But let us begin with what could be the most important thing any of us can do for our family or close friends; plan ahead. As difficult as it may be to think about or perhaps it is unsettling to consider, but we should all give some thought to what happens after we are gone and what could happen to the people we love. We want to leave a loving family behind, not one torn apart by disputes over money or property.
The best way to avoid any dissent is to make some important decisions in advance. If you don’t have a will, prepare one now. It could be as simple as an online document signed by a notary or might require assistance from an attorney. You should also have a Living Will, which lets medical personnel know your preferences at the end of life.
Put together a document that outlines your financial holdings, any pensions or insurance policies along with passwords for online accounts. Let someone know where you keep your marriage certificate, children’s birth certificates and any other important papers. Designate someone who you trust to be level-headed to take charge.
If you have been designated by a loved one in advance or are the next-of-kin , the first few days after a loss may seem overwhelming. While you are grieving, dozens and dozens of decisions will need to be made, many of them simultaneously. You may be flooded with phone calls, emails and texts, offers of help. It may feel like you don’t have time to yourself or time to grieve. The first thing you might want to do is sit for a few moments alone and just breathe or cry. Take the time you need to prepare yourself for what is ahead. Reach out to someone you can lean on when it feels
Here are the important things that will happen right away and what you need to focus on:
1. Pronouncement of death: If death occurs in a hospital or hospice or a nursing home, a medical professional will complete a legal Pronouncement of Death form. The date and time on this form will be the official record of the death.
2. Emergency call: If your loved one passes away at home, you will need to report the death by calling 911. Medical personnel who respond can issue the legal pronouncement, or make a decision to refer to the coroner.
3. Autopsy: A suspicious or unknown cause of death should be referred to the county coroner for an autopsy where a determination of cause will be made based on an examination and toxicology reports.
4. Transfer the body: After death is confirmed, the next step is to arrange for the body to be moved to a funeral home or crematorium, based on the wishes of the deceased or your decision if those wishes were never expressed. If the death occurred far away from home, you will need to pay for transportation to return the body to your area.
5. Ask for help: There are a lot of details to manage after someone dies, decisions to be made and people to be contacted so it is strongly recommended that you seek help immediately and that the tasks be distributed to multiple people, whether relatives or close friends.
6. Notifications:You will want to begin making notifications to extended family and close friends. You should make a call to a pastor, rabbi, imam or other religious representative. If the person was still working, you should also inform their employer with 24 hours and be sure to ask about any remaining payroll as well as contact information for pension or 401K accounts.
7. Funeral instructions: If the deceased prepared any instructions for the funeral or burial, you should find that document immediately. It should be shared with other family members and, eventually, with the funeral director.
8. Funeral arrangements: Make some important decisions, perhaps with your family, about what type of funeral you’re planning, whether there will be a pre- or- post funeral gathering and whether the casket will be open or closed. Make assignments for various responsibilities related to the funeral, including: Meeting with the funeral director; writing the obituary; selecting clothes and jewelry; collecting photos; organizing the meal after the service.
9. Document search: Find the person’s wallet as it usually contains important items that will be needed over the next few days. There are some important documents that will also need to be collected over the next few weeks (see What documents will I need to bring to the funeral home? and What documents need to be collected after the funeral? ) Start making a list of insurance policies, bank accounts, other financial institutions, former employers and any pension holders. Be sure to check with a spouse, children, family attorney or any close friend who might offer additional information about where money or policies are located. After the funeral or burial, you will begin contacting these account holders to disburse the remaining funds and/or file for any death benefits.
10. The will: Next you will want to find the Last Will and Testament, which may be in the home, in a safe deposit box or on file with an attorney.
Funeral planning is as individual as we are. Some people prefer large celebrations while others want a quiet, solemn remembrance. It may have been your loved one’s wish to be cremated and have ashes strewn in a favorite location. Or he or she may have already requested a favorite hymn to be sung while laid to rest alongside a beloved spouse. Sometimes the important decisions are made in advance, but you may also be starting from the beginning.
