Funeral Planning Guide

Whether a death was sudden and unexpected or the final result of a long illness, planning a funeral is always a struggle. It can be a challenge to make decisions as quickly as required while struggling with grief and sorrow, and many people feel overwhelmed by the whole process. There are a number of steps that need to be completed before planning the actual funeral; this
funeral planning guide and checklist will help you understand what decisions need to be made and what you can do to make funeral planning easier and less expensive.

A Funeral Planning Checklist

Here is a list of the main tasks that you will need to perform when planning a funeral:

  1. Determine who is the legal next of kin or who has the legal power to make decisions about the funeral and final disposition.
  2. Find out if any pre-planning was done and if arrangements have already been made with any funeral homes.
  3. Determine how quickly the body needs to be moved and any other immediate needs.
  4. Gather all personal information about the deceased, including important documents.
  5. Choose a funeral director to work with, if desired and if required by your state.
  6. File for the death certificate, disposition permit, and burial transit permit, if needed.
  7. Choose the method of disposition.
  8. Place an obituary.
  9. Arrange the funeral service or memorial service, if you want to have one. (Skip to this section)This can require some or all of the following tasks:
    • Select clothing and other items that you would like the deceased to be buried with, if needed.
    • If the deceased will be buried, decide if you want an open or closed casket and whether or not you will hold a viewing so that others can come to pay their respects.
    • Find a location, such as a chapel, in which to hold the service.
    • Arrange transportation for the deceased and the family.
    • Contact a funeral celebrant or member of the clergy to lead the service, if desired.
    • Decide if the service will be open or private.
    • Choose pallbearers, if needed.
    • Arrange for any music that you want during the ceremony.
    • Determine who will speak during the funeral, and any special readings that will be included.
    • Consider what additional items are needed, such as photos or videos, a microphone for those who speak, chairs (if not provided), etc.
    • Plan the funeral reception, if you want to have one.
    • Publish the details about the service, if it will be open, and/or send out invitations to those you would like to attend.

The items in this checklist are listed more or less in order, but sometimes they may occur all at once or in a different order, depending on your specific circumstances. Many of the details on this funeral planning checklist can be handled by a funeral director, if you choose to work with one. The funeral director may gather information about the deceased for the death certificate and the obituary at the same time, for example.

If you choose not to work with a funeral director or arranger, you will need to organize the funeral completely yourself. You are legally required to work with a funeral director in the following states: Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, and New York.

Determine Who Has the Legal Right to Make Decisions

Before almost anything else in this funeral planning guide can be done, you need to know who has the legal right to make decisions about the deceased. This will depend, in part, on whether or not your loved one left instructions about what they wanted in a legal document, such as a will or Authorization for Final Disposition. Generally speaking, the choices made in such a document must be honored, even if the family disagrees.

In addition, in a number of states it is possible to designate a funeral agent. This individual has the authority to decide the disposition of the body, what type of funeral or memorial service will be held, and where (and if) the deceased should be buried. Depending on state laws, the individual designating the funeral agent may need to fill out an advance health care directive, health care power of attorney, or other document. You should speak to a lawyer in your state if you are interested in designating a funeral agent.

When no agent is designated and no final instructions are made, then the legal next of kin typically has the right to decide. Although there could be slight variations, the hierarchy is as follows: spouse, children, surviving parents, and then siblings. If none of these relatives are available, a court-appointed guardian or a person who is considered to be the most responsible party may be designated. All of these individuals must be over the age of 18 in order make legal decisions.

Review Any Advance Planning

One of the best things you can do to guide your funeral planning is to plan as much as you can in advance. While the location and cause of death can delay the process, most funerals take place within a week or less. Our Funeral Pre-Planning Checklist is a good place to begin. Even taking simple steps like discussing your loved one’s wishes with them and gathering all important documents in one place can make the planning process go more smoothly.

If pre-planning has already been done, it’s important that you know the details of those plans. There should be documentation, usually with the executor of the estate for the deceased or their lawyer, although you may find instructions with a funeral home or someone who was close with your loved one, like a minister. If you’re not sure who might have this information, reach out to any lawyers or estate planners. You might even look in a safety deposit box or other safe location to see if details have been recorded.

