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Step 1. Decide What You Want To Happen With The Body

Do you want to donate your body to help other people or science?

When deciding what is to be done with your body, the first questions to address are whether you want to donate any organs and tissue to help other people, and/or donate your body to help teach future health care providers. Organ and tissue donation do not disfigure the body which can still be displayed in an open casket.

If you donate the body to science, the cost of burial is paid for by the medical institution. If you don't donate your body, consider whether you want burial or cremation. 

If the body isn't donated to science, do you want it to be buried or cremated?

Burial or cremation is a personal choice, even if your choice is to follow the cultural mores of your family or religion. If cost is an overriding consideration, cremation is the least expensive method. Otherwise, the choice is about you, your cultural background and your family.

To Learn More

Step 2. Decide What Type Of Funeral And/or Memorial Service You Want

A funeral is a service relating to the burial of a body. A memorial service is a service in memory of a deceased. You can have either, or both -- or decide not to have either.

Where to have the service

A funeral and a memorial service can be held anywhere. For instance, a funeral can be in a residence, a place or worship, a community center, a theater or in a funeral home. Memorial services are generally not held in locations other than a funeral home.

What happens at a memorial service is often less subject to restrictive practices in your community than a funeral service.

Type of funeral

If you would like a funeral,

  • What type would you like? Traditional? Direct burial? Direct cremation? (To learn more, see Types of Funerals.)
  • Would you like to follow the practice of a particular religion? If so, which one? (This can be a particularly sensitive issue that can cause family conflicts if you don't specify what you want customs you want followed or prayers you want included)
  • What goods and/or services do you think are necessary:
    • For your sensibilities?
    • For the peace of mind of of your family or loved ones? 
    • That are in line with your religious and cultural beliefs?

Keep in mind that:

  • Whatever type of funeral you decide on, you can add or reject various parts based on your beliefs and/or whims.
  • Funerals are for the survivors. This reality does not mean that you should ignore your own wishes. However, bear in mind that a very important part of the funeral ritual is to help the survivors through the grieving process.

A discussion

If you are not clear what you want, or if what you want is not traditional, talk it over with your spouse, significant other, or loved ones. To keep the conversation from getting morbid because people think it's about you and your health condition, consider asking each of your family members to talk about what they would like for their own funeral service. Nora W. brought up the discussion at Christmas when everyone was together. While she received a lot of initial resistance to the discussion, what followed was a meaningful dialogue that made it one of the most meaningful holidays the family ever had together.

Step 3. How Much Are You Willing To Spend?


  • What can you afford?
  • Will the cost reduce the amount you'd like to leave to your heirs?
  • Are there sources to help pay for the funeral and/or memorial service?

Step 4. Should You Pre-pay Or Just Pre-Plan?

While it is recommended that you pre-plan funeral arrangements, be extremely cautious about pre-paying.

If you've already paid for your funeral or cemetery plot:

Don't worry. It's done.

  • Check your documents carefully to be sure they describe everything you paid for.
  • Make sure that your family is aware of your pre-payment and where to find the documentation. Otherwise, they could end up paying a second time. (See My Document Inventory.)

If you haven't yet paid for a funeral or cemetery plot:

Weigh the pros and cons for pre-paying.

Advantages of pre-paying a funeral:

  • Peace of mind knowing that arrangements are taken care of, and already paid for.
  • The price of the funeral is set.
  • If you qualify for Medicaid, the prepayment may not be counted as an asset.
  • You may be able to get a life insurance policy with no questions asked through the funeral home to pay for the funeral.

Disadvantages of prepaying for a funeral:

  • You could move.
  • You could change your mind about the place or type of funeral you want.
  • The funeral home could go out of business.
  • The funeral home could be purchased by an unscrupulous purchaser who strips all the assets - including your pre-payment.
  • What you pay today may not pay the cost of a future funeral.
  • In some states you lose a percentage or all of what you prepaid if you shift to another funeral provider.

To learn more, see: How to Choose A Funeral Provider, How To Choose A Cemetery Plot.

If you want to pre-pay for your funeral

Check to be sure that the company which owns the funeral home has been around for at least ten years, that it has a good reputation, and, if licensing is required in your state, that it is licensed.

Get a contract which:

  • Describes exactly what is being purchased. For instance, are you buying only merchandise, such as a casket and vault, or are you purchasing funeral services as well?
  • Sets a price that is guaranteed no matter when the funeral takes place.
  • Describes that your money will be held in a separate trust account rather than mingled with the company's other funds. The separate account will help assure that your money will not be subjected to the company's creditors.
  • Provides what would happen if the funds you pay are insufficient as a result of inflation or for other reasons to purchase the items you select.
  • Includes how any excess funds are to be handled. For example, if the funds are maintained in an interest bearing account, what happens to the interest that accumulates?
  • Provides that you get your money back if the funeral home closes or goes out of business -- or if you change your mind.
  • Provides that the company carries theft insurance in case your money is misappropriated.

