This year, about 2.5 million Americans will die. In rough numbers, that's nearly 50,000 a week—a lot of people, with viewings, religious observances, funerals, obituaries, estates, family reunions, and a host of related decisions and encounters. In many households, this time can be made even more difficult by one's failure to plan for death and to involve family members in the process. Relatives may even reject efforts to engage in such a discussion. It's uncomfortable, it can be emotionally painful, and it can often expose family fault lines that fracture easily.
Yet, as with many important decisions, it is a mistake to wait until the last minute to deal with your final wishes. "We all know we're going to die. We just don't believe it," says Kurt Soffe, whose family has been in the funeral home business in Utah since 1915. Here are several steps and questions to help you prepare.
Invite your family in. "It is crucial for the person to give their families permission to talk," says Soffe, who is a volunteer spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). "Often, however, when a parent says to a child, 'I want to go make funeral arrangements,' the child says, 'No, no, you don't have to do that yet.' But if we don't talk about it, it won't happen."
What do you want done? Do you want your body buried or cremated? Do you want to be an organ donor? Do you want to leave your cadaver to a medical school or other research institution? Cremation is becoming more popular, rising from fewer than 24 percent of dispositions in 1998 to 36 percent in 2008, according to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA). There are dramatic regional preferences, with cremation chosen by two thirds of people in several Western and New England states and only 10 to 20 percent in many Southern states. Whatever you choose, Soffe emphasizes, it need not foreclose any funeral or observational options. Even organ donors can have cosmetic restorations that permit traditional funeral ceremonies. People who donate their bodies to a medical school can have a funeral; the body rests in two caskets—a disposable container in which it is taken to the medical school and an outer display casket used only for the funeral ceremonies.
Is place an issue? The decision about location can be difficult, but it's an important part of the planning. A family may have a hallowed cemetery plot. Spouses may have conflicting desires. The needs of family and friends should be considered. How hard will it be for them to attend the ceremonies in your preferred final resting place? This decision can have a big impact on total funeral costs and on the funeral home or even homes that will be involved in carrying out a person's wishes.
Costs and financial arrangements. The direct costs of a traditional funeral average about $7,500, according to NFDA, and they often exceed $10,000, depending on location and optional choices. This excludes cemetery fees for a plot and tombstone; they easily can double the overall cost. Cremation costs are only about a fourth as much as traditional funeral expenses, CANA says, and can be as little as $600 for basic cremation and a disposal urn. But those costs can climb as well depending on ceremonial events, the choice of an urn, and whether your remains are placed in a cemetery location with a permanent resting place and name marker. Here are the average funeral costs, according to the NFDA:
If you can, designate funds now to cover these future expenses. Some people set up a trust fund, and others buy a life insurance policy or include a provision in their will to pay final expenses. Whichever approach you select, make sure to set up the funding vehicle rather than putting it off. Also, talk with the designated executor of your estate or another trusted relative or friend. Give that person the legal authority to access these funds and spend them for the stated purposes after your death. Soffe says people use these planned funding solutions about 40 percent of the time; the other 60 percent, people pay expenses from personal funds that are gathered from family members. That's a nice way of saying that they pass the hat. But it might not leave such a nice memory.
Make a plan. As Soffe notes, all funeral homes are subject to federal disclosure rules and must provide price schedules. Many homes also have websites with planning guides that can help you turn your decisions into a specific plan of action. Soffe says funeral homes understand that people may be reluctant to visit them and that the Web can be a useful tool to help people make the hard decisions surrounding an event that is difficult for most people to handle.
Write it down. Once you've made the important decisions and have a plan, put it in writing. Such a document is persuasive to the people you will be counting on to carry out your wishes. "Rarely do we have family members changing a written record of what the deceased person wants," Soffe says.
Communicate. The most detailed and well-conceived plan will do no good if it winds up in a safe deposit box (or the bottom of a sock drawer) where people can't find it in time to act on your wishes. Make multiple copies of your written intentions. Provide them to all the people who will play important roles after you've died. Tell them in advance exactly what you want.
It's your show. The rear of Soffe's funeral home faces the nearby Wasatch Range. The view of the mountains is so gorgeous, he says, that it served as the funeral setting for a Harley Davidson enthusiast who passed away. The biker wanted his friends to join him outdoors, where he loved to ride and spend time. And more than 100 motorcyclists came together to do so, joining in what became a memorable celebration of his life and their shared bonds.
With all due respect to the loved ones and friends you leave behind, it's your life, and the way you want to recognize the end of your life is up to you. By having a plan that thoughtfully reflects your wishes, you'll not only do this but also lift a lot of stress and worry from the loved ones you leave behind. That's not a bad final gift for you to make.