You may also want to call around to local funeral homes if you think a pre-arranged plan might be on file. This is particularly important if the plan has already been paid for. Even if no money has been spent, most of us want to follow our loved one’s wishes as much as we can.

Handle the Immediate Needs

Unfortunately, there are a number of decisions that may need to be made within just 24-48 hours of a loved one’s death. The police need to be notified; a hospital or other care facility will typically handle this, but you’ll need to do it if the death takes place elsewhere. Once your loved one’s body has been released, it may need to be transported to a funeral home or other location within one day. A funeral director can assist with this task, if you’ve chosen to work with one or if a plan has been arranged in advance; a care facility will also likely have recommendations.

Typically, the deceased will need to be refrigerated, embalmed, or buried within 24 hours. This requirement is why it’s vital to know who the legal funeral agent or next of kin is quickly — if the deceased did not want to be embalmed, for example, it’s important to know that in the first 24 hours. Knowing about any pre-paid or advance planning can also help prevent you from having to relocate the deceased more than once.

Gather personal information and important documents in one safe location.

Early in your funeral checklist, you should gather as much personal information about the deceased as possible. This may have been completed as part of any pre-planning, so talk to the deceased’s lawyer or estate planner. If you can put all of the information together in one list, you then only have that one document you need to consult when filling out most paperwork.

You are likely to need the following information about the deceased when planning the funeral:

  • Full legal name
  • Date and time of death
  • Contact information (name, address, phone number) for the certifying physician
  • Date and place of birth
  • Parents names, including mother’s maiden name
  • Parents birth states and counties
  • Social Security number
  • Marital status and spouse’s name
  • Occupation
  • Education level
  • Home address and how long they lived there
  • Military service
  • Disposition: preferred form, if known; place; and contact information for the person who has the right to control these decisions

In addition, you or the family of the deceased will need access to many important documents, including the will, estate planning documents, and any other written final wishes. In addition, make sure you know where to find items such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, military service records and/or discharge papers, health and life insurance policies, and Social Security records. While you may only need some of this information as part of the funeral plan, it will likely be needed in the future as you settle the estate.

Choose a Funeral Director

You are not required to work with a funeral director in most states and, even if you are, this individual may be more or less involved in the process depending on your needs. Most importantly, if you do decide to hire a funeral director, you want to work with someone with whom you feel comfortable. Generally speaking, funeral directors want to help you; they want to make the process of filing all of the necessary paperwork, planning and carrying out the funeral, and completing the disposition of the body as easy as possible.

Most professionals recommend that you comparison shop when getting to the funeral director part of your funeral planning checklist, and this is a good idea. It’s often easier said than done, however, especially when you’re struggling with grief.

Start by talking with your pastor, rabbi, or other local clergy to see if they have recommendations. They may be able to offer insight into those who they have worked with. You might ask friends and family members as well. Call or visit several funeral homes if possible, and ask a friend to either go with you or to join you in the conversation. Having someone by your side who can take notes and ask the tough questions can be exceptionally helpful.

Know Your Rights and Ask for a Price List

Laws about funerals and burials are different in each state. It’s smart to know which goods and services the law requires you to purchase and which are optional before you talk to any funeral home. The Funeral Rule is a set of guidelines enforced by the Federal Trade Commission that gives you specific rights, no matter where in the U.S. you live:

  1. Embalming is not required, except in very specific circumstances. Refrigeration is almost always an acceptable alternative.
  2. Funeral homes must provide you with prices over the phone and give you a written, itemized price list in person.
  3. You can purchase goods and services separately.
  4. You do not have to buy a package that includes items you do not want.
  5. A written casket price list must be provided on request before you see the caskets on display.
  6. You have the right to look at a price list for outer burial containers (burial vaults) that may be required by your cemetery before seeing them.
  7. You have the right to use a cremation urn or casket that you bought elsewhere.
  8. You are not required to use a casket for a cremation. Alternative containers must be made available.
  9. You have the right to receive a written explanation of any goods or services that you have to purchase because of cemetery or crematory requirements.
  10. The funeral home must give you a written statement including all goods and services that you’ve decided on, their price, and the total cost before you pay.

Learn more about the Funeral Rule and other tips on the FTC’s Shopping for Funeral Services page.