1. Traditional funeral: A funeral is often held in a large venue, such as a church, temple, mosque, funeral home or community hall, where family members, friends and colleagues can gather to pay final respects to the deceased. In some cases, the deceased’s body is on display for a final viewing, with the casket later closed during the service. In Judaism and Islam the burial takes place as quickly as possible, often within 24 hours, and there is no embalming and no viewing. Other faiths also do not put the body on display.
2. Funeral with cremation: If your loved one chose to be cremated, you can still plan a full, traditional funeral service or any other type of service you choose (See What does it mean to be cremated and why choose it?). There can be a viewing (followed by cremation) or there may not be a body present. Cremated remains are often buried in a cemetery, but they can be also be returned to the family for private disposal at a later time.
3. Graveside service: A brief graveside service is generally conducted at the burial for family members and close friends. A graveside service can also be a stand-alone event to replace the full funeral, with a religious or non-religious service, spoken remembrances and music. It is generally much shorter in length, with family seated and guests standing.
4. Memorial service: A memorial service is often held in place of a religious service for people who want to share remembrances. The body of a deceased person would not be present at a memorial service.
5. Humanist service and non-religious service: The humanists celebrate the end of life as a final part of a natural process. Their ceremonies include spoken recollections and favorite music. Similarly, atheists make no references to heaven or an afterlife, and share remembrances of a loved one with words and music. Funerals or memorial services that included burial or cremation can be conducted as a humanist or non-religious service.
6. Green funeral: If your loved one was committed to protecting the environment he or she might request a green funeral which bans embalming and usually commits to a natural process for the remains (see What is a green funeral?).
There is a long history of ritual and respect surrounding the preparation of the body for funeral rites. The processes of embalming and mummification go back many thousands of years to the ancient Egyptian and Peruvian cultures. It was to honor the dead and prepare their souls for the next life. In modern times, the embalming process prepares the body for viewing, allowing grieving families to reflect on the life of their loved one while seeing them in repose as they knew them. Some believe viewing the body gives comfort to mourners and fosters good memories for a more peaceful goodbye.
Embalmers are licensed practitioners, often the funeral directors themselves, who are trained in the science of embalming, which replaces bodily fluids with a chemical mixture to slow down decomposition. The body is bathed and massaged, followed by the embalming. Next is a cosmetic process to prepare the face, apply makeup, style the hair and sometimes add nail polish. A favorite dress or suit, shoes and even jewelry are usually provided by the family. The body is then placed in the casket with either a full or partial opening for viewing during a wake and/or funeral service.
A body is cremated by placing a casket or other combustible container holding the body inside a large furnace, known as a cremator. Through the application of high heat, over the course of a few hours, the remains are reduced to a fine ash or sand. Those remains are placed in an urn and delivered to the deceased’s loved ones for burial or other commemoration. The decision for or against cremation can involve many factors.
There can be a lesser cost associated with cremation since the body is often not embalmed and the requirements for storage and transportation of a body are reduced. The urn or container holding remains can remain with a deceased’s family or loved ones rather than in a cemetery which may not always be accessible. Some consider cremation a benefit to the environment by creating a reduced need for space. Others believe that the process of decomposition is a more natural occurrence. When making the decision on whether to be cremated or whether to cremate a loved one it is important to consider that some religions prohibit cremation and others discourage it, although religious views on cremation have moderated in recent times. And remember that cremation is final, and does not allow for a change of mind.
You have the same options for services with cremation; a traditional funeral with or without a viewing, a direct burial, a memorial service or whatever you choose.
At a time of death you will find many different customs and practices based upon religion, ethnicity or country of origin. If you are planning a funeral and uncertain about what is expected on behalf of a loved one who practiced a certain faith, it is best to consult with officials of their church, synagogue, mosque or religious institution. If you are attending a service and unsure of what to expect as an attendee, there are websites where you can get some general guidelines about the service, periods of mourning, attire, flowers and other expressions of grief.
