Four Steps of Funeral Planning
Planning a Funeral - 4 Steps
So you’ve never planned a funeral before? You might be daunted by the choices, intimidated by the commercial funeral industry, unsure of the “right” thing to do. Like many, you might not know where to begin or what questions to ask. The multi-billion-dollar American funeral industry has worked hard to confuse us and lay expensive obstacles in our path, but honoring our dead doesn’t have to be complicated or costly. It’s your choice whether to have a simple disposition or a more elaborate funeral. Your taste, beliefs, and budget should dictate the type of funeral you arrange. You have no obligation to satisfy anyone else’s idea of what’s right or proper. The following steps will help you plan a funeral for yourself or for someone else.
Funeral planning is a family matter
Funeral planning starts at home. Just as most families discuss weddings, home buying, college, and other major life events, so should they discuss funerals. Death will come to each of us, no matter how long we put off discussing it. Avoiding the topic won’t stave off death, but it will make the funeral more difficult, and likely more expensive, for survivors.
Families who make funeral plans tell us that these conversations made a painful time easier to bear. Many people say they found great meaning and peace carrying out thoughtful funeral plans that honored their family members in an appropriate and affordable way.
There are as many ways to honor the dead as there are cultures, religions and budgets. Your personal philosophy or faith should guide your choices. No religion or philosophy dictates how much money should be spent on a funeral, and no belief system encourages burdensome spending. Families can choose simple arrangements, such as a cremation with no ceremony, or more elaborate ones, such as a long wake before a funeral. They can use no coffin at all or they can choose a handcrafted oak casket. They can keep the body at home for a very private visitation or they can hold a public viewing at a funeral home.
Whatever you choose, be sure it’s based on what’s meaningful to you, not on what you think “the community” expects you to do. No amount of money, great or small, can express how we feel about those who have died. Taking an active role in our family’s funeral arrangements—whether that means carrying out the whole process without a funeral home, or just preparing and delivering the eulogy—is more meaningful than the money we spend.
What are my options?
Most people are confused about what they can and can’t do. While the American funeral industry usually pushes what it calls a “traditional funeral” (embalming, fancy casket, open-casket wake, funeral ceremony, procession, and graveside service), this type of funeral is a relatively recent commercial invention rarely practiced outside the United States and Canada.
Do not be swayed by funeral home salesmanship or exhortations to “do what’s traditional.” The typical American funeral has no roots in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any other religion. In Israel and the Islamic Middle East, for example, burial in a shroud without a coffin is still the predominant burial method, as it has been for thousands of years.
If a typical American funeral brings you comfort and you can afford it, then by all means arrange one. But every family should know it has the right to care for its dead in any way the family sees fit within the law. Here are some types of funerals families around the country have told us about:
A funeral can be simple or elaborate, inexpensive or costly. But unless you plan well in advance and shop around, you’re likely to pay top dollar. Consumer surveys show that most people don’t shop around for a funeral; they pick the funeral home closest to them or the one their family has always used. Neither of these criteria tells you whether you’re getting a good value. If you’ve never checked another funeral home for its prices and services, you may have been paying the highest rate in town for three generations.
By federal regulation, funeral homes must give you price quotes over the phone. In addition, they must give you printed, itemized price lists when you show up in person to discuss funeral arrangements. That means you have the right to stop into any funeral home and request a general price list (GPL), no questions asked. It’s a good idea to visit several funeral homes to pick up price lists and take them home for comparison at your own kitchen table. Share them with your family. Compare the cost of the items among funeral homes. You’ll likely find a variation in price, sometimes quite substantial.
The best place to start shopping is your local funeral consumer group. In the Kansas City region, that is the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Greater Kansas City. For a nationwide directory of nonprofit information organizations, visit https://funerals.org/local-fca. These volunteer groups can often recommend reasonably priced funeral homes and crematories.
When shopping on your own, the online Yellow Pages is a good place to start. In a search engine, look for listings under “funerals” and “cremation.”
Putting it all Together
Once you’ve found a funeral home you want to use, or a list of good choices, what then? Again, bring those likely to survive you in on the conversation. Tell them what you’ve found, share your wishes with them, and show them what a funeral home price list looks like. If your plans go awry, or your death occurs away from home, they’ll need the skills you’ve developed to negotiate the funeral for themselves.
Most important, put your plans in writing, in as much detail as necessary. FCA offers a funeral planning kit that comes with a 16-page fill-in-the-blanks booklet for your funeral plans, the locations of your important papers, your computer passwords, and more. The “Before I Go, You Should Know” planning kit also comes with state-specific advance medical directives. Kits are available for a small price from the national FCA (www.funerals.org), and the Kansas City chapter also has them available from time to time. Whether you buy a planning kit or draft your plans on your own stationery, the most important thing is to copy them and distribute them to those who will be handling your funeral arrangements.