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All funerals are planned. Some well, others not. Yet we all know we’ll need a funeral. Some studies have revealed that as few as 22% of Americans have planned their funerals. Carmen and I started CarePlanIt because of how few Americans “Plan” for end-of-life issues. Thinking about our future mortality is scary. We explain it here. Luckily, funeral planning is easy. We explain it in this article.
The Quickest & Simplest Ways To Start Funeral Planning
Funeral planning is emotional. However, we all need to do it. Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to do it well; you just have to do the basics. Whatever your wishes are, the two tips below will get you started.
Quick Tip 1 – Religion
If you’re religious in any way, contact your local Church, Synagogue or Mosque. Ask for a guide or a consultation on funeral planning. If they cannot assist, ask them for a referral to someone who will. This is their job. They will help.
Quick Tip 2 – Video Your Wishes
At the very least, write down and videotape your wishes. Date it. Store this record in a safe place. Then tell your children, a loved one, friend or neighbor where that record is stored. Tell two people, just in case. Your wish can be as simple as I want to be cremated and my ashes shared by those that want them and the remainder (or a small amount) poured over Pretty Lake.
The Funeral Industry
The funeral home industry was once represented by thousands of family-run funeral homes owned or contracted with thousands of family-run cemeteries. Most after-death funerals are traditional affairs where the family holds a religious service followed by burial in the ground. However, today the funeral home industry is now known as the death care industry or death care services industry. The changes have been dramatic.
Large players now own lots of funeral homes, cemeteries, and crematoriums. For example, the largest has 2,000 locations and 25,000 employees. Other changes include a move toward more environmentally friendly (green burials) burial options, comprehensive service options (service options, plots, caskets, flowers, placing obituaries, etc.), preplanned services (getting people to prepurchase their services), and digital service options (online signup, service selection, and purchase, form completion, etc.).
Parts of A Funeral
There are many aspects of funeral planning you’ll need to consider. However, there are three major areas to understand.
We present the issues below to help you understand your options.
Burial or Cremation
One major industry change involves cremation. There are now more cremations than body burials.
When people think of cremation, they mostly think of direct cremation. This is when the deceased is transported to a crematorium and cremated. The crematorium then gives the family the ashes. The family can then bury, scatter, or keep them.
States regulate cremations and crematoriums. Before cremation, there is usually a waiting period of at least forty-eight hours. This allows government officials time to complete the required procedures, authorizations, and forms. During this time, the body is usually refrigerated. Some families perform activities that require the body, like performing rights of passage and saying goodbye (to the actual body). Crematoriums are not set up to store a body for prolonged periods. If the body needs longer-term preservation, it usually is sent to a funeral home or cemetery.
The cremation process itself involves placing the body in a casket or container in a cremation chamber. The chamber heats up to a temperature capable of turning all the body parts to ash (around 1,500 degrees), and the body remains in the chamber for several hours. After a few hours of cooling, the ashes can be removed. They generally weigh between 3 and 10 pounds.
These ashes are then placed in a container or urn and passed to the family or designated cemetery or funeral home. The final resting place might include scattering the ashes, an indoor or outdoor mausoleum, keeping the urn in the home of a loved one, burying the urn in a family burial plot or cemetery, or a combination of these options.
Funeral Home To Crematorium
There are also options where the funeral home gets the body first, prepares it for a funeral home visitation of some sort, and then sends the body to a crematorium for cremation. The crematorium can then send the ashed back to the cemetery for burial or to the family for other options.
NOTE: A few crematoriums have agreements with religions (e.g., Buddhism, etc.) that allow for family members to accompany the body into the cremation chamber and even press the button that starts the conveyor system that puts the body into the chamber. If this is something you’d be uncomfortable with, check with whoever is arranging the funeral to make sure you understand the process.
A traditional burial involves a body preserved for burial via embalming, a casket, a cemetery plot or crypt, and the gravesite’s opening and closing. People with family plots, people that want to be buried near deceased relatives, families committed to a specific cemetery, and religious people often choose traditional burials. Traditional cremation involves the cremation of the body and an urn. A cremated body can also be buried or placed in a crypt.
Before deciding between these options, it’s essential to ask some basic questions.
Once you know what options you want, you need to make sure you select funeral homes and cemeteries that support these decisions. Some religious cemeteries have specific requirements for burials. Some cemeteries may not have the resources to handle your desired funeral service.