There are 135 VA national cemeteries in 40 states and Puerto Rico. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, “Burial in a VA national cemetery is open to all members of the armed forces and Veterans who have met minimum active duty service requirements, as applicable by law and were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable.”
Every eligible military veteran can receive full military honors at burial, attended by military personnel with the folding and presenting of a flag and the playing of Taps. You should discuss with your funeral home director whether you will be requesting military honors while planning this service.
Your loved one may have filled out a required by the military, which would allow them to provide all the documentation in advance and reserve a space in the nearest veteran’s cemetery. There is also a financial allowance to assist with the cost of burial which would be paid immediately to the surviving spouse. If there is not a surviving spouse, a claim can be filed and the VA will pay a child or parent or executor of an estate.
If you are initiating a military burial, you must locate the deceased’s military discharge document and contact the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Scheduling Office. In addition to the discharge papers you should be prepared to offer the following information.
People select home burial for a variety of reasons. Some families with significant acreage keep a family cemetery on their property. In other instances a home burial might could be motivated by the emotional desire to maintain a close connection with the deceased. There are also some who want to limit the financial cost of a funeral (see What does a funeral cost?) and others consider a home burial more environmentally friendly (see What is a green funeral?). Whatever the reason, there are some important things to consider before deciding to bury on a home property.
Many of us are concerned about the impact our lives are having on the environment and its natural resources. We recycle, purchase biodegradable products, limit gas consumption and attempt to reduce our carbon footprint. Now there is a natural way to extend that green awareness by planning for a green funeral. Green funerals reduce chemical contamination of funeral workers and the environment by eliminating the embalming process, they use biodegradable products to contain the body and support the natural decompensation of the body back into nature.
The Green Burial Council is one organization that supports this growing movement by providing information on how to conduct a green funeral. The council certifies funeral homes which have the resources to handle a green funeral. If your funeral home is not certified, you can use this document as a guide for some of the criteria they might use to provide a more environmentally friendly funeral. The GBC also provides a green burial planning guide which can help identify your priorities in advance or assist the planning of a green funeral after death.
Embalming is not a legal requirement after death. It is used to prevent decomposition and allow time to pass before a funeral service while allowing the body to be prepared appropriately for the public viewing. A green funeral does not permit embalming so funerals are usually held quickly. Biodegradable containers or shrouds are used in place of traditional caskets. If your funeral home cannot provide either, you are allowed to bring a container of your choosing or build a container for the funeral home to use. The Green Burial Council identifies three types of green cemeteries:
A Hybrid cemetery offers the option of burial without a concrete slab or liner and accepts bodies that have not been embalmed or have been embalmed with non-toxic chemicals. A Natural Burial Ground prohibits concrete slabs or liners and prohibits embalming chemicals. It is designed in nature with native plants and landscaping to fit the eco-system. It discourages floral displays and adornments of the graves. A Conservation Burial Ground furthers the restrictions of the Natural Burial Ground with an established conservation organization guiding its land preservation. There are a handful of cemeteries in the US and Canada which are currently identified as green cemeteries. Some of have been certified by the GBC, some have not. You will need to ask questions to determine if the cemetery in your area suits your needs.
Choosing the right funeral home is an important decision for a grieving family. You want to work with a funeral home that will listen to your requests and concerns and respond appropriately. You can use the internet to find funeral homes in your area or seek recommendations from family and friends. Be sure to check any reviews that are available online. In small towns or communities there may be fewer choices, or your religious institution may recommend a specific provider. You may feel that your time is limited and there is not the opportunity to ‘shop around’ but if possible you should contact multiple vendors to compare prices and services.
A survey by the National Funeral Directors Association conducted in 2015 found the average price of an adult funeral with viewing and burial to be $7,181.00. That estimate included a casket, embalming and cosmetology, rental for public viewing, some transportation costs and some administrative costs. Significant costs that were not included: limousines or cars for family, funeral home staff assistance with burial, any flowers, musicians or other funeral participants and any cemetery costs, such as the plot, preparing the gravesite, tenting and setting up chairs or the headstone. With all of these considerations the cost of a funeral can go quite a bit higher. As you prepare your price list and comparison shop, there are some important things to remember.
