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Summary

Planning your own funeral will save your heirs unnecessary expense and anxiety at a particularly bad time in their lives. The cost savings comes from a combination of several factors including:

  • When it comes to funerals, people seldom shop around
  • Survivors tend to equate dollars spent with respect paid 
  • During a highly emotional time, people are subjected to the sales tactics of salespeople  who give themselves titles such as "Funeral Director."

Before you can plan a funeral, it is necessary to understand the basics -- including the reason for planning, the legal protections available, types of funerals, common products, available benefits and the tax situation.

As you will see, while pre-planning is recommended, pre-paying is not.

When planning, keep in mind that many of the cultural aspects of funerals have been imposed by the funeral industry.

More and more people are considering cremation. It is a much less expensive alternative to a so-called "traditional" funeral. Cremation eliminates the three most expensive parts of a funeral: the casket, embalming, and the cemetery plot.  

It is helpful to know that, contrary to what the funeral industry has taught us to expect, in most states your loved ones can handle all funeral and burial details without use of a funeral home.

There are a variety of benefits which may help pay for your funeral and/or cemetery plot.

Funeral expenses are not deductible for income tax purposes. However, funeral expenses can be used to reduce the taxable amount of your estate.

Each of these subjects are discussed in the following:

Do I Have To Use A Funeral Home?

No -- unless you live in one of a very few states.

Before funeral providers took over, burials were taken care of by the family rather than commercial businesses. There are reports that family members received a healing satisfaction from the process.

If you are considering a "do-it-yourself" funeral:

  • Check the law in your state. Each state has its own regulations governing self-burial. For most states, everything from transportation to final disposition is within your power. As easy way to check the law in your state is to obtain a copy of the book: Caring For The Dead by Lisa Carlson. The book is available from Upper Access Publishers, www.upperaccess.com offsite link (click on "books"), Tel.: 800.310.8320. $29.95 + shipping and handling. NOTE: Updates for information in Ms. Carlson's book can be found at: www.funerals.org offsite link, click on "Your Legal Rights"
  • Get prior agreement from the people who will participate.

Why Should I Pre-Plan For A Funeral?

Everyone, regardless of their health, should think about their funeral wishes as a part of estate planning and/or Will preparation.

Pre-planning a funeral is important because:

  • The high cost of funerals as well as the many choices facing us or our loved ones make a strong case for pre-planning a funeral. Pre-planning allows for comparison shopping without pressure.
  • Thinking ahead can lead to informed and thoughtful decisions about funeral arrangements.
  • Pre-planning allows you to choose the specific items you want with respect to your funeral and burial.
  • Thinking ahead spares survivors the stress of making important financial decisions when under extreme emotional stress. It also spares them from being subjected to the sales tactics of funeral providers who may not be as concerned with your family's needs as much as their own self interest.
  • If you are single or in a relationship with a partner of the same sex, if you don't make plans, the decision maker may not be a person who is sensitive to your life and values.

Following are two examples of the advantages of pre-planning and sharing your thoughts.

  • Example #1. Sheila recently shared with us what happened when Charlotte, her mother, passed away. Sheila and her sister along with her mother had discussed ahead of time what arrangements were to be made when the time came. It had been specifically decided that Charlotte would be buried in a simple pine casket.

When Sheila and her sister went to the funeral home after the death of their mother, they were in the "showroom" looking at the pine casket when the funeral director pointed out that their father had been buried in the expensive mahogany he was lovingly patting. He wondered aloud if they cared as much about their mother as they had their father. Having discussed in advance what was to take place, Sheila and her sister were in a position to resist the ploy and insist on the arrangements that had been made jointly ahead of time -- fulfilling their mother's wishes and saving more than $6,000.

  • Example #2: Susan was one of four adult children. Her mother, Mary, discussed the simple arrangements and small family funeral she wanted. Unfortunately Mary did not put her wishes in writingand did not discuss them with the rest of the family. After Mary's death, the other three children accused Susan just being cheap. To prevent a family crisis, Susan had to agree to a funeral service that was much more costly than their mother had indicated she wanted.

What Type Of Funeral Do I Want?

Funerals and their various customs and rituals date back to the beginning of civilization. All cultures have some common practices in terms of dealing with the death of loved ones. However, there is no such thing as a "standard" funeral throughout the world. There never has been.

A funeral is typically influenced by religious and cultural traditions, cost, and family and personal preferences. These factors help determine whether a funeral will be elaborate or simple, public or private, religious or secular, and where it will be held. They also influence whether the body will be present at the funeral, if there will be viewing or visitation, and if so, whether the casket will be open or closed, and whether the remains will be buried or cremated.

If you live in a tight-knit community where all funerals are the same, you are content with it, and you will be able to afford it, you may just want to let your heirs know what you would like, and that takes care of the matter.

However, if you want something more reflective of who you are, think about what you want. There is no right or wrong. Be as creative as you want. For instance, one baseball lover wanted people to come to his funeral in baseball attire.

If it helps you make a decision, there are three types of funerals common to America today. A funeral may incorporate elements of each of the various types. For example, if you decide you want to be cremated, you may still have a viewing prior to the cremation if that is what you would like. Additionally, with a "traditional" funeral, you may choose and/or reject various components according to your wishes and desires. To learn more, see Types of Funerals.

To Learn More

More Information

Funeral Plan Chart

Legal Protections Under The Federal Funeral Rule

The Funeral Rule is a federal law that makes it easier to choose only those goods and services that you want or need and to pay only for those items that you select.

