Funeral Planning

By Karen Spruill, M.A.

Photo by Dreamstime

No sooner had my mother stopped breathing, than my family had to start making a myriad of decisions. My father knew which funeral service to call, so within 45 minutes of her death, the director came to Mother’s foster-care home. My parents already had funeral sites at a local cemetery as part of family inheritance. The next day we collected mother’s belongings, purchased some undergarments for her, selected her funeral attire, visited the funeral director, wrote up her life history, contacted the minister for the service, and invited pallbearers. and started researching funeral dinner sites. The following day’s duties included ordering funeral flowers, meeting with the pastor, and helping Dad select his clothes for the funeral.

In retrospect, the time after Mother’s death would have been much less stressful if we had made some of those decisions ahead of time. However, family members often avoid making funeral preparations since so much of their energy is going into the care of their still-living loved one. (Or we choose not to face the inevitability of each difficult situation, besides our own deaths.)

The days following a death until the funeral can seem like an exhausting eternity. Below are some details that could help you be prepared when your loved one dies.

1) Notify Authorities. If the death occurred outside of a hospital, nursing or foster care home, or hospice, someone must call 911 or the local emergency number to report the death. Authorities will call the coroner. The death certificate is often completed with family information at the funeral home. Burial and insurance policies require copies of the document. This is also a good time to call the executor of the estate, if there is one designated.

2) Embalmed burial, cremation or internment in a mausoleum? If you don’t have a burial plot, you will need to contact a cemetery for availability or the funeral director can help you.

3) Which funeral home? If you haven’t priced anything before, try to compare at least two area services. In my opinion, you can expect to spend about $6-10,000 for a moderate burial and service. Consider the reputation of the cosmetology service if the loved one is to be part of visitation hours or an open casket. Poorly applied hair styling and make-up can be very disturbing for everyone who knew the person.

4) Ask for a detailed price list before you make your selections. The law requires funeral directors to give you this list. In some areas, funeral directors can present plans to you with a computer monitor, or perhaps a laptop computer in your own home. The funeral director will show you a variety of caskets from metal to expensive woods (or cardboard to urns for cremation). Many caskets have elaborate linings and places for pictures or engravings.  A casket in the “mid-range” of pricing might be $2-3,000 dollars. The burial vault, or cement box that holds the casket—is often thousands of dollars. And there are charges for opening and closing the grave-site. Often included in a funeral package are memorial cards for the service, and thank you cards. A variety of designs with covers and verses are usually available.

5) Clothing and jewelry.  Do you want underwear, shoes, formal clothes, casual clothes, eyeglasses, jewelry? Some families include favorite items for display with the casket.

6) Provide a life history. Life history information will be needed for the death certificate and newspapers—birth place, education, work places, church membership, organizations and hobbies, besides marriages, parents, siblings, children, and sometimes grandchildren mentioned. The funeral director can help get that information to local newspapers, but you may need to turn a copy in for a church newsletter, or other non-profit organization. If the family would like donations to go to a church project, or health-care organization, that should be included in the copy.

7) Who will conduct the funeral service? Church or funeral home? Is there a favorite pastor? Make sure he/she knows if you also want them to provide a graveside service after the funeral. Special music—by whom and which selections? Do you want the funeral service to provide their recorded music for the visitation or a live organ/piano player? There may be an extra fee for an organist. Can a close family friend provide a eulogy or give a favorite reading or verses? Discuss the seating arrangement for immediate family with the director.

8) When will the service be held? This may depend upon availability of the funeral home, church, and pastor and when some of the family members can travel.

9) Visitation service? Do you wish to have visitation hours on the evening before the funeral? Traditional hours are 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. Some families find this to be a time of great comfort and community.

10) Pallbearers. Which 4-6 people will carry the casket to the funeral procession car, and from the car to the graveside? Consider men who are young enough to lift a heavy casket. These are usually not next of kin.

11) Photos and memorabilia are often used for a photo board or the guest book area at the funeral home.   

12) Flowers are usually ordered from the family members as part of the casket display at the calling hours and funeral service. Spouses, children and grandchildren may pick an arrangement in the person’s favorite colors or flowers to match the casket or clothing. This can cost $50-75+ per arrangement. What will become of the flower arrangements after the service? Which ones will be placed on the grave at the cemetery? Will the rest go to area hospitals, nursing homes, churches? Close family members may wish to save potted plants.

13) Will there be a meal served after the funeral? Often church members or clubs offer to provide this for the family members, but they may need help in finding a place that will fit your group or be close to the cemetery or the home.

14) Housing may be needed for incoming family members. Are there relatives or friends who can accommodate? Motel suggestions may be needed.

15) Thank you notes are usually written after the service to those who donated money, or sent flowers. Keep the gift cards and lists of donation names.

16) A headstone or plot marker is needed for the grave, if there is not one already. This can be postponed however; opinions from family members could be helpful. Prices vary depending on the type of stone, the amount of engraving, and designs added. Again, this can easily cost $1,000 or more. The funeral director can suggest possible options.

For more resources in funeral planning, call the Funeral Service Help Line 1-800-228-NFDA.