Why should you pre-plan your own funeral or memorial service? Here are a few thoughts to consider about planning ahead for this important life cycle event.
With weddings, you have weeks, months, even years to plan, purchase, and implement all the aspects: clergy or celebrant, location(s), communications to family and friends, flowers, clothing, music, food, transportation, hotels, writing the ceremony, and so on. With a funeral, you have only an average of twenty-four to seventy-two hours to make the same types of arrangements, while also dealing with the emotional impact of the loss of a loved one.
Planning a funeral right after a family member dies is probably the last thing you want to do. A good funeral director is the equivalent of a wedding planner for the last step in the life cycle, handling all those details for you. With some plans and information already on file with a funeral home, you can make it so much easier on your surviving loved ones.
At a minimum, put the biographical facts to process death certificates together for your family. As for your body disposal and memorial service preferences, it may comfort the family to know it’s handled in a way you would have wanted. And make sure the people who will be carrying out your wishes know where to find the information!
Consider the cautionary tale of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unheeded last wishes. This story was told by Jessica Mitford, author of the landmark book The American Way of Death, first published in 1963 and revisited with updates in 2000.
Roosevelt had written down instructions but kept the document in his private safe. He wanted a simple, dark wood casket; no embalming; no hermetically sealed coffin; no grave lining; transportation by gun carriage, not by hearse; and no lying in state anywhere. The document was discovered a few days after his burial. Unfortunately, the only instruction followed – he did not lie in state.
Funeral Pre-Planning Surprise
While conducting research for A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die, my husband and I met with a funeral home to preplan for my father-in-law, Norman.
Norm had undergone three open heart surgeries during his lifetime. After the third operation, he was in a coma for ten days. When he came out of the coma, his doctor said, “You’d better get your affairs in order.” He took care of financial and estate planning, but six years later, he still hadn’t done any funeral planning.
At the funeral home, we were surprised at how much information was needed. We were glad to have the luxury of time and Norm’s availability to provide more details.
Over dinner with Norm and Myra, his wife of almost 60 years, he was upbeat about our arrangements. “Sure, I’ll get you my veterans papers, my Social Security number and the family history,” he said. “I’ll even write my own obituary!” I’m thinking, this is great!
Then I looked over at Myra. She looked down at the roast beef and the mashed potatoes, saying nothing. She didn’t want to think about this. She didn’t want to talk about this. Norm is going to live forever! We know how that goes, don’t we? I got the information and put it on file with a trusted local funeral home.
When Plans Become Action
This was three years before Norm actually died at the age of 82. Following a fall and a broken hip, he experienced a seven-week decline, going back and forth between the hospital and rehab facility. During his third ER admission with trouble breathing, the doctors suggested palliative care: make him comfortable and allow nature to take its course.
It was a tough decision for Myra, his named medical advocate, one which she did not want to make. My husband and I advocated for palliative care.
Norm died peacefully in the hospital a week later, with the family gathered around him. At midnight. On a Tuesday. After seven weeks of schlepping back and forth to hospitals and care facilities. We were exhausted.
But you know what? When we went to the funeral home the next day, finalizing the arrangements was easy and quick. We just tweaked a few of the elements we had already put in place. Myra put it all on her credit card – think of the points, the miles!
We were done in an hour. The part that took the most time – writing Norm’s obituary, which he failed to do as promised. We were too exhausted to write anything eloquent to put in the death notice announcement. However, he was eulogized well at the funeral.
After meeting with the funeral director, Myra admitted, “I really didn’t like it when you were preplanning, but now, when we needed it, I’m glad it was done.” A few months after Norm’s funeral, Myra had us put her information on file with the funeral home for her eventual demise at some future time.
As of this writing, she’s still alive and kicking nine years later. These examples set by my in-laws offer living proof: you can plan ahead and not die.
Gail Rubin, Certified Thanatologist, is a pioneering death educator who connects companies with baby boomers concerned about end-of-life issues. An award-winning speaker and author, she’s also the coordinator of the second annual Before I Die New Mexico Festival, October 30 to November 4, 2018. Learn more at www.BeforeIDieNM.com.