Even if you’re perfectly healthy with a long future ahead of you, it’s never too soon to tackle these tasks.
It may seem strange to diligently plan for a party you’ll never attend. On the surface, it’s even sillier to put in all that prep—and money—for an event that could be decades down the line. And then there’s the small matter of morbidness: Isn’t prearranging for your own funeral … you know, weird?
Well, only if you make it weird, says Gail Rubin, a New Mexico–based funeral celebrant—a non-clergy professional who helps families plan funerals and memorial services—and thanatologist (a.k.a. death educator).
“I’ve been talking about death for all these years, and it hasn’t killed me yet,” she jokes. “So, you shouldn’t be afraid to start discussing your funeral with your family.”
Here’s why: Death doesn’t come cheap. The average funeral in the United States costs between $7,000 and $10,000, according to Parting.com, a site that compares funeral home prices. If you suddenly pass away, that’s a hefty price for your survivors to pay, especially when they’re busy grieving and worrying about what comes next.
“Planning a funeral is just like planning a wedding, except you’re doing it all in a few days,” Rubin says. “You have to find a place, create a program, and have a guest list, and that’s a lot of decisions to make in a very short period of time.”
Even if you’re perfectly healthy with a long, happy future ahead of you, there’s never a bad time to start planning your funeral. By acting now, you’ll do your family the ultimate favor—and you’ll rest in peace of mind too. Here are the four steps to take.
Step #1: Write Down This Essential Information
The first stop on the path to putting your family at ease is documenting the most essential information about your life. This will come in handy when it’s time for a family member or funeral director to fill out a death certificate on your behalf, which is required to close out your financial accounts. Start with the following:
- Legal name
- Date of birth
- Place of birth
- Social security number
- Veteran status: Where and when did you serve in the military?
- Father’s name
- Mother’s name, including maiden
- Highest level of education
From there, share your important financial credentials with your trusted loved ones, including your various savings accounts and how to access them. You’ll also want to assemble any insurance policies (life, disability, health, and property) in one place, as well as a signed advance directive, which clearly expresses your end-of-life wishes.
“If your loved ones don’t know how you want your body disposed of, they could be on the hook for thousands more dollars than what you wanted them to spend,” Rubin says.
Don’t forget to list the contact information for any professionals you work with, such as your attorney or accountant, and especially the people you want notified in the event of your death. (How much fun is a party without your friends there?)
Last, take a stab at writing the first draft of your obituary. “Try to tell your life story in less than 500 words,” Rubin advises. Where did you go to school? What was your proudest accomplishment? What were you most passionate about?
It’s another timesaver for your family—and you’ll get the chance to show the world how you want to be remembered.
Step #2: Take a Shopping Trip
Unless you’ve planned someone else’s funeral, you probably haven’t intentionally toured the funeral homes in your town. But casually perusing parlors is like visiting car dealerships to see the latest makes and models, Rubin says.
“It’s a really fascinating shopping trip when you’re not under any pressure,” she says.
Set aside a few Saturdays to see all the options in your area. You don’t have to make any decisions until you’re ready, but like car shopping, it helps to get to know your salespeople before doing any business. And since funerals are expensive undertakings, you’ll want to weigh as many prices as possible before committing to a place.
When the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) recently surveyed consumers, they found only 8.3 percent of respondents visited more than one funeral home during the planning process. Remember: Time is on your side.
“You can’t really shop around if you’ve had a death in the family,” Rubin says. “This way, you’ll know if you can get better deals elsewhere.”
Rubin says you should consider three factors when evaluating potential funeral homes:
The first two are relatively straightforward. Does the venue offer a comfortable space to be with family and friends during a difficult time, and does it include up-to-date amenities? Is the funeral director a warm, engaging person who isn’t just trying to make a sale?
“You’ll want to make sure the person you’re speaking with is asking you meaningful questions about your life, and not just checking items off of a list,” Rubin says. “They should offer creative ideas for the service that celebrate your life.”
Step #3: Find a Package That Works for You
Every funeral home’s package of services is different. There isn’t just one way to be laid to rest. If you elect to have your body cremated, for example, then you’ll have a memorial service, which can be significantly cheaper than a funeral since there aren’t costs associated with a burial.
The NFDA predicts the U.S. cremation rate will reach 53.5 percent by the end of 2018, and Parting.com tabs the average cost of a direct cremation through a funeral home to be between $1,600 and $3,000.
But let’s say you do decide to go with a traditional funeral. In that event, you’ll be paying the funeral home to perform many of the following services, according to Parting.com:
- Funeral director and staff services
- Use of facilities for visitation, funeral, or memorial services
- Transfer of the body to and from the funeral home and cemetery
- Graveside service
Many funeral homes will also offer a casket as part of their package. But you have the right to buy a separate casket from another retailer, such as a big-box store, local shop, or online, and the parlor must handle it free of charge, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Funeral Rule. The same goes for any other arrangements: You don’t have to purchase a package that includes items you don’t want, says the FTC.
With so many options, it’s no wonder why prices vary considerably between funeral homes. That’s where sites like Parting.com and Funeralocity.com come in: These and other online destinations compare funeral homes, arrangements, and costs in your market and recommend the best packages based on your preferences.
Step #4: Make the Investment
Once you’ve found a home you like at a price that makes sense, now it’s time to pay for it. The most common financing option is called a “pre-need plan,” where you lock in your package with the funeral home at its current price—not the amount it will cost at the actual time of your death. In most states, you’re technically purchasing a life insurance policy, and the funeral home is the beneficiary.
If you go this route, just make sure the policy is portable, Rubin says. “If the funeral home ends up going out of business or changes ownership, you’re protected,” she says. “Or if you move to another market, you can use the money in this policy and present it at a different funeral home.”
You can also set up a Totten trust, or “payable on death” (POD) account, through your bank. All you need to do is assign a beneficiary to the account. You can withdraw funds whenever you want while you’re alive, but after your death, the beneficiary becomes the account holder and can use the funds to pay for your funeral.
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