The funeral home will prepare the death certificate and file it with the appropriate local or state agency. In order to do so, a number of important documents will need to be presented to the funeral director or representative. Those items are included on the list below.
The funeral home will want to know any wishes that were expressed by your loved one for their own service so you will be asked to bring any papers related to funeral planning that were made in advance. You also have the opportunity to bring personal items which will be needed for the preparation of the body. Many funeral homes require partial or full payment in advance of their services so you should be prepared for that as well.
If your loved one has not chosen a cemetery in advance or purchased a burial plot, you have several options for the type of cemetery for burial. Here is a state by state directory of public cemeteries, private cemeteries and cemeteries that have religious affiliations. Many families select a cemetery based on geographic proximity so it is close enough to regularly visit the gravesite. You can also ask your funeral home for a recommendation. A funeral home sometimes has a working relationship with a particular cemetery, and may even be able to factor some cost considerations into your selection. Your religious institution might have a cemetery that is adjacent or nearby its property. There are also green cemeteries for those who have environmental concerns. Military families who are working with the Department of Veterans Affairs on a military burial can use the cemetery locator on the VA website.
The cost of a burial plot is dependent on the size and purpose. Plots are sold to individuals, to couples and to families, with escalating cost. Burial of a casket will be more expensive than a cremation urn. A private cemetery is generally more expensive than a public one. Other cost factors include any requirement for a vault to protect the casket, the cost of a grave marker, the fees for internment, for landscaping and any burial permits that might be required.
Like any real estate purchase, it is important to fully understand who you are doing business with, the costs and the long-term relationship. An attorney is sometimes involved in pre-planned purchases to manage the contract and the pricing. If arrangements need to be made in a short space of time, after someone has died, it is important to check the reputation of the cemetery and understand any paperwork you are asked to sign. Here is a checklist of some factors to consider when you are making this purchase.
It is sometimes desired to reflect the adventurous spirit or passion of an individual in the way that they are memorialized. Cremated remains can be scattered in locations that were meaningful to someone’s life. A celebration can be held in a public space or on a body of water, with proper consideration to any legal requirements.
A burial at sea must meet requirements set out by the Environmental Protection Agency. A casket can be disposed of at sea, at a distance of 3 nautical miles from shore and a depth of 600 feet, provided that the casket will sink to the ocean floor. Cremated remains can be scattered at any depth as long as it is 3 nautical miles from shore.
Cremated remains can also be scattered in many public places, including most national parks, with a written request to the National Park Service. Each park has a set of rules which must be followed. Scattering cremated remains by air is a popular option, but may require consent from the Federal Aviation Administration, a state or local jurisdiction and even a local health department. There are specialized pilots and businesses who conduct these flights, searchable in your area. Families may or may not be allowed to be onboard.
Social media makes it possible to very quickly disseminate the news of a person’s passing. It also facilitates distributing information and updates about a funeral or memorial service. In some instances, memorial pages are even created where close friends can share recollections.
If he or she was still employed, then a call to the boss who can notify other employees would be needed. If there are business associates (banker, lawyer, insurance agent) who were personal acquaintances, they should be notified as well. Otherwise those notifications can wait a few days until after the funeral when you begin your important document collection (see What documents and papers ned to be collected after the funeral?). These notification calls are especially important if a group might want to offer a proclamation or certificate of appreciation to be read at a funeral or memorial service. The people who are called can be asked to share the news within their circle. Here are some important notifications to make:
In order to prevent the accumulation of further debt by an individual’s estate, it is important to notify credit card companies and cellphone carriers and any other individual debt holders. Also, mail a copy of the death certificate to all three credit bureaus to avoid any potential for fraud.
If your loved one is receiving social security benefits the Department of Social Security should be notified immediately. You can provide the social security number of your loved one to the funeral home and they can make the call for you. If you prefer to call yourself the number is 1-800-772-1213.
