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Money May 2012

Dollar Sense

The Plans No One Ever Wants to Make: Funeral Arrangements

By Teresa Ambord

Trustworthy funeral homes will have no problem complying with these rules. On the other hand, the less trustworthy funeral homes may try to manipulate you to believe that cost should not matter at a time like this. Of course it matters!

Life is full of plans of one kind or another. Chances are, few are as potentially overwhelming as planning a funeral. If you are planning ahead, for yourself or someone else, you may be able to make choices at your leisure. But when a death has already occurred, decisions must be made quickly. And even though you are probably stressed -- emotionally, physically and financially -- those decisions just won’t wait. If possible, ask someone to help you who is less involved in the emotion, someone who can be objective. Perhaps a trusted friend can steer you to choices that are affordable for you.

Where do you begin? Assuming the worst case scenario -- a death has already occurred-- here are some guidelines.

Last Wishes

You may already know the last wishes of the decedent, such as special requests for cremation or burial in a certain cemetery. Possibly he or she has already made some arrangements. Those arrangements may be detailed in a will or Health Care Directive. If you do not know if a will exists, contact the probate court in the county where the person died. Expect to pay a fee for this. If the county in question is far from you, an attorney or legal service in that area can help. Also if the decedent left instructions not to have the will read till after the funeral service, ask your attorney to find out if includes any special arrangements or last wishes that you need for planning the service. If you aren’t sure if there is a Health Care Directive, the decedent’s attorney may have a copy.

Who to Tell

Obviously you’ll tell friends and family of the deceased. Also tell his or her employer and coworkers, Social Security if the decedent was a recipient, the decedent’s insurance company, family physician, and clergy, and notify any organizations and social clubs that the deceased belonged to. If you already know where the burial will take place, contact the cemetery.

Choose a Funeral Home and Director

If this is an emotionally charged decision, you may be tempted to discard financial common sense. That’s why it is a good idea to not to do this alone.

Here are some guidelines: speak to at least three funeral homes/directors and ask for general pricing. The Federal Trade Commission closely regulates the funeral industry, with what is called the Funeral Rule. Based on this rule, funeral directors must provide you with a general price list if you inquire in person. Once you have selected a funeral home, that establishment must give you an itemized statement which includes only the goods and services you selected in your contract, with descriptions of each. Do not sign a contract without an itemized statement and total price.

Trustworthy funeral homes will have no problem complying with these rules. On the other hand, the less trustworthy funeral homes may try to manipulate you to believe that cost should not matter at a time like this. Of course it matters!

Once you’ve chosen the funeral home and director, meet with the director. The funeral home will apply for death certificates for you.

If you encounter unresolvable problems with the funeral home, you can contact your state or local consumer protection agency, the Funeral Consumer’s Alliance, or the Funeral Service Consumer Assistance Program, at 1-800-662-7666.

Now you need to decide…

  • Where will the service be held? If it will be held in a church, contact the church and the clergyman you wish to have officiate.
  • What day and time will the service be held?
  • Will the service be traditional or military or something else?

All veterans, regardless of rank, qualify for military funeral honors, and free burial in a national cemetery and a grave marker. Some civilians who have provided military- related services and the spouses and dependent children of veterans are also entitled to some benefits. Call the Department of Veterans Affairs, at 1-800-827-1000 or log onto

With that done…

  • Contact your funeral director to select the “burial container,” crypt, or cremation urn. If you prefer to shop around, there is no requirement to buy this at the funeral home you are using.
  • Choose flowers.
  • Select music to be played during the service.
  • Arrange for a funeral car.
  • Pick out clothes and shoes the deceased will be buried in.
  • Choose pallbearers.
  • Decide who will perform the eulogy and contact that person. The eulogy doesn’t have to be formal, just personal and heartfelt.
  • Choose Scriptures, if any that will be read during the service.

You’re Ready for the Obituary

With those decisions made, you need to contact a newspaper to run an obituary. Generally there is a fee for this, based on the number of lines or words. The details you include are up to you, and may include surviving relatives and organizations the decedent belonged to.

You may want to name a charity to which people can donate in lieu of sending flowers.

It’s probably best to leave out the street address of the decedent, possibly even the town. There are people out there waiting for an empty house to burglarize. Also consider arranging for the home of the decedent to be occupied during the services, or at least make it appear occupied by leaving on lights and a radio.

After the Ceremony

You’re almost done with the overwhelming decisions.

Where will the funeral attendees meet after the ceremony? If you intend to provide food, think about what to serve and where to get it.

If you expect there to be young children in attendance, consider whether you will have child care available.

Arrange for someone to clean up so that you can spend time with the guests.

When Planning Ahead for Your Own Final Arrangements

Thinking ahead to your own final arrangements should ensure your last wishes are carried out, and it should be a comfort to those you leave behind. In addition to the information already provided, here are a couple of points to consider.

If you intend to be an organ donor there are several places where you can get information about what to do. You can ask your physician, a hospital, a funeral home or morgue, a Lions Club, and in many states, the place where you take your driver’s license test. Depending on the state you live in, you may be able to specify on your driver’s license that you wish to be an organ donor, or carry a separate card for organ donation. You should know, once you have made this decision and let your requests be known, you are not legally obligated to follow through. In other words, you are free to change your mind.

While there is time, communicate your wishes to family and close friends, and/or put your wishes in writing. Upon your death the proper authorities will be notified. If you pass away in a hospital, the medical personnel will probably ask family members to consider organ donation, even if you have not specified this wish.

Also, you should know, donating your organs will not mean that you cannot have an open casket burial.

In case you are wondering…

When a cemetery plot is damaged by vandalism, generally the cemetery will repair the damage. But if the damage is from an act of nature like a flood or extreme wind, the property owner may be responsible for repair. This should be specified in your contract. If not, contact cemetery personnel. Also the homeowner insurance of the property owner may cover damage repair, subject to policy limits and deductible. If this is not clear, contact your insurance carrier.


Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

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