Collect your thoughts
A bit of advance planning is one way you can have a voice in these decisions and help those left behind. It need not be a grim or drawn-out process. Simply jotting down your thoughts on funerals and other-end-of-life rituals will get you started. Funeral-industry experts offer these points and sources to consider:
What are your feelings about burial or cremation? Does your religious tradition have specific rules or rituals? (Some avoid cremation; others may require that you be on record as a member before the denomination's clergy can officiate.) Are you in agreement with all the funeral practices of your faith tradition?
What about a casket or container for ashes? This can be a particularly tough question for family members to handle, as the range of choices is enormous, from a $30 disposable plastic urn to a purchased vault in a columbarium (a place where cremated remains are kept, typically in a church or cemetery) to many thousands of dollars for a custom-made wood or metal casket.
Do you want a physical memorial marker? They take many forms, including stones for graves or buried urns; plaques, donated objects like theater seats, a public bench, public-garden planting or library materials imprinted with your name.
What sort of funeral service or memorial gathering, if any, appeals to you? Think back to services you've attended. If you loved the bagpipes at Uncle Bob's service or disapproved of the informal potluck at your friend's send-off, make note. Include your thoughts on location, officiants and speakers. If you have ideas for music, favorite flowers, suggested memorial donations and published obituaries, record those too.
Do you have money set aside? Are you eligible for benefits from the military, employers or other groups? If so, do you have up-to-date records that will allow your family to access these funds?
Who among your family and friends should have access to this information now? (Remember: Leaving your notes in a safe-deposit box is NOT the way to go. Heirs may not easily have access in time to act on your funeral wishes.)
Horan urges planners to be clear in spelling out their preferences but suggests leaving some room for survivors to interpret them. "Funerals are for the living," he said, "A structured plan is good, but it can be very meaningful for family and friends to have a role in remembering the person in their own ways as well."
If you just get as far as answering these questions you're ahead of the game! But consider the following steps as well.
Ask the experts
If you belong to a church, synagogue or other spiritual group, it's a good idea to ask the clergy or spiritual leader for thoughts on planning a funeral. If friends or family have had good experiences with a local funeral service, consider contacting that establishment for advice.
More than 90 percent of the funeral-service companies in this country offer pre-paid plans, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, so most will suggest this option. But a reputable company will also answer your questions about services and products without charging a fee or obligating you to sign a contract.
Some financial advisers suggest relying instead on an interest-bearing bank account or insurance policy earmarked for the same purpose, saying such tools carry less risk and better returns.
But the concept of a pre-paid plan has long had its adherents. (European and Asian immigrants brought their private loan and burial societies to America long before such practices became mainstream business.) If a burial society or pre-paid plan appeals to you, do your homework to find a plan with a solid history and clearly written guarantee. (And make sure your loved ones know where to find the paperwork when the time comes.)