How to Plan a Funeral

Planning a funeral can feel incredibly daunting. There are options to weigh, people to take into account and laws to follow -- and all of this gets more difficult when you’re experiencing grief. Here is a step-by-step guide to help simplify the funeral planning process and make sure you’re aware of your options.

For a personalized, guide, try our free funeral planning tool.

Step 1: Give yourself a moment.

You may feel pressure from a hospital (or even family members) to make a decision quickly, so that your loved one’s body can be picked up. However, there is zero harm in taking some time to process your loss, then talk to friends and family and weigh your options. Once you choose a funeral home, it often costs thousands of dollars to switch, so it’s important that you feel confident in your decision.

Step 2: Decide what you’d like to do with your loved one’s body.

In the United States, the most common two options are cremation and traditional burial.

Pros of cremation:

  • Generally more affordable than burial
  • Considered to be more environmentally friendly than traditional burial
  • Allows you to keep your loved one’s ashes, bury them, or scatter them somewhere meaningful
  • In line with Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions

Pros of burial:

  • Generally considered more traditional than cremation
  • Allows the body to remain intact, which some people find more comforting
  • In line with Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious traditions

You may also want to consider alternative options. Examples include:

Donation to science: Donating a body to science allows for important medical research and education, and is often completely free.

Green burial: There are a growing number of green cemeteries in the U.S. and Canada, in which someone can be buried in a manner that has less of an impact on the environment.

Burial at sea: For those close to the coast, there are sometimes options for at-sea burials, which involve taking a body out on a boat and laying it to rest at sea.

Step 3: Determine whether you’ll want additional services from a funeral home.

While you’ll need the assistance of a licensed funeral director regardless of your choice above, you don’t necessarily need to work with a traditional funeral home. Ask yourself:

  • Do you want a viewing (an event before the funeral where people can come see the body and pay their respects to the family)?
  • Do you want embalming (the process of adding chemicals to the body to make it look more lifelike and slow decomposition)?
  • Do you want to have a service in a funeral home?
  • Are you interested in other traditional funeral services, such as the use of a hearse?

If the answer to any of the above is yes, it probably makes sense to work with a traditional funeral home. If the answer is no, consider a direct cremation or direct burial provider. (This will allow you to only pay for the cremation or burial itself and can save you thousands.)

Step 4: Find the funeral home or other provider that makes the most sense for you.

Only after going through the first few steps should you start looking at and reaching out to funeral homes or other providers (e.g. direct cremation providers or body donation organizations).

When evaluating funeral homes, look for price lists online or ask for them over the phone. You’ll find that prices can vary widely from location to location. You may also want to look at reviews online to ensure you’re choosing the place that will make you feel most comfortable through the process.

Step 5: Find a burial spot, if applicable.

If you’ve chosen to bury your loved one’s body or ashes in a cemetery, research the options around you. Similar to a funeral home, look at both prices and reviews to make sure you feel like you’re making the right choice. You’ll likely also want to visit your top contenders, to see how you feel about each potential grave placement.

Step 6: Order a casket or urn, if applicable.

If you’re working with a funeral home or cemetery, they will likely have caskets and urns to sell you. Many people find that purchasing through the funeral home or cemetery simplifies things. However, you can often save hundreds (even thousands) of dollars by purchasing a casket or urn online. If you’re operating on a limited budget, you may want to exploring buying online. You may also want to go ahead and order a headstone or grave marker (again, if applicable) at this time, but there’s no rush if you’d prefer to wait.

Step 7: Determine and schedule events.

Do you want a formal funeral service in a church? Or would a celebration of life in the deceased’s favorite restaurant be more fitting. There’s no right or wrong way to honor the life of a loved one, so explore your options, and decide what makes the most sense to you. For your reference, here are some of the most common events:

Viewing or wake: A time to give condolences to the family, in which the body of the deceased is often present.

Funeral service: A formal service honoring the deceased (often in funeral home or place of worship) in which the body of the deceased is present.

Memorial service: A formal service honoring the deceased (often in funeral home or place of worship) in which the body of the deceased is not present.

Celebration of life: An informal celebration of the deceased, generally held in a home, restaurant, event space or other favorite location.

Burial: A service (generally shorter than the funeral service) held graveside that focuses on the physical internment of the body.

Reception: An informal gathering after a funeral or memorial service, often at a family member’s home or a restaurant.

It’s worth noting that if you opt for a memorial service or celebration of life, there are no time pressures on when events should be held. If it’s easier for you to pause at this point and take some time to mourn and collect your feelings, that’s fine. It’s not uncommon for a celebration of life to occur several months after a death.

Step 8: Invite friends and family.

Once you’ve locked down the place(s) and time(s), notify the friends and family of the deceased. A memorial website makes it easy to share events details in a single place. You can then send out the link via email and share it on Facebook. It also makes it easy for people to pass along the details to those you may have missed (and for you to accurately collect RSVPs).

Step 9: Put together the program.

Will specific people be giving eulogies? Do you want someone to read from a religious text? Are there funeral songs you’d like played? Put together the program that makes sense for your loved one and talk to everyone who you want to take part. Estimate the time for each section to make sure the entire program will fit into the time you have allotted.

Step 10: Organize any remaining logistics.

Who will be providing food? Do you want to print out programs or prayer cards? Do you want to have a guestbook or other place for people to share memories and condolences? Consider those around you to help here.

Step 11: Appreciate what you’ve done.

The stress of organizing a large event combined with the grief of losing someone can be devastating. Throughout the process, make time for yourself, and when everything comes together, appreciate the work that you’ve done to honor someone who was important to you. Planning a funeral is no small feat.

February 2018