If any funeral home does not follow these legal requirements or if you don’t feel like they’re being honest with you, go somewhere else. Even if, ultimately, the funeral director is being honest and upfront, you have more important things to focus on than whether you’re going to regret your decision. Do your best to find someone who you are comfortable working with, who you feel takes your wishes and needs seriously, who doesn’t try to pressure you into buying things you don’t want, and who wants to help guide you to the best possible final result.

Prepare the Final Documents

If you are working with a funeral director, they will usually be your guide in filling out all the legal paperwork that accompanies a death. Among other filings, you will likely need a Pronouncement of Death or Registration of Death and a Disposition Permit, both of which will need to be filed your county recorder’s office.

Once these have been filed, you’ll be provided with a death certificate. You may also need a burial transit permit, giving you permission to move the body. A funeral director can help assure that the paperwork gets completed on time.

Determine the type of disposition.

If your loved one left a record of their final wishes for disposition, this should be followed as closely as possible. In some states, you are legally required to follow the instructions of the departed, unless there are reasonable reasons for not doing so. It would be reasonable not to spend an excessive amount of money on an extremely lavish funeral, for example, but not reasonable to decide on burial instead of cremation just because you prefer it.

Your most common options for disposition include burial (below or above ground), natural burial, cremation, burial or scattering at sea, and donation to science. Each has its own variations:

    • Burial options include traditional below-ground burial, above-ground interment in a mausoleum, and natural burial. Below-ground or soil burial is often considered most traditional in the U.S., and typically requires the purchase of a casket and a burial vault. Above-ground burial usually means placing the casket into a mausoleum, a structure designed to hold the remains of the deceased. Natural burial is similar to soil burial, but usually the body is not embalmed and the coffin or shroud is made of natural materials that break down in the soil.
    • Cremation can be performed using fire or water. Traditional cremation involves placing the deceased in a container that is then heated to a very high temperature. Water cremation, also called alkaline hydrolysis, uses a combination of water and lye to reduce the body to its basic components. In both cases, the remains are then pulverized and given to the family. Cremated remains — or cremains — are often kept in a cremation urn that is buried in a cemetery, placed in a columbarium at a cemetery or church, or kept in the home. In most places, it is also legal to scatter cremains in a natural area or bury them at sea. Less common practices, including sending cremains into space, are also possible.
  • In cases where families are donating a body to science, the deceased may be collected and transported to a medical school or research facility relatively quickly after death. It’s important to keep in mind that you often will not have any input into how the body is used. In these cases, be prepared that your loved one’s body will likely not be present at any funeral or memorial service.

The Funeral

Choose what type of ceremony to hold.

Decide if you wish to hold a traditional funeral with a graveside ceremony, a memorial service, a home funeral service, or another type of ceremony. Much of this decision may depend on whether the departed will be buried or cremated and what will be done with the remains. If the deceased has donated their body to science, for example, a graveside ceremony will not be possible.

The order of service for even a traditional funeral service may vary, depending on whether or not it is a specific religious tradition, but often includes the following:

  1. Musical prelude as guests arrive
  2. Processional – entrance of the casket, celebrant, and family
  3. Introduction and welcome
  4. Music or hymns
  5. Prayers and/or readings
  6. Musical selections
  7. Eulogy and/or reading of the obituary
  8. Tributes to the deceased
  9. Thanks and acknowledgements
  10. Viewing of the deceased
  11. Final prayers and benediction

Music is often included between each element in the list above to make the transitions flow more smoothly. A solo may be performed before and/or after the eulogy as well.

Read our article, “Thoughts to Consider When Planning a Funeral or Memorial Service” for more advice.

Open or closed casket?

In most cases, you will have the option of having an open casket during a viewing, visitation, and/or the funeral service. Many people believe that having an open casket gives the family and friends a sense of closure, and a final opportunity to say goodbye to a loved one who is at peace. Others feel uncomfortable with the practice, however, and there are some circumstances in which it is not possible.

If you feel that many mourners won’t be comfortable with an open casket at the funeral itself, consider holding a viewing before the funeral so those who want to can come pay their respects. The casket is typically open during a viewing, which can be held at the funeral parlor, a chapel, or in the home of a family member.

Questions about wakes, visitations, and viewings? Need etiquette tips? Read our article, “Funeral Visitation and Wake Etiquette Tips” to learn more.