The Burial Process
A funeral home or cemetery can perform a variety of services for the deceased and the deceased family. The deceased, if pre-planned, or responsible family members if no plans were made, identifies the funeral home or cemetery and the services desired. After death, they contact the responsible party, explain what will or can be done, the costs, and the timing. They should explain all the details, fees, and timing to the family.
Common sequences involve picking up the body, washing the body, and disinfecting the body. This shows respect for the deceased and protects the staff from infection. Next, they prepare the body according to the contracted services. These include:
Preparation for a funeral may also require choices concerning clothes (some religions mandate certain types of burial garments), jewelry, glasses, and mementos (some people are buried with special mementos). The funeral director will ask you about your preferences and ask that you bring the clothes, jewelry, and mementos to include in the burial.
Types of Services
A relative in New England had what I’ve always thought of as the traditional funeral. The deceased passed in the hospital. The funeral home picked up the body. They embalmed the body for a wake (viewing of the body). The wake took place over three evenings at the funeral home. People stopped by, paid their respects, often sharing memories and stories about the deceased. On the day of the funeral, we met at the funeral home. Next, we drove to the deceased’s Church. At the church, we had a traditional Catholic Funeral Mass. Then we all caravanned behind the hearse to the cemetery where we held a Rite of Committal graveside service.
Traditional funeral services involve (1) a present body, (2) a service at a church, funeral home, or cemetery, and (3) a burial (can be a body or the ashes of the body if cremated). Generally, a religious figure leads the service, friends and family attend, songs are played, a eulogy is delivered (traditional Catholic services do not have a eulogy at mass), and family and friends share memories. A hearse leads the car procession to the gravesite, and the deceased is buried.
Protestants and Catholics call the graveside service a committal service because the deceased loved ones accompany the deceased to their final resting place to await the Lord’s call to resurrection. Most religions have a version of this graveside service. The deceased is laid to rest. Close family and friends participate in the burial process with prayers and other rituals (placing stones on the gravesite, shoveling dirt into the grave, placing flowers near the grave, etc.).
A graveside service may be the only service the family selects. Or it can be a component in the overall funeral process.
Simple viewings are when a body is available for viewing. Usually at a funeral home who has prepared the body (usually via embalming). Other names for viewings include funeral visitations, calling hours, and reviewal. It generally takes place in a funeral home, church, or family home. It occurs before the funeral, usually the night before. A viewing combined with a service is a wake.
Wakes are social gatherings where a viewing is combined with a Vigil service (or something similar). Usually, it’s the night before the funeral. The body is prepared by the funeral home and made available for viewing at the funeral home, church, or family home.
The family and community are encouraged to attend the Vigil, where they mourn the loss together. They look to God’s word for hope and faith. A traditional Vigil consists of:
Less formal wakes may have simple prayers and mainly consist of shared memories from family, friends, and community
A memorial service is like a traditional funeral without the body. However, there is a wide range of what “traditional” can mean. Generally, the “traditional” service will follow the deceased (or the deceased’s family’s wishes) within the confines of their religion or allowances of the funeral home and cemetery.
There are often issues surrounding the availability of the body or the availability of key family members that lead families to hold a memorial service. A service can be held without the body. At a time able to accommodate family members.
Celebration of Life
Although celebrations of life can be similar to an actual funeral, they are generally informal events that celebrate a deceased’s life. Attendees talk about the deceased, share their memories, and present biographical facts often unknown to the general community or extended family. The body is unnecessary. They take place at hotels, senior living facilities, family homes, parks, and other venues.
Some of our members have shared stories of a loved one’s untimely death. The death occurs when other families are unavailable (e.g., illness, out of the country, tending to other family members, etc.). They feel guilty about holding important events without these family members but do not want to delay a burial. There may be religious, financial, or other reasons that a family member simply chooses to bury the loved one. It is also a common option during a pandemic. Or when it’s too dangerous to hold a traditional service.
We call these a direct burial. It usually involves no graveside service or a very simple one. Burials like these are often followed by a memorial or a celebration of life service, at a date convenient for the family.
Scattering refers to what’s done with the deceased’s ashes. After cremation, the family gets the deceased’s ashes. Sometimes, the deceased asks that some of these ashes be scattered over a favorite place. Often family members take keepsakes consisting of the ashes.
