Where to Start When you Don’t Know How to Start
Like many people, when you find yourself preparing a funeral or memorial service, you might not know where to begin, or even what questions to ask. But honoring our dead doesn’t have to be complicated or costly. It’s your choice whether to have a very simple disposition or a more elaborate funeral. Your taste, beliefs, and relationships should dictate the type of funeral you arrange. While it is obvious that relationships, belief systems, culture, and budget will make a lot of decisions for us, the following steps might help you plan a funeral for yourself or for someone else.
Our extensive listing of funeral service providers listed under the Service Providers category, but especially those providers listed under Compassionate Service Providers, will be happy to assist you. Please use the links we’ve provided to contact those professionals.
As with any guidelines, it’s best if you use it to plan before death occurs.
Make Funeral Planning a Family Affair. The first step in funeral planning starts at home. We should discuss funerals with the same openness as we do weddings, home-buying, college, and other major life events. So why do families put off the most inevitable discussion in life: funerals. Death will come to each of us, no matter how long we put off discussing it. Avoiding the topic won’t avoid death, but it will make the funeral more daunting, and very likely more expensive, for survivors. Why add that conversation to a painful time. You can find great meaning and peace carrying out funeral plans that honor family members appropriately and in a way far easier to bear.
Honoring the dead varies with cultures, religions and budgets. Your personal philsophy 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 do, though, you will not avoid the natural consequences of loss and bereavement, greif, and healing. You’ll need bereavement and grief support. Good pastoral care can help you through all of it.
In my pastoral care I focus on meaninfulness in our experiences, so whatever you decide, be sure it’s aimed at doing what gives meaning to you and your loved ones, not on what you might think “the community” expects you to do. No amount of planning, energy, or money, effort great or small, can express how we feel about someone who has died or about the death itself. Whatever your role it must be an active, participating role in end-of-life arrangements – whether that means carrying out the whole final process the customary formalities, or just preparing a day of visitation or memorial and sharing memories with friends and family – is more meaningful than any amount of money we could spend. It’s the memories and sharing that we keep as long as we live.
What Are The Options? Moving on to 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 -the “conventional” 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 continues to be the “traditional” 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 examples of funerals families around the country have arranged:
- One family didn’t want a public viewing of the body, but they did want a place where friends and family could gather. For them, a funeral home was the most convenient choice. They chose a closed casket visitation and welcomed family and friends to the calling hours at the funeral home. They were especially pleased to find a funeral home willing to help them have food and drinks brought in for a more comfortable gathering. Afterward, they brought the casket to church for a traditional Mass.
- One woman in her 90s had lived in a nursing home for many years. When she died, she had but few friends left to attend a conventional funeral. Her daughters decided to cremate her body and place her ashes in a cookie jar, as a tribute to her legendary baking skills. They held a memorial service at the nursing home – complete with Mom’s bake-off ribbons – where her housemates remembered her with laughter and tears.
- Beth lost her 7-year-old daughter in a car accident. Because she had cared for Alison in every way a mother could, Beth couldn’t bear to give her daughter’s body to a funeral home. Beth dressed Alison at home, and laid her in her bed with her favorite stuffed animals. She invited Alison’s friends, siblings, and schoolmates to come to the home to say goodbye to the little girl in a very private setting. Alison’s friends spent time with her in her own bedroom, and talked with their parents about the mystery and pain of her death. As difficult as it was, Beth says Alison’s brothers and sisters came to terms with her death in a natural, family-centered way that no commercial funeral could have provided.
A funeral can be simple or elaborate, inexpensive or costly. But unless you plan well in advance you’re likely to have an exceedingly stressful time ahead. It’s true and consumer surveys confirm that most people don’t prepare in advance for a funeral – they select the funeral home closest to them, one someone recommends, or the one the family has always used. None of these criteria tell you whether you’re getting a good value and fair treatment. If you’ve never checked different funeral homes for prices and services, you should start now before you start a tradition of paying the highest prices in town – for generations to come.
Note that 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 meet to discuss funeral arrangements. You also have the right to visit 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 and discussion. Share the lists with your family. Compare the cost of the services across funeral homes. Sometimes price variations in will be quite substantial. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask questions.
The best place to start shopping is to find your local funeral consumer advisory group. If you have a computer, you can search nationwide for directories of nonprofit information organizations. These groups frequently recommend reasonably priced funeral homes and crematories. Some organizations have negotiated substantial discounts for their members.
Pulling 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. Share this brochure with them. 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.
The “Before I Go, What You Should Know List.” It’s very important that you put your plans in writing in as much detail as possible. You can obtain a funeral planning kit that comes with a fill-in-the-blanks booklet for your funeral plans, the locations of your important papers, your computer passwords, etc. Whether you use a commercial planning kit or write out your plans and instructions yourself, remember to copy and distribute them to trusted persons who will be handling your funeral arrangements. Encourage friends and family members to do the same.
The FCA (Funeral Consumers Alliance) offers a very useful funeral planning kit that comes with a 16-page fill-in-the-blanks booklet. Find more very helpful information at the FCA (Funeral Consumers Alliance) site at Funeral Consumers Alliance.
Once again, those providers listed under Compassionate Service Providers (left margin under Links), will be happy to assist you. We also list a number of local service providers under the Service Providers category. Please use the links we’ve provided to contact those professionals.
Acknowledgment: Some of the information on this post comes from the Funeral Consumers Alliance site. We assume no responsibility for its currency or accuracy.