As an alternative to a pre-payment contract

  • Consider setting aside the funds yourself for your final expenses. A Totten trust or pay-on-death(POD) bank account are two possible options you may wish to consider. (To learn more about them, see Probate Substitutes) ; or
  • Consider purchasing a small life insurance policy, if possible. You can name the funeral home as beneficiary as long as you keep the right to change the name of the beneficiary at any time. Or you can leave the insurance proceeds to a trusted friend or family member to use for your funeral. As a final alternative you can name your estate as the beneficiary of the policy. However, keep in mind it may take a while for the administrator of your estate to have the appropriate authority to receive the proceeds -- and the money would be subject to claims by your creditors.
  • If you are on a limited budget, set aside a little bit at a time, much as you would with a savings account.

If you receive Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income

You may be able to set aside money in a burial plan without affecting your eligibility criteria. See Medicaid for more information.

Step 5. Think About The Details

If you want to plan a funeral and/or a memorial service, think about::

  • Where you want the ceremony to take place.
  • What you want the ceremony to be like.
  • Whether the body should be present. If the body is present, should the casket be open? A closed casket can save money on the preparation of the body. If the body isn't  present, consider a wall with photos instead.
  • Who should give the eulogy.
  • Who should speak. Who should not speak.
  • Whether there should be music. If so, what specific music or what kind of music.
  • Whether you want flowers, and, if so, what kind.
  • Whether you want people to make a donation to a worthy organization instead of people sending flowers.
  • Which among the following group of people you do and do not want to be invited to attend: Family, friends, business and professional associates, religiously affiliated associates, fellow sports and/or hobby enthusiasts, school mates and club and/or association associates and public officials.

If you're looking for ideas, consider the book: In Memoriam, A Practical Guide To Planning A Memorial Service, by Amanda Bennett and Terrence B. Foley.

Step 6. Think About An Obituary And Who Should Write It

An obituary is a short summary of the high points of your life that expands a death notice. It is generally published in local newspapers.

It is advisable to preplan an obituary.

To learn more, see: Obituaries.

Step 7. Decide Whether You Want To Send A Message After You're Gone

You can pass on your life story, values or family anecdotes by means of an Ethical Will -- a document to consider in addition to having a regular Will. (To learn more, see Ethical Wills.)

In addition, there are internet services that will store messages for you and send them after your demise. For instance:

If you want to control what is inscribed on your tombstone, make your wishes known now. If you want to send a message of more than stationary words, tombstones can now feature audio or video messages from the deceased. (Search in your favorite search engine on "videos on grave markers.")

Step 8. Take The Appropriate Steps To Assure That Your Wishes Will Be Carried Out

When you're gone, you won't have control over what people do, no matter how much you pre-plan. In order to have the best chance of assuring that what you want will happen:

Choose someone to be in charge.

Even if you manage to think of everything, someone has to actually make sure that your wishes are carried out. It could be your Executor/Personal Representative, or it could be another person entirely. (To learn more, see Wills 101).

Of course, it would be helpful to be sure that the person you choose is willing to take on this activity. Talk with the person to not only be sure he or she is willing to tak on the job, but also is willing to go along with your ideas. Describe the feeling you want to have, or what is important to you -- not just the details of what you want. If the person has an overview, it will be easier to make decisions when the unexpected arises - as it always will.

Write down your wishes.

For help, see Funeral Plan Chart. Print the chart. Let the person you choose to be in charge know where it is -- or give him or her a copy. Feel free to change the document as often as you wish -- just be sure to give each new copy to the person in charge.

Do not put your funeral wishes in your Will or safe deposit box. A Will is often not read until after a funearl takes place and safe deposit boxes are locked as soon as the bank learns of the holders death. (To learn more, see Wills 101, Safe Deposit Box.)

Discuss your decisions with your family or loved ones.

Getting people to agree ahead of time with your wishes will help assure they will be carrired out.

Involve as many family members as practical in the discussion so that everyone is aware of your wishes. Include your wishes about disposition of the remains, funeral and/or memorial service, and resting place. The discussion will help eliminate bickering or confusion at the time of your funeral. You may encounter resistance discussing funeral arrangements with your family, but remember that you are actually assisting them by spelling out your wishes ahead of time.

If you think talking about this subject is bad luck, or it's not done in your family, express your thoughts to your attorney or to an advisor outside the family.

If you really want to assure your wishes are carried out, make it a pre-condition before the person in charge of your funeral receives a benefit from your estate.

If you want to go this far, speak with your attorney to find out if such a requirement is enforceable in the state in which you live.