The family may also choose to distribute some of the ashes over a lake, ocean or mountain. A scattering ceremony involves attaching a ceremony to the scattering. These can be elaborate ceremonies resembling a funeral or more informal events involving family and close friends. The ceremony often consists of sharing memories of the deceased and short prayers or spiritual readings, singing songs, or playing songs.
Open or Closed Casket
Caskets can be open or closed. There are also variations, including an open casket for general viewing before the funeral but a closed casket at the actual funeral. Another variation is an open casket just for the family before the funeral, then a closed casket for the rest of the funeral.
Burial With a Body or Ashes
Cemeteries generally bury bodies. Most will also bury ashes. Although some religions have specific rules about handling and burying a body, most cemeteries are willing to bury a body or the ashes of a cremated body. Many faiths also authorize the burying of ashes or turn their heads and allow the interment of ashes. Some religious ceremonies involve showing a body and then cremating the body for burial.
You can purchase a planning guide with more details here.
Preparation & Transportation of the Body
|Fee for a basic service /|
A funeral home or the services provided by fall under what’s called a “basic service fee.” This fee covers what the funeral director does in terms of meeting with you, organizing your purchased services, and overseeing the services you select. This is a kind of administration and service fee.
|Clergy – celebrant /|
The person that conducts the funeral service.
|Use of the staff and facility for the funeral /|
Staff supporting a funeral.
Embalming is the technical process of using chemicals to preserve the body and keep it from decomposing.
Costs for cremation.
Upon death, the body needs to be transported to the funeral home (or crematorium) and often from the funeral home to the gravesite.
They come in all varieties. From cardboard to gold plated.
They come in all varieties. From cardboard to gold plated.
|Grave – plot – cemetery plot|
This is for the plot, often called a cemetery plot. This is where the body is laid to rest. There are wide variances in this cost based on geography. Some plots in large urban areas (cities) now cost more than $50,000 (often requiring the purchase of a specific space that can accommodate a family). Rural areas or areas outside of the city price at the lower end of the range.
|Print Package – memorial – funeral print package|
These are printed materials (sometimes online materials) like funeral programs, memorial cards, memorial bookmarks, thank you cards, directory, and memorial poster(s).
|Obituary/Announcement – Print|
Placing obituary and/or funeral announcement in a print publication.
|Obituary/Announcement – Online|
Placing obituary and/or funeral announcement online.
Three Types Of Planning Funerals
People make funeral plans in three ways: planned, planned with problems, and unplanned. Planned funerals identify and prepay for the deceased wants. They also include all the details. Funerals with problems have problems. Unplanned is just that, unplanned.
Well Planned Funerals
When the deceased, or the deceased and their spouse, have made funeral plans, we consider it a well-planned funeral. Well-made plans include both mortuary and cemetery arrangements. They cover the disposition of the body (burial, cremation, etc.), burial containers (caskets, urns, etc.), a place for the service and/or viewing, a cemetery plot, flowers, and a religious leader to conduct the service. In addition, thy’re usually prepaid,
Poorly Planned Funerals
Poorly planned funerals are those that omit key components of a funeral. There may be no identified gravesite or how to accommodate a first or second spouse. Allocated funds may be too little or fail to explain how to use them. Also, the decision to bury or cremate may be unknown.
No Funeral Plans
Sometimes there are no funeral plans. This creates lots of problems. Luckily, CarePlanIt has a guide on what to do.
Where To Get Planning Help
When it comes to death, and related issues, religions and religious leaders are among the most competent. As a best practice, Carmen and I always recommend that you utilize the experience and expertise of your religious leaders. They are experts at births, deaths, marriages, and passages. If you or your loved one is religious or would have sought out religious traditions, use your religious leaders and community for guidance, support, and help.
From administering last rights to preparing the body, religious leaders know the religious laws that your loved one chose to follow. They have specific experience, knowledge, and training in these areas. They’re also able to provide comfort and support. Religious leaders and the community members who help them also know local area funeral homes, mortuaries, and cemeteries.
This can be especially important when a loved one dies without funeral plans. Planned or unplanned, turning to religious leaders for support and guidance is a best practice. When everyone is alive and capable of planning, religious leaders can help you understand your religious traditions, select burial options and solve family-related challenges. And when death occurs, they are there to help you execute on the plans they helped you put in place.
Other Resources On Funeral Planning
Before moving on, review the steps that take place after death here.
An interesting article on funeral planning here.