How to Plan a Funeral or Memorial Service

The steps to follow when planning your service or for someone you love

A funeral planning date book and info
Planning a funeral or memorial service involves many challenging decisions. Photo © Peter Dazeley/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Funerals and memorial services provide an opportunity for family members, friends and others who knew and loved the deceased to gather together to honor and remember the person who died while offering comfort and support to those closest to him or her, and to each other.

Whether planned after a death occurs (an "at-need" situation) or beforehand (a "preneed" situation), arranging a funeral or memorial service often proves an emotional, and sometimes exhausting, process.

This article offers an overview of the steps you should follow to plan a funeral or memorial service, whether for yourself or for a loved one.

Difficulty: Challenging

Time Required: 1+ Days

Obviously, the amount of time you may take to plan and arrange a funeral or memorial service will vary based on whether you are organizing a funeral or memorial service in advance of death -- perhaps for yourself or for a loved one facing a life-limiting illness -- or after a death has occurred. Regardless, the steps below generally apply to either situation.

How to Plan a Funeral or Memorial Service

Planning a funeral or memorial service is a highly personal process, and your decisions will be shaped by your life experiences, your relationship to the deceased, what the deceased wanted or what you desire for yourself after you die, what you can afford, and a myriad of other factors. There are several reasons to plan a funeral in advance, but here are the decisions you will generally need to make.

1. Choose the Form of Disposition

Many people mistakenly assume that a funeral and cemetery burial are the same thing, or that choosing cremation means you can't also hold a funeral service with the deceased's embalmed body present beforehand. Therefore, it's important to understand that a "funeral" as we generally think of it actually involves two important functions:

• What to do with the deceased's physical remains (the form of final disposition)

• How to honor, remember and even celebrate the life and memory of the person who died (the form of the funeral or memorial service)

When planning a funeral or memorial service, it might prove easier to first select the form of final body disposition you desire:

Burial (Traditional): Whether below ground in a cemetery plot/gravesite, or above ground in a mausoleum or sepulcher (sometimes referred to as "entombment"), traditional burial generally involves purchasing a casket, a cemetery plot or mausoleum space, a graveliner or burial vault, and a headstone, gravemarker, monument or plaque.

Burial (Natural or "Green"): A growing number of traditional-burial cemeteries, as well as sites specifically created for this form of final disposition, now offer natural or "green burial" opportunities. In general, people who select natural burial seek to minimize their impact on the environment after death.

Cremation: The cremation process uses heat/flame to reduce a body to bone fragments or "ashes." These cremated remains offer survivors various options afterward, such as keeping or scattering the remains, burial below ground in an urn, placing the inurned cremated remains in a columbarium, etc.

Alkaline Hydrolysis: This form of final disposition is relatively new and might not yet be available in your area, but the alkaline hydrolysis process (sometimes called "flameless cremation") uses pressure and relatively low heat (versus cremation) to reduce a body to an inert liquid and skeletal bone fragments.

2. Picture a Meaningful Service

In the past few decades, funeral services have grown increasingly personalized, although many people still think of the "traditional funeral" as the norm. A personalized funeral or memorial service reflects the unique life and personality of the deceased individual, as viewed by the deceased and/or his or her surviving loved ones, and regardless of the form such services take.

Many families these days prefer to plan a funeral or memorial service focused on remembering the deceased as he or she was in life, a service focused on the deceased's body/remains, or a combination of both. Therefore, you should imagine and plan the funeral or memorial service that you and/or the person who died consider the most meaningful way to say "goodbye" -- something that captures the unique qualities of the deceased; reflects his or her and/or your personal, religious or spiritual beliefs; and provides a memorable, meaningful opportunity for mourners to express their grief while comforting and supporting each other.

Some families choose to conduct funeral services in a place of worship or a funeral home chapel that incorporate religious readings and music; others desire secular or non-religious services held in a public or private location; still others choose to hold a private funeral and interment for immediate family members and then a memorial service later for loved ones.

You should also consider the following when envisioning your funeral or memorial service to personalize it, as applicable:

• Officiant(s) who will lead the service, such as a clergy member, celebrant, funeral director, etc.

• Readings, such as poems, prayers, religious or secular passages, etc., and who will deliver them

• Eulogist(s), who will write and deliver a eulogy about the deceased

• Music, whether contemporary, religious hymns or both

• Food/Beverages, whether professionally catered, provided "potluck" by attendees, or arranged by the funeral home or provider

• Pallbearers, if the final disposition involves a graveside service

Webcasting the funeral, or making a recording of the service available later

• Personal touches, such as a memory board, memorial video, personal memorabilia, etc.

