How to Plan Your Own Funeral

David A. Hill is a free-lance writer. He lives and works in Mill Valley, California

“I want to talk with you about my funeral,” my mother said. With these unlikely words, she began one of the most intimate conversations we have ever had. We sat back and spoke matter-of-factly about the funeral she had just arranged for herself.

“The idea has been in the back of my mind for years—ever since your grandmother died,” she said. “Arranging her funeral was very difficult for me. There were so many details, and your uncle and I couldn’t agree on how to handle them.

“Then a close friend died. She had wanted a simple funeral, but her husband went out and spent a fortune. That did it. I went to the funeral home and planned everything for myself. I even arranged to donate my corneas to an eye bank. Now I feel relieved—and a little proud.”

Mother took me through the details of her plan. She showed me how to apply for the lump-sum final Social Security payment, where to find her personal papers. I barely heard her. The realization that she had arranged her own funeral to spare me the burden was stunning.

As time passed, my wife and I found ourselves increasingly struck by the sanity of the idea. What had seemed initially to be unthinkable became the intelligent, realistic thing to do. For one thing, Mother’s action stimulated my wife and me to face our own mortality. Neither of us had known how the other wanted to be buried; neither of us had had a will. We do now. We’ve even spoken with a memorial society about funeral arrangements. We realized that we can give to each other the same gift that Mother gave to me.

Perhaps, one day, planning your funeral will strike you as a sensible thing to do. If so, information that my wife and I have gathered may be of help.

The first consideration is the service. While the familiar ”funeral” is still dominant, many now choose the alternative memorial service. Here the remains are not present, and the focus of the service is on the life of the deceased and on the survivors. While a memorial service is often held in church, synagogue, or funeral home, it is also frequentlv set in a place of particular meaning to the deceased—at home, at sea, and, in one case I know of, on a golf course.

The second consideration is burial. There are two alternatives: interment underground in a grave, or entombment aboveground in a mausoleum. Or should I say three alternatives? Six percent of the deceased in the United States are now cremated, and the number is climbing steadily. Cremated remains may be put in an urn and housed in a columbarium (a mausoleum for this purpose); they may be interred in a grave; or—except in Alaska, Washington and Indiana, where the law prohibits it—they may be scattered.

There are four kinds of cemeteries: private, church, municipal, and national. A funeral director or clergyman can tell you what is available in your area. If you served honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces, you and your spouse are eligible for burial in any of the fifty-six national cemeteries that have space available, except Arlington (in Virginia). There is no charge for burial in a national cemetery; there is also no way to reserve space in advance.

You may want to consider an altruistic alternative to cremation or burial—the bequest of your body or parts of it to a medical school, or to various organ and tissue banks. Your physician, funeral director, or memorial society can help you arrange such gifts.

In addition, look into death benefits, which help survivors pay the costs of service and burial. Your spouse may qualify for a lump-sum payment from Social Security—currently $255. Veterans may be due a $400 payment from the Veterans Administration, as well as a free headstone and American flag. You may also be eligible for death benefits from your trade union, credit union, church, fraternal organization, or private insurance plans.

A funeral and burial together account for one of the largest dollar outlays a family is likely to make. Today, for an adult, average cost of the funeral alone— including professional services, use of facilities, casket, and local transportation of the body—is $1,207. This is higher than it needs to be because when someone you love has just died, you’re not inclined to “shop around.” Your impulse is to buy the best. A key factor is the casket. A simple pine box costs about $75; a double-walled, silver-plated bronze casket with velvet cushions can cost more than $8,O00. When you plan your own funeral, you can choose what you really want.

Simple services arranged through a memorial society will probably run from $150 to $400. If you decide on cremation, the cost will run from $150 to $300 to have your remains removed from the place of death, placed in an appropriate container, and cremated.

Burial costs vary greatly, but generally you will pay from $400 to $800 for interment in a private cemetery, including plot, opening and closing of the grave, and, vault or grave liner; $600 to $3,000 for a crypt in a mausoleum; $50 to $750 for a niche in a columbarium. You will pay extra for a marker. Bronze headstones start in price at about $90, stone statuary at about $100. Depending on the size, material, and workmanship, the cost of the memorial can run much higher.

To put these wide ranges into realistic perspective, let’s assume that you decide on interment in a grave, and on a bronze headstone inscribed with name and dates of birth and death. Burial cost will be around $600. Placing the cremated remains in a simple urn and lodging them in an appropriately inscribed columbarium is likely to cost about $300.

To make the arrangements yourself, get in touch with either a funeral director or memorial society. All 22,000 funeral establishments in the United States are listed in the Yellow Pages, but talk first to your doctor or clergyman. They deal with various funeral directors and should be able to guide you to one with whom you’ll feel comfortable.

The 130 memorial societies, sometimes called “funeral societies,” are also listed in the Yellow Pages, under “Funerals” or ‘Societies.” These are nonprofit associations that have sprung up in response to the rising costs of traditional funerals and burials. Most have contracts or agreements with selected funeral directors, to provide members with the services they want at reasonable rates.

Normally, you join a memorial society for a nominal, one-time initiation fee—usually $10 to $20 for a family (parents and dependents) specifying on the membership form your preference as to service and burial. One copy of this form goes to the funeral director whom you designate, another to your files. When you die, your survivors call the funeral director and he provides the services you stipulated.

Consider buying a burial site in advance only if you are confident that you will live out your years where you now reside. You might also consider pre-paying your funeral expenses by setting up an interest-bearing, third-party trust fund. If your funeral director can’t arrange such a trust, your bank probably can. But check first to see if your state is one of the 35 that have laws governing methods of funeral and burial prepayments.

“What happens if we move?” I asked our local memorial society. The answer: Memorial societies maintain reciprocal relationships, so you can take your plan along when you change residences. Funeral directors cooperate in similar fashion.

If in a rational and mature way you can bring yourself to think about this part of life we call dying, and can go ahead and make the ultimately necessary arrangements, I think you will feel a real sense of relief—and not a little pride.

NOTE: More detailed information on funeral planning, as well as the name of the memorial society nearest you, is available from the Continental Association of Funeral and Memorial Societies, 1828 L St., N. W., Washington DC 20036, via its free brochure or the 64 page booklet, “A Manual of Death Education and Simple Burial” (cost: $1.50). Another useful source of information is the National Funeral Directors Association’s series of seven free pamphlets. Address: 135 West Wells St., Milwaukee, WI 53202. For information about veterans’ benefits, write to the Veterans Administration, Information Services (064), Washington DC 20420, and ask for #VA IS-1 Fact Sheet. For information about Social Security benefits, call or write to the Social Security office nearest you.

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Written by Tom Ferguson MD

Explore Wellness in 2021