The first hours and days after a loss can be filled with overwhelming grief, shock, confusion and sometimes even anger. During that emotional time dozens and dozens of important decisions must be made. The support of family and friends is invaluable. As a friend, you can help with one of the many tasks that are required or you could be a sounding board for grief. But in your words and actions you must respect whatever way someone wants to manage this grieving process. Do not try to take over because you feel they are incapacitated. Support means support. If you reach out, do so with the understanding that you may not have immediate access to the spouse or parent or child who has suffered the loss. Leave a message of condolence and do not be hurt or disappointed if you don’t get an immediate response.
If you want to offer help, don’t just say “what can I do?” Make a specific offer such as helping with phone calls, babysitting children, shopping for food, organizing photos or creating a slideshow. After the funeral there will continue to be many tasks which the family must undertake, so if you do not have an opportunity to help immediately, consider ways in which you can assist in the weeks ahead (see What happens in the months after the funeral?).
In speaking with someone who is grieving, sometimes it is best to just listen and serve as an outlet for the outpouring of emotion. You do not have the answers for why death occurs, so avoid the clichés like ‘he didn’t suffer’ or ‘she’s in a better place now.’ The focus should be on the person who has been lost. Perhaps you can share a favorite story or memory about the loved one or talk about things he or she liked to do. People grieving often appreciate hearing stories and learning more about the life of their loved one. Don’t ask a lot of questions that the family might not be prepared to answer such as “what happened in the final moments?” or “what were his final words?” or “how did she die?” If the person does not want to talk, do not pressure them to do so.
Times of grief are stressful and uncomfortable for almost everyone. As a participant, you want to express sympathy but avoid saying or doing the wrong thing. There are no hard and fast rules for behavior, dress or conversation but there should be common sense and showing respect for religious or cultural traditions. If you are unfamiliar with a particular set of religious or cultural traditions you can ask or search online for more information. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions around funeral etiquette.
Should I attend the wake? The wake is usually a few days before the funeral, presided over by family members who greet those paying their respects. If you are invited to the wake or if the wake is open to the public and you want to spend time visiting with the family, this is an opportunity to do so. If you are unable to attend the funeral, this is a chance to express your condolences in person and say your goodbyes. There is usually an open casket at a wake and it is your choice whether you want to participate in the viewing. If the viewing makes you uncomfortable, it is important not to draw attention to yourself.
What should I say? “I am sorry for your loss” is the simplest, truest and safest thing to say to someone who is grieving. The focus should always be on the bereaved and their lost loved one. You might also share a story or favorite recollection. Avoid any comments about ‘why’ the person died or how the bereaved will be able to ‘move on.’
What should I wear? The most important, common sense advice is not to draw attention to yourself with your clothing, either in style or color. Black or dark clothing are still very common but no longer required. Some families appreciate a favorite color of the loved one being included in the service. There are also cultural and ethnic traditions that may dictate attire for a funeral.
Should I send a card or flowers? It is always appropriate to send a card of condolence, even if you plan to attend the service. Printed cards are popular although personal notes are especially welcome. Those notes and cards are often read later and can offer great comfort to the bereaved. Flowers are a beautiful expression of sympathy and can be sent to the funeral home which will put them on display at either the wake, the funeral or both.
Can I make a charitable donation? The family may designate a donation in lieu of or in addition to flowers. That information can generally be found in the funeral program and the obituary.
Can I prepare food? Many funeral services are followed by a gathering that includes a meal. It might be in a church or a community hall or a private home. If you want to bring food it is best to communicate your offer to the organizers of the funeral in advance so they can advise on where the food should be delivered.
Saying goodbye to a loved one can be as important to a child as it is to an adult. Their age, their behavior and their desire to attend the funeral should all be factors in your decision about including them. As a parent, you know whether your 3-year old can sit quietly during a lengthy, somber service. Does he regularly attend a religious service in a church or synagogue? Or is she noisy and disruptive at public events? That might weigh into your decision. An older child can be asked if he or she would like to attend. A child should not feel left out. You can try to convince them if they are reluctant, but ultimately should not force them to go if they choose not to.