3. Do You Want the Body Present?

Another important decision you will need to make when planning a funeral service concerns the physical presence of the deceased. As noted above, burial and cremation are merely forms of final body disposition, and neither requires or precludes funeral services with the body present. For example, you can arrange a "traditional" funeral service that includes a wake/visitation beforehand with the embalmed body in an open casket even if you desire cremation of the deceased as the form of final disposition. Likewise, some families choose to cremate the unembalmed deceased without a service beforehand, but hold a memorial service afterward with or without the inurned remains present.

4. Flowers, Donations or Both?

Traditionally, people send funeral flowers or sympathy flowers as a sign of support and to express their condolences. For the past several decades, however, families have also used the phrase "In lieu of flowers..." in death notices and obituaries to suggest their preference for funeral memorial donations instead of, or in addition to, flowers. Thus, you should decide if attendees may send flowers, if you'd rather they donate to a chosen charitable organization or cause in memory of the deceased, or if either form of expression is appropriate. (Please see "Alternative Phrases for 'In Lieu of Flowers'" for suggestions on how to better communicate your wishes.)

Whether requested in the death notice or obituary, social media or by word of mouth, you should clearly communicate how/where to send donations. Examples of worthy causes or organizations you might select include:

• the hospice that cared for your loved one

• a cause seeking to find a cure for the illness or disease that caused your loved one's death, such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, etc.

• a charity, organization or business representing a cause or purpose reflecting a personal passion or belief of the deceased, or one which he or she supported

5. Contact/Research Service Provider(s)

After determining the above, the next step is to research your service and provider options. If a death has already occurred, you can contact a local funeral home, cremation provider or cemetery. (And you might want to read "What to do Immediately After a Loved One Dies," which offers a checklist of tasks survivors should handle right away.) Your chosen provider can help you arrange the funeral, memorial and/or interment service you desire; provide information about your various product and service options; explain the costs involved for merchandise, services and other professional fees; and help you create an obituary or death notice and obtain official death certificates.

You should also discuss with your provider any religious or cultural preferences that you would like honored. For example, if you desire a secular or non-religious funeral or memorial service, you might like to use the services of a funeral celebrant, which some funeral homes now have on their staffs. Many funeral homes also have experience serving families from diverse cultural backgrounds with their own funeral rites, rituals and customs.

If you are planning a funeral or memorial service in advance, you should research your product and service options on the Internet by visiting the websites of various funeral homes, cremation providers and/or cemeteries in your area. Today, most businesses provide convenient product and service information online, prices, and even post their "General Price List" (if the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires the provider to have a "GPL"). This makes it easier to compare prices and service/merchandise options available locally.

Obviously, you can also look for information in other ways, such as via the Yellow Pages, by phoning or writing, or even by personally visiting a provider.

Finally, whether you are planning a funeral before or after a death has occurred, you have several basic rights under the FTC "Funeral Rule" that you should also review and understand.

6. Consider Your Payment Options

The costs will vary depending upon the form of final disposition and the type of funeral or memorial service you desire but you should consider how you will pay for these services. There are many payment options available today, such as:

• Personal savings

• Insurance

• Financing, often through your funeral provider

• Credit cards

• Totten trust/Payable-on-Death (POD) account at a financial institution, which specifically sets aside funds for final expenses that pass to a designated beneficiary and avoid probate.

In addition, it is possible to formally arrange your services in advance with a provider and then pay in advance, whether all at once or through installments. There are many reasons why people enter into these "preneed" arrangements, including removing the burden of making difficult decisions once death occurs; to prevent financial hardship on survivors, or to spend down their assets in order to qualify for certain federal benefits.

7. Make Your Wishes Known

Finally, if you're planning your own funeral or memorial service in advance, you should inform your family about your end-of-life wishes to make sure they know what you want. Ideally, you should provide a written record rather than relying upon a family member's memory or keeping your plans on your computer, but even a single verbal conversation with your spouse or partner, child, sibling or parent can prove better than nothing.

If you've formally prearranged your funeral or memorial service with a provider, then you should keep those documents with your other important papers at home -- and let your loved ones know of their existence and their location -- so they have timely access to them when necessary. If you keep your legal documents in a safe, or offsite in a safety-deposit box, then you should ensure that your loved one(s) also know the safe's combination or can access the key.

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