  • The law requires funeral directors to give you itemized prices in person and, if you ask, over the phone.
  • The Funeral Rule requires funeral directors to give you other information about their goods and services, as well. For example, if you ask about funeral arrangements in person, the funeral home must give you a written price list to keep that shows the good and services that the funeral home offers.
  • If you want to buy a casket or outer burial container, the funeral provider must show you descriptions of the available selections and the prices BEFORE actually showing you the caskets. (See Caskets.)
  • The Funeral Rule requires funeral homes to handle a casket if you purchase it somewhere else. It also provides that you cannot be charged extra for using your own casket instead of one purchased from the funeral home.
  • While many funeral providers offer various "packages," you have the right to buy individual goods and services. You do not have to accept a package that may include items that you do not want.
  • The Funeral Rule does not apply to cemeteries unless they sell both funeral goods and funeral services.
  • If it turns out that you don't like a funeral home, you are permitted to switch to a different home, even if the body has already been delivered to a particular funeral home. The home you're leaving can charge for services to that date, but cannot hold the body hostage for payment
  • The Funeral Rule is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission. If you believe the Rule has been violated, you can obtain an informal read of the situation by contacting the Funeral Consumer Alliance at 800.458.5563 or at www.funerals.org offsite link.

Additionally:

  • If state or local law requires you to buy any particular item, the funeral provider must disclose it on the price list, along with a reference to the specific law.
  • A funeral provider that offers cremations must make alternative containers available. The provider cannot require you to purchase a casket for cremation.
  • A funeral provider may not provide embalming services without permission, and may not state that embalming is required by law if it is not. See Embalming.

E-Mails To Loved Ones After Death

It is now possible to send e-mail messages after death through web sites on the internet.

For a fee, sites like the following will send a e mail in the event of death according to your instructions. (Note: We have not used the following and do not have information about their reliability. 

Benefits That Help Pay For A Funeral Or Provide A Cemetery Plot

Each of the following benefits help pay for a funeral or provide a cemetery plot:

Social Security

A one-time Lump-Sum Death Benefit payment of $255 is payable.

The benefit is paid to the surviving spouse if:

  • He or she was living with the beneficiary at the time of death
  • OR if the two parties were living apart, the surviving spouse was eligible for Social Security benefits on the beneficiary's earnings record for the month of death.

If there is no surviving spouse, the payment is made to a child who was eligible for benefits on the beneficiary's earning record in the month of death.

Unions and Other Organizations

Many unions and other organizations provide burial benefits. Check with a union or other organizations to which you belong to find out if there is one for which you are eligible.

Workers Compensation

Workers Compensation insurance usually includes a death benefit.

Veterans

Veterans are entitled to a free burial in a national cemetery with a grave marker. Alternatively, the Veterans Administration pays a cemetery plot allowance of $300.

To be eligible for a burial benefit the veteran must:

  • Be in receipt of VA compensation or pension benefits at the time of death.
  • Have been discharged from military service due to disability or died in a VA hospital.

A copy of the discharge papers will usually be required so store them with your Will, or let your Personal Representative/Executor know where they are. (To learn more, see Personal Representative.)

If you have a question about whether you are eligible for the benefit or want to obtain an application form, call the VA's Memorial Programs Service at 800.697.6947 or find the application online at www.cem.va.gov offsite link.

Many states have state veteran cemeteries. Eligibility requirements and other details vary. Contact your state for more information.

Beware of commercial cemeteries that advertise "veteran's specials." The Federal Trade Commission indicates that these cemeteries may offer a free plot for a veteran, but charge exorbitant rates for an adjoining plot for the spouse, as well as high fees for opening and closing each grave. Be sure to evaluate all costs.

At the least, a veteran can receive a United States flag to drape the casket.

Veterans' Spouses and Dependent Children

Veterans' spouses and dependent children are entitled to a free burial in a national cemetery with a grave marker. This right also extends to some civilians who provided military related service and some Public Health Service Personnel.

  • There are no charges for opening or closing the grave, for a vault or liner, or for setting the marker in a national cemetery.
  • The family is generally responsible for other expenses including transportation to the cemetery.

Other Government Programs

Check all federal and state government programs for which you qualify to determine if there is a burial benefit for which you qualify. For federal benefits, see: www.govbenefits.gov offsite link.

How To Have A Funeral At Home

Having a funeral at home is less expensive than a traditional funeral and more personal.

On a personal level

  • Family members are personally involved in preparing the decedent for burial. Family members wash and dress the deceased for burial. 
  • The decedent is in a home setting, allowing family and friends to visit at all hours in a familiar setting.
  • Family members can build the coffin and conduct the funeral service. 

Legal requirements

A death certificate must be obtained. This is usually from the doctor who took care of the deceased at the end of life or from the decedent' s primary care doctor.

A transit permit must be obtained from the Department of Health to move the body (from a hospital to home, and from the home to a cemetery or cremattory.

Some areas permit burial at home.

According to Funeral Consumers Alliance, the following states require the involvement of a funeral director:

  • Connecticut
  • Indiana
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Nebraska
  • New York

 

In all states except Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska and New York, 


How To Resell A Cemetery Plot

If you want to resell a cemetery plot, take the following steps:

  • Contact the cemetery to learn the rules about resales including fees,  whether there are limits on the people to whom you can sell, and whether there is a limit on the price.  Also ask whether the cemetery buys back plots, and, if so, for how much money.
  • List the plot for sale with organizations and publications that include people and families likely to be interested in the particular cemetery and plot.
  • Consider listing the plot on general web sites such as Craigs List offsite link or specialty sites such as Grave Solutions offsite linkand Plot Brokers offsite link