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Funeral pre-planning: a practical matter

The death of a loved one is a devastating event. Whether the end of life comes suddenly or after months or years of illness, the finality of death leaves survivors shocked, saddened and exhausted. Yet the grieving family, still trying to comprehend their loss and express their sorrow, must immediately begin making decisions and planning the funeral – finding an undertaker, choosing a casket, buying a cemetery plot, providing obituary information, notifying friends and extended family, choosing funeral flowers, arranging the service and selecting music... and the list goes on.

The need to make funeral arrangements is a cruel blow under such distressing circumstances – an unnecessary burden that could be avoided by pre-need funeral planning.

Planning one's own funeral

Although facing the inevitability of one's own death may be perceived as disturbing, there are many reasons people choose to arrange their own funerals. Planning one's own funeral is a final act of love toward the family. People who plan their own funerals relieve their loved ones of a tremendous burden at the time of death by:

  • removing any doubts about the type of funeral the deceased would have wanted.
  • making sound, unemotional decisions about the expense and financing of the funeral.
  • allowing the family to focus on their grief and take care of themselves.

Another reason to consider planning your own funeral is to ensure that your wishes are carried out. If you decide to arrange the details of your funeral, here are some of the things you'll want to consider:

  • Funeral details. Cremation or burial, casket or urn? Do you have a mortuary preference? Do you have favorite songs, prayers or readings to be included in the funeral service? Who will take part (e.g. pallbearers, clergy, eulogist, singer)?

  • Memorial gifts. Do you have a favorite charity to receive memorial donations? Do you have preferences regarding flowers at the funeral?

  • Cost of the funeral. When families must make funeral arrangements immediately after death, they tend to make emotional decisions, which may be very costly. By letting them know your wishes in advance, you relieve them of the responsibility of making those decisions.

Keep in mind that pre-planning doesn't require pre-paying. Although pre-payment is one option for covering funeral expenses, consumer groups generally advise against paying in advance due to the risks involved. Instead, you may wish to designate savings or proceeds from life insurance or burial insurance to pay funeral costs.

Put your funeral plan in writing, and be sure to provide copies to your family and your attorney. Don't include your funeral wishes in your will, and don't keep them in a safe deposit box – in either case, they may not be discovered until after the funeral has taken place.

Pre-planning the funeral of a loved one

But what if your loved one has a terminal illness and no arrangements have been made? If you're the one who will plan the funeral, consider doing so in advance. Again, the thought of planning a funeral while your family member is still alive may be troubling. But as anyone who has experienced planning funerals both ways – i.e. immediately following a death, as well as in advance – can tell you, the latter is far less traumatic. Planning a funeral for someone dear to you is an act of love and respect. By choosing a funeral home or burial casket and arranging funeral details in advance, you will be in a better position to make sound decisions and to care for yourself when the death occurs.

A final note on funeral directors

Most funeral directors are honest, trustworthy professionals. However, even the most ethical and compassionate funeral director faces two conflicting interests: while he is dedicated to serving the needs of his clients, he also makes his living by selling funeral goods and services. That's why, before you begin to plan a funeral, it's important to know your rights under the Funeral Rule, a consumer protection enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The following are some important provisions of the Funeral Rule:

  • You have the right to choose the funeral goods and services you want and decline the ones you don't (with some exceptions).  

  • The funeral director must provide, in writing, a general price list that states your right to choose or decline funeral goods and services.

  • If state or local law requires you to buy any particular item, the funeral provider must disclose the requirement on the price list and cite the applicable law.

  • The funeral provider may not charge a fee for, or refuse to handle, a casket you bought elsewhere.

  • A funeral provider who offers cremations must not require the purchase of a traditional casket for a cremation. 

For more information on the Funeral Rule, visit the Federal Trade Commission website.

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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Funerals: everything you need to know section helpful too.

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