’ve had [older adult] clients who assumed they’d prepaid the bulk of the cost of a funeral, because they’d already purchased a cemetery plot,” said Carl Burlbaw, director of the Elder Financial Safety Center at the Senior Source, a nonprofit in Dallas. “They didn’t understand that there’s also the cost of a casket, a vault, opening and closing the grave, not to mention the cost of embalming and a funeral service.
Preplanning also ensures your wishes are followed and your spiritual or religious beliefs are honored. That helps a family avoid conflicts, according to Richard Paskin, managing partner at Funeralwise.com, a funeral planning website. If a parent dies without having expressed their wishes, he said, “One adult child wants to bury the deceased, another wants to cremate. One wants a no-frills funeral, the other wants a fancy one. With preplanning, you’ve at least taken some of the pressure off the family.”
Preplanning can help family members avoid last-minute scrambling by assembling information, such as details for the obituary or the names of chosen pallbearers. Pre-need planning is also key for solo agers—elders without children or surviving family members, who may not have an obvious heir to step in to handle arrangements.
Steps in Preplanning
Planning a funeral starts with two basic decisions: First, what do you want to do with your body? Today, families have a wide range of options: a traditional burial, cremation, green burial or burial at sea.
Secondly, what do you want the funeral service to entail? People may work with a funeral home or turn to online resources, such as Funeralwise.com, to explore their options. The NFDA offers RememberingALife.com, with a list of questions to consider for the funeral service, such as: “What music would you like played? Are there any special readings of poetry, scripture, etc. that you would like to have included? How might the location be decorated to reflect your life? What is the one thing you would want attendees to walk away knowing about you and who you are? Are there any special objects or photos you would want on display?”
Those who are religiously unaffiliated need to think creatively when there’s no church or clergyperson to provide a template for the funeral service, Martin notes. She’s been called on to organize and officiate at funerals for many unaffiliated friends.
“We gather at houses and bars, yoga studios and dance halls, and parks if the weather permits,” she said. “We bring food to share, cover memory tables with mementoes of our lost loved ones and spread out paper to write our grief. Folks share some songs, some poems, a prayer or two and multitudes of stories about the deceased.”
You can prepay a funeral home or buy funeral insurance.
The next step is to estimate the cost and plan how it will be paid.
Some expenses, such as the cemetery space, may be purchased in advance. Some people choose to prepay for a funeral, which involves making all or most of the decisions about it in consultation with a funeral director, then setting up prepayment, typically in monthly installments made directly to the funeral home. Depending on the plan, prepayment can lock in the price of some of the services or purchases involved in the funeral.
But buyers beware. Prepaid funeral plans aren’t well-regulated. While the Funeral Consumers Alliance advocates preplanning, it advises extreme caution in prepaying. If considering that option, ask what happens if the funeral home goes out of business, and whether the dollar value of the prepaid plan is transferable to another funeral home should you move before you die. Also, you’ll lose the price guarantee if your funeral ends up at another funeral home. Read the fine print.
Another option to prepare financially is funeral insurance—essentially, a life insurance policy that pays money upon your death to cover funeral, burial and other end-of-life expenses.
Without prepayment or insurance, the cost of a funeral is typically paid out of the proceeds of the deceased’s estate.
Informing Your Loved Ones
The final step of funeral preplanning: share your wishes, preferably in writing, with the family member or trusted friend who will be responsible for arrangements. Update them as needed. You can also file your wishes with the funeral home you’ve chosen.
It is possible to name a specific person to handle your funeral arrangements in your will. However, keep in mind that funeral plans are often made before the will is located. It’s important to let the people in your life know who you chose. It’s also possible to legally designate a funeral agent, a person who will handle your funeral arrangements, according to your wishes. This requires written documentation; laws vary by state. Ask an attorney or a local funeral home director for specific guidance.
Reardon cautions against expressing wishes “in a vacuum,” without realistic guidance on costs, logistics and applicable laws. He assisted the family of a Boston area man who served at a naval base near the Gulf of Mexico. The man wanted his ashes scattered on a beach there, thinking that would be an easy option for the family.
“But how hard is it to fly everyone to Texas, get the permits to carry the remains and then scatter them on the beach?” Reardon said. “What if not everyone could afford it?” The man’s simple wishes proved to be a headache.
Finally, in addition to mapping out your own plans, it’s important to encourage family members to express their wishes. That’s not an easy discussion, but Remembering A Life offers a page on how to start the conversation.
One Last Howl
Having seen how helpful planning is, Amy Martin has made detailed plans for her own funeral. But hers won’t look anything like her Methodist mother-in-law’s funeral.
She and her husband made plans to be cremated, with some of their ashes to be scattered at their Unitarian church’s memorial garden. A prepaid, permanent brass plaque there will memorialize them. Because nature has always been central to her spirituality, Martin designed an outdoor ritual to distribute her remaining ashes, with instructions to ensure it’s done in an environmentally responsible way. She has chosen the music and readings. Also, she wants attendees to howl when they scatter her ashes —something she’s had mourners do at friends’ funerals where she’s served as the officiant.
“Howling is a way to let out pent up emotional energy,” she said.
Planning also assures Martin that her earth-based spirituality will be honored at her funeral.
“To me, it’s a matter of caring for the people who will be left behind,” she said.
Freelance writer Mary Jacobs lives in Plano, TX, and covers health and fitness, spirituality, and issues relating to older adults. She writes for the Dallas Morning News, the Senior Voice, Religion News Service and other publications; her work has been honored by the Religion Communicators Council, the Associated Church Press and the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Visit www.MaryJacobs.com for more.