Every child should be prepared for what they will see and hear at a wake or funeral. If a conversation about dying and death has not taken place, this is an important time to have one. Even very young children have some familiarity with some aspect of death because they have seen insects or animals, skeletons at Halloween or even characters in cartoons. But they may not understand the permanence of death or how to manage what they are feeling. The amount of detail you want to share should depend on the child’s age and maturity. If there will be an open casket, the child should be prepared for what they will see if they choose a viewing. They should know that it is okay to cry and express their sadness. A good suggestion is to have someone designated in advance who can escort the child out of the service if they are too upset to stay or too bored. You can also ask in advance if there will be a place for children to be cared for during the service.
After the funeral, don’t forget to check in with the child to talk about what they are feeling. You want to be sure they know they can express any anxiety or fears. Here is one guide that offers some helpful responses for questions children may ask while they are grieving (Acrobat reader required to open).
Hopefully your loved one had a safe place for keeping important papers, either in the home, in a bank or with an attorney. That will make your task of collecting important documents much easier. Be sure to look everywhere you can think of for papers, especially up-to-date financial statements. For the funeral home and the death certificate, you will have delivered official identification such as driver’s license or passport, social security numbers, birth certificates, marriage certificates and military discharge papers. The next thing you must do is make a list of all the bank accounts, stocks and other investment accounts, life insurance or other insurance policies, employee pensions (past and current employers), employee 401K accounts and personal IRA accounts.
Each of these account holders must be contacted and notified of the death. There is usually a customer contact number on a policy or statement. It is most likely that they will require a death certificate as verification (see How do I obtain and death certificate and why do I need it? ). Ask for information about how to submit a request for benefits. You should also make yourself aware of any other beneficiaries who are listed on the various accounts and policies.
It is important to be organized and keep all of these papers in a safe place. Make a record of your phone calls or email communication and whatever response or follow-up is required. Make copies of the documents if possible. Also keep any other beneficiaries informed about all communications.
A death certificate is prepared at the funeral home (or can be prepared by an individual in the event of a home burial). It requires the signature of a physician stating the cause of death. In some cases, the actual cause may still be unknown (pending autopsy) so a death certificate is prepared with a presumptive cause or often ‘cardiac failure.’ The funeral home files the death certificate with local or state authorities and it is ultimately transferred to the state’s department of vital statistics. When the funeral home is preparing the death certificate, you will be asked how many copies you need. You should ask for at least ten copies. But based on your document list, you may need more to distribute to account holders.
Later, any request for a death certificate will need to go to your state’s repository for vital statistics which can be found by searching online. There is a fee associated with multiple copies and that cost varies from state to state.
The will should be used as a guide to carry out the final wishes of the deceased. An executor of a will has a tremendous responsibility to manage the financial affairs and make decisions on behalf of the estate. Working with an attorney, the executor will verify the validity of the will, then decide whether the estate qualifies for probate court (see What is probate?). In addition, the executor will locate all the assets of the estate, sell assets if needed, pay any outstanding debts or taxes and oversee the distribution of the estate to all the beneficiaries.
Life insurance policies and pension accounts which designate direct beneficiaries are exempt from oversight by the will, and are distributed separately. Any joint asset accounts will transfer directly to the surviving account holder and are also exempt from the will.
It is important to know that all creditors will be paid from the estate before any assets designated in the will are distributed to beneficiaries. Surviving spouses are responsible for the debt if they co-signed a loan, had a joint credit account or live in a community property state. The Federal Trade Commission offers guidance on how to handle any requests from creditors regarding debt after death.
Avoiding the cost and time of probate requires some careful planning. One important thing you can do is to make sure that all of your life insurance policies, your 401K’s and pensions, bank and investment accounts, stocks and bonds have named beneficiaries. If you’re married, your spouse is assumed to be the direct beneficiary but it is worth taking the time to fill out the beneficiary forms so there is no delay in distributing the assets. Any joint accