Why Plan Ahead for a Funeral?

Aug 14, 2009 | 2 comments

Here’s a thought to consider. With a wedding, you have weeks, months, even years to plan, purchase and implement all the aspects: clergy, location, communications, flowers, clothing, music, food, transportation, and so on. With a funeral, you have only an average of 24 to 72 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. Hence, funeral directors are the equivalent of wedding planners for the last step in the life cycle, handling all those details for you. You still need to have basic facts about the deceased to process death certificates, and it would be comforting to know you are handling the disposal of the body the way that person would have wanted.

Jessica Mitford, author of the landmark book The American Way of Death published in 1963, told the story of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unheeded last wishes. 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 was that he did not lie in state.

While conducting research for an upcoming book on funeral planning, my husband and I met with a mortuary to pre-plan funeral arrangements for my father-in-law, Norman. We were a bit surprised at how much information was needed, and glad to have the luxury of time and Norm’s availability to provide more details. This was three years before he actually died. After he passed on, my mother-in-law Myra told us she disliked our proactive pre-planning activities at the time. However, when the time came to put the plan into action, she was glad we had already done the work.

As columnist Ellen Goodman commented, “How many families actually have ‘the talk,’ something as dreaded as ‘the talk’ about sex? How many tiptoe around the questions that surround death, parents not wanting to upset children, children not wanting to upset parents? As if we were not in it together.”

Goodman continued, “I have known experts who could speak in public on this subject but not to their mothers. No one is immune from denial – not even the anthropologist Margaret Mead, who preached the need for an open conversation about death. When her time came, and her daughter came to talk, Mead said she wasn’t dying, she had too much left to do.”

So how do you work this? At the most basic level, drop the denial. Recognize death is part of life. Start by letting your loved ones know how you want to be disposed of – burial, cremation, donating your body to science. Give them some sense of how you would like them to celebrate your life when you’re gone. Let the family know if you prefer they hold a rowdy wake when you’re gone.  But it requires more than just writing down your wishes – you need to talk to your people.

You might start the conversation saying, “I know you plan to live forever, but accidents happen. Do you have any preferences for what you want done with your body?” Sometimes, the best way to move recalcitrant parents along is to make your own arrangements first. That’s what my husband and I did, telling his parents we were going cemetery plot shopping and asking if they wanted to come along.

When you prepare for your own death, you can shape the show. When I attended one elderly woman’s graveside funeral, held on a very cold, snowy afternoon, one of her daughters shared her mother’s last instructions. Mom wanted to be buried wearing her socks and slippers, and covered by a favorite blanket, because she was always cold. The mourners laughed knowingly when the daughter said that Mom had strong opinions and often got her way.

The daughter had done all as instructed. After the coffin was lowered into the ground, as I gazed down into the grave, the thought occurred to me that Mom was warmer six feet under than the gathered mourners above in the wind and snow.

So how about you? Made any plans yet?

A Good Goodbye