Open or Private Service?

A private service limits attendance to only those who are invited, while an “open” service is open for anyone. There are a number of reasons why you might want to keep a funeral or memorial service private — since it allows you to limit who can be present, it can allow you to avoid uncomfortable family situations, honor certain religious customs, and may allow the family to spend less money on the service. It’s also possible that the departed specifically asked for the funeral to be private. If the deceased was well known, a public service might draw too much attention or prevent family and close friends from saying goodbye in a respectful way.

An open service, on the other hand, allows everyone who knew the deceased the opportunity to join in the mourning process. Private funerals can leave people feeling left out and could lead to hurt feelings. To avoid this, you may want to keep the funeral or interment private, then hold a later memorial service that is open.

If you do decide to have a private service, you’ll need to decide who to invite and prepare and send those invitations. Make sure to note in the obituary or notice that the service is private or is a “family funeral.” You might even postpone publishing the funeral announcement until after the service, noting when the funeral was held and inviting the public to any future memorial services.

Select clothing and other personal items

With any service that involves the body of the deceased being present — whether with an open casket or not — you will need to pick out clothing and any items that you’d like your departed loved one to be buried with. Many people choose a special outfit, such as a formal suit or nice dress; although, favorite clothing is a good option. You should also consider if there are any religious customs that need to be followed when dressing the deceased.

Most often, the deceased is prepared and dressed at the funeral home. If you’re planning the funeral yourself and choosing to care for the departed at home, you’ll need to understand the basic procedures for appropriate hygiene and preservation, as well as washing, dressing, and cooling the body. It’s a good idea to speak to a home funeral consultant about these issues.

While there are very few rules about what a person can be buried with, traditional cremation does have some restrictions. Families can usually dress the body as they would for a burial, but most personal items are removed from the casket and returned to the family before the cremation takes place for safety reasons. Any metal that remains after the cremation, such as from dental work or parts of the casket, will be separated from the cremains and is usually recycled.

Find a location for the service

It’s common to hold a traditional funeral in a place of worship or in a chapel or other facility provided by the funeral home. If the deceased was not religious or you simply prefer a less traditional location, you might consider a private event space or even a hotel conference room. You’ll need to be aware of the challenges of bringing the coffin in and out, however, as well as the public nature of some locations. All of these locations may require a rental fee. Home funerals have also grown in popularity in recent years, and they can be a wonderful way to remember the departed in comfort and privacy.

If the body will not be present, finding a location for the service may be a little less challenging. Memorial services and life celebrations often do not face the same time constraints that a funeral requires, so you may find that it’s easier to reserve a location. In addition, you might consider reserving space in a park or another outdoor space, as long as the weather is nice.

Arrange transportation for the deceased and the family

This entry in the funeral planning checklist is often handled by the funeral director. If you’re having a home funeral or doing all of the funeral planning on your own, you’ll likely a hearse or other appropriate car to transport the body where it needs to go — often to the funeral service, to the burial location, and/or to the crematory. State laws on transporting a body vary, so do your homework before coming up with a plan. Keep in mind that transporting a body across state lines can raise additional issues.

The immediate family and, often, close friends of the deceased will all need reliable transportation from the service to the cemetery. Often, a limousine or luxury sedan will be rented for this purpose. Since these vehicles are often only used for the journey to the cemetery, make sure that anyone who travels this way has transportation home or to the funeral reception.

Choose a celebrant and facilitator

Both traditional and less formal services will need one person to facilitate the event, making sure that everything runs smoothly and that all details have been coordinated. This individual could be a family member or friend, or you could hire someone to fill this role. This organizer will also need to contact a funeral celebrant or member of the clergy to lead the service, if desired. In some cases, the celebrant may help guide the service as well. Although, their involvement can vary. You may need to pay the celebrant, and it is customary to offer an honorarium in appreciation of their service.

Choose pallbearers, if needed

In a traditional funeral, the pallbearers carry or escort the casket into the venue at the beginning of the funeral and remove it at the completion of the ceremony. They may also carry the casket from the hearse to the gravesite.

Being a pallbearer is a great honor, but it can also be a very emotional task. Choose six to eight people — men or women — who are family or friends of the deceased and who feel able to handle the responsibilities. If there are individuals who you would like to honor with the role of pallbearer but who cannot serve due to physical disability or other concern, they can be made honorary pallbearers and asked to walk behind the casket.

