Funeral Planning Guide – What To Do In Advance

No matter the circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one, planning the funeral is always difficult. There are many preparations that you can make in advance, however, to remove some of the stress and anxiety.

Use this funeral pre-planning checklist to make sure that you know what your loved ones want and to make your own preferences known. Talking about end of life issues can be uncomfortable, but knowing that you are giving your loved one the final memorial that they wanted can be a tremendous comfort when dealing with the pain and sorrow of death.

A funeral pre-planning checklist

Talk to your loved ones about their final wishes

As difficult as the conversation may be, advanced funeral planning is important. Knowing what your loved one wanted — and making your own wishes known — can be very helpful in guiding the funeral planning process. We often want to give our loved one the sendoff that they deserve, but that’s difficult if you’re not sure if they would have preferred a quiet, private ceremony or a traditional, formal service.

Discussing these issues with your loved ones in advance can also ease a great deal of distress and potential strife down the road, particularly if family members have differing opinions about what the deceased wanted. You may also have the opportunity to better understand why your loved one has certain requests, allowing you to be more comfortable with the final plans. It is possible that what your loved one wants can’t really be done or may be very expensive. This is a good time to discuss alternatives.

Find out if your loved one has preferences for the funeral itself, such as specific readings and music they would like. Would they like certain friends or family members to participate in the service? Make sure that everything is written down and keep these wishes in a safe location, such as with the person’s will.

Shop in advance

In addition to knowing what your loved one wants, a great deal of practical advance funeral planning can be done, especially if you are planning a funeral for someone who is elderly or ill. Shopping for memorials, caskets, or urns before they are needed gives you the opportunity to compare styles and prices without time constraints and added grief. If you haven’t already discussed burial, cremation, or other options, shopping for memorials in advance may also pen up the conversation about what your loved one would like done with their remains after death.

If your loved one is capable of participating and feels comfortable doing so, the act of choosing these memorial items in advance may help them feel like they have some control over what will happen in the future. Perhaps as importantly, knowing that the cremation urn that you choose together is what they wanted and is inscribed with a meaningful message that they composed themselves can be a comfort after the person’s passing.

Decide who is responsible.

Either before or after your loved one’s passing, it’s helpful to choose one individual who is the designated contact for the funeral home (if you use one) and any other officials, chaplains, or vendors that you may be working with. This will help avoid spreading conflicting information or decisions being made that have not been agreed upon by the family.

If your loved one knows who they would like to designate to make decisions about the funeral, this information can be included in their will or another notarized legal document. This designation is typically legally binding and must be honored. The exact guidelines may vary by state, however, so you may want to check with an estate planning lawyer to make sure that you are following the law.

In cases where no instructions have been left, the final decision is typically up to the next of kin, with the following hierarchy: spouse, adult children (with majority agreement required), surviving parents (must agree), siblings (again, the majority must agree on decisions), a court-appointed guardian, and finally a person who is considered to be the most responsible party. There may be some variation by state, and each state has its own laws about who makes the final decision in cases where all of the legally responsible parties cannot come to an agreement.

Deciding who makes this decision in advance through funeral pre-planning can potentially save a great deal of disagreement and stress when emotions are running high.

Be familiar with your rights.

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. Understanding your rights in advance of planning the funeral can help eliminate unexpected challenges and frustrating delays.

In many states, you are not required to hire a funeral director and can handle all arrangements and paperwork yourself. As of 2018, however, nine states do require the involvement of a funeral director for at least some tasks, such as filing the death certificate or arranging for the body to be transported. These states include Alabama, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, and New York.

Embalming is almost never legally required, but this may depend on the specific circumstances. If the body will be transported out of state, for example, or if the burial or cremation will not take place within a day or two, either embalming or refrigeration may be necessary. It’s important to know if your loved one would prefer not to be embalmed so that the necessary arrangements can be made quickly, if possible.

No state requires that you use a casket for cremation. Federal law requires that you be allowed to choose an alternative container, such as one made of unfinished wood or cardboard, if you so choose.

If you are planning a home funeral, advance preparation is even more important. You’ll need to know your rights in your state and feel comfortable caring for your dead at home. Home funerals have grown in popularity in recent years after becoming less common during the 20th century. As a result, you may feel pressure from people who don’t understand why you would choose this method of honoring the deceased. Learning all that you can in advance can help eliminate any of your own confusion and may make you feel more confident in your choice.

Find a funeral director that you’re comfortable with and ask for a price list.

In The Funeral Rule, federal law requires that funeral directors provide you with pricing information on their services, as well as that you be allowed to buy only those arrangements that you want. You must be allowed to purchase goods (caskets, cremation urns) and services (a memorial service) separately, and to buy caskets or urns elsewhere. The law also requires that you be given a written statement of what you are buying and the cost of each item before you pay.

While these requirements are often more important after your loved one has passed away, it can be helpful to begin talking to funeral directors well in advance of planning a funeral. Find someone who you are comfortable working with and who is open and honest about their services and their prices. Most funeral directors want to help you through your time of grief and assist with the difficult decisions that need to be made. Even the best funeral home can misunderstand a client’s wishes, however, and those struggling with a death can make decisions that they later regret.

Finding a funeral director who you are comfortable working with doesn’t mean that you need to pre-pay for their services. Most are more than happy to discuss your needs in advance and to keep your information on file. For a variety of reasons, pre-payment is often not the best decision; if your loved one passes away in another state, for example, you may need to find someone there to handle the arrangements. But working out many of the details in advance and feeling confident that your loved one’s wishes are being followed can help relieve some of the stress of funeral planning.

Set money aside to pay for funeral services.

Funerals can be very expensive, and many people end up spending around $10,000 including the service, casket, and burial. While pre-paying for funeral arrangements is not recommended by most professionals, you can set money aside in a special trust or savings account specifically to pay funeral costs.

Each state has its own rules about these accounts, which may be called Payable on Death (POD) accounts, Informal Trusts, or Totten Trusts. The basic idea, however, is that the account allows you to set aside a relatively limited amount of money that is specifically designated to pay for your funeral. While you are alive, you have complete access to the account and can add money or take it out as needed. When you pass away, the money in the account is given to your designated beneficiary without going through probate.

There are other options for saving in advance for a funeral, including regular savings accounts, life insurance policies, and funeral insurance. While any of these options can work, they often come with drawbacks. Savings accounts, for example, accrue interest that is taxable and — if it’s not a joint account — will need to go through probate. Burial or funeral insurance can ultimately cost as much in premiums as they pay out.

Gather personal information and important documents in one safe location.

As you’re discussing your loved one’s final wishes, gather as much personal information as possible. Ultimately, having this information on hand will make filling out any paperwork after their passing much easier. You’ll need general information like date and location of birth, Social Security number, and full legal name. In addition, you’ll likely need access to the following documents:

  • Final will and testament
  • Estate planning documents
  • Additional written final wishes
  • Birth certificates
  • Marriage certificate
  • Military service records and/or discharge papers
  • Health and life insurance policies
  • Social Security records.

Other information that you may need to know after your loved one has passed away includes their father’s name, mother’s maiden name, address at time of death, place of death, occupation, and level of education. Avoid scrambling to pull all of this information together while dealing with so many other concerns by being prepared in advance.

The benefits of a funeral pre-planning checklist

While planning a funeral is never easy, no matter when you do it, doing as much as you can in advance may help relieve a great deal of pressure and stress. A few uncomfortable conversations now may leave you feeling more confident after your loved one’s passing, knowing that you’re honoring their memory in the way they wanted and letting you focus on experiencing your grief and beginning the healing process.

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