Planning for the Inevitable

This month we’d like to hit on a topic that most of us avoid because it can be hard to talk about. That topic is death, and more specifically, planning our own funeral, memorial service, and burial or cremation. On a personal note, I’ve been through this process in just the last two months with my own family. My uncle Dan passed away on January 29th, after succumbing to the effects of a debilitating stroke he suffered in 2015 that left him partially paralyzed and unable to swallow effectively. Shortly after the stroke, his doctors said he probably wouldn’t live long. They were wrong, but it really wasn’t their fault - they just didn’t know my uncle.

Dan spent his life persevering in the face of obstacles. He experienced brain trauma in the hospital shortly after his birth which left him intellectually and physically disabled. Since he was born in 1954, the prognosis for a baby in his condition wasn’t that great. My grandparents were told not to expect him to live very long. He proved those doctors wrong as well, and was 62 years old when he passed away last month. Dan was hands-down the favorite member of our family – a loving and caring man that did absolutely all he could in this life, even with his cognitive and physical limitations. Six months before he died, he was prescribed hospice care, so our family saw what the future held and prepared for his passing in advance. We did this for him because he was unable to do it for himself. That’s more than likely not the case for you. Dan couldn’t read. You can. Dan couldn’t comprehend all of the pre-planning issues. You can. For our family, making those decisions in advance was still difficult and even emotional at times, but it was a gift we gave each other instead of procrastinating and then having to make those decisions at what has to be absolutely the worst time – right after the death of a loved one.

There’s a long list of items and issues related to planning wisely for your own death. There are things you can do for your family, friends and heirs well in advance of your passing - things like organizing your financial records, getting your wills, trusts and other estate planning documents up to date, and making health care and end-of-life care decisions in advance. But in this article, I want to focus specifically on what I alluded to above – making wise funeral, memorial service and burial decisions well in advance (we hope) of your death. Why pre-plan for your funeral? There are several reasons. Here are a few. Pre-planning makes things easier on your loved ones when you die. Even with excellent pre-planning, there will still be plenty for them to do. Pre-planning is one way of making that time easier and less stressful for them. Pre-planning also insures that things are done in accordance with your wishes.

First, decisions regarding the care of your body are important. If you are considering donating your organs or body, make sure you complete the legal document valid in your state and make sure your loved ones know your wishes. After you’ve settled on the donation issues, your two basic choices regarding what to do with your remains are burial and cremation. Burials are typically more expensive because they usually involve the purchase of a casket, transportation of the casket to the cemetery or mausoleum, opening and closing the grave, and perpetual care for the gravesite. Caskets come in a wide array of colors, styles, and prices. Some funeral homes rent caskets for the viewing or visitation, and then an alternative container holding the body is removed and buried. You can also shop for caskets in advance. Urns, wooden boxes, and other containers are used to hold the cremains of the body after cremation. Whether you opt for a traditional burial or to be cremated, another consideration is what type of headstone or grave marker and epitaph you would like. Headstones and grave markers are often made of granite or marble and vary considerably in scale and design. Some include artwork and decorations. A typical epitaph includes your name and the dates of your birth and death.

Once those decisions are made, you can then start planning your funeral or memorial service. Think about it – we plan our weddings, vacations, and our retirements. Doesn’t it make sense to plan our funeral or memorial service as well? Think of your funeral or memorial service as a gift of comfort to those you’re leaving behind. A service about you, planned by you, will feel like you, and it can help start the process of healing for your loved ones and friends. Also, pre-planning takes the burden of making decisions about the service off of your loved ones at a stressful time, and your advanced plan can help ensure the service stays within a budget that you feel is appropriate. A funeral, memorial service, or other gathering for friends and relatives after a death is customary. The casket is present at a funeral, while a memorial service is held without the body there. Services are often held in a place of worship for those with a religious affiliation, and many funeral homes have small chapels for your use. Most faiths and religious traditions have a standard ceremony to honor the dead, with a member of the clergy leading the service. Some elements of the service may be planned in advance or chosen by family members, including songs, readings, the eulogy, and sharing of memories. A new option is to make a video of the funeral or memorial service available online.

This allows those who are unable to attend in person see and hear the service live as it happens. Also, the video can be stored online, providing the opportunity to view the service at a later time.

Another element in pre-planning involves your obituary, which is simply a published death notice with a short summary of your life and a list of family members, both living and deceased. Obituaries are usually published in your local newspaper and now are often posted online as well. You might consider leaving instructions for your obituary to be published in the newspapers of places where you’ve lived previously and in any alumni, club or fraternal magazines. However, know that big city newspapers often charge several hundred dollars for the publication of an obituary, while online publishing is often free. Also, to avoid identity theft, experts recommend not publishing maiden names or your full date of birth.

You also can decide in advance what you’d like your visitation and viewing to look like. A visitation is a time for your family and friends to gather after a death to express their feelings and share memories. A visitation can be held anywhere that’s convenient for family and friends to gather and is a more comfortable option for people who don’t want to view the body. A viewing usually takes place at a funeral home or in a church, one or two days before the funeral. A viewing may also be held immediately before the funeral to allow friends the chance to view the body and attend the funeral in one trip. While some people are uncomfortable viewing a dead body, doing so can help create closure for those who want to see the body, helping them come to terms with the loss of a close friend or family member. This is even more important when the death was sudden and unexpected.

Although this topic makes us all come to grips with our own mortality, I hope this article has encouraged you to consider pre-planning your funeral, memorial service, and burial or cremation. There are so many reasons to do so, but the main one is that it’s a gift of love and peace of mind for those you most care about.