Music and flowers

Most funerals and memorial services include music, and the choice of what to play is often influenced by the personality of the deceased and the location of the service. There may be restrictions on music for funerals held in a church or other place of worship, for example. Many families incorporate music that was meaningful to the deceased as well, particularly as part of the arrival or exit.

Determine if you want live music or recorded, and which songs will play when. You may want to have instrumental music play between speakers during the service, for example, and select two or three pieces to highlight before, during, and after the funeral. Live performances can be especially meaningful, particularly when they are given by friends or family. Keep in mind that the overwhelming emotion of the day may be too much for some performers, however.

Many people like to send flowers to the family of the deceased, or to the funeral home handling the service. This is usually welcome; although, typically only the family’s flowers are placed at the front of the church or event space during the service. Funeral flowers are typically large, formal displays that can be placed on top of the casket or on a nearby easel. Some of the most common flower options include lilies, roses, chrysanthemums, gladioli, and carnations. White is most common, but any color is acceptable.

Note that, in some religions, it is not appropriate to include flowers in the funeral service. When planning a funeral, speak to your religious leader or the celebrant about whether or not flowers should be included.

Readings and who will speak

The number of speakers or readers and their role will vary depending on your funeral arrangements checklist. If you want a formal religious service, for example, you may need one or two individuals to read from the Scriptures and someone to give the eulogy. Some funeral plans include multiple tributes from family members and friends, or may even have a brief period during the service in which anyone can stand up and say a few words. When planning a funeral, determine who will speak and what they will say, whether that’s a specific piece of Scripture, a poem or other reading, or something less formal.

If you do plan to allow loved ones to choose their own readings or to give unplanned tributes, make sure that you set a few guidelines. Keep the location in mind — if the reading isn’t appropriate for a church, for example, then save it for the wake or another event. Set a time limit as well. Ultimately, you will need to know how long the funeral is expected to last, and an open-ended time for tributes can mean that other portions of the service need to be rushed.

Need help planning what to say? Get more tips from our guides What Can You Say? Writing and Delivering a Eulogy and What to Say at a Funeral – and What Not to Say.

Additional items

The location where you choose to hold the funeral should be upfront about what equipment it can offer, and a church or funeral chapel is likely to already be prepared with a microphone, chairs, and other necessities. If you’re having the service elsewhere, check to find out what you’ll need. You may not need a mic and speakers for a small memorial service at the local park, for example, but you should make sure there are a few chairs for those who cannot stand during the entire event.

Many funerals include a guest book for attendees to leave a message of condolence. Include extra paper and pens, just in case. You might also want photos or a video of the deceased to display as a tribute. Make sure you have all necessary items ahead of time, and that they can be set up before the service.

The post-funeral reception

While holding a reception after the funeral is not required, many people find it to be a good way to share memories and give each other support in a more casual environment. A reception can be held in a rented event space, but many are held in the homes of family members, in church halls, in local restaurants, or in the parlor of the funeral home.

Depending on the type of reception you’d like to have, you can ask family and friends to contribute food and drinks, holding a pot-luck. Some families choose to have the event catered, or to order deli platters or other pre-made dishes from a grocery store or restaurant. If you have the reception at a restaurant, a buffet-style setup is often easiest for guests.

Remember to take religious considerations into account if the deceased and/or family of the deceased followed any specific traditions.

Placing an obituary and funeral details

While you will want to reach out to family and friends as soon as possible after your loved one passes away, placing an obituary allows you to spread the word more widely. This is an important part of funeral planning because it typically provides information about the date and location of any funeral or memorial service. If you’re working with a funeral home, they will often coordinate sending out the obituary to local newspapers and online sources, and many can guide you if you’re not sure what to say.

Planning a funeral can take a lot of time, effort, and emotional resources. It’s best to work with someone, whether it be a funeral director, a funeral planner, or a friend or family member who can help carry some of the burden. Ask for help.

While it’s understandable to want to send your loved one off with the perfect final service, we don’t live in a perfect world. Be kind to yourself. Staying organized and planning ahead as much as possible can help you arrange a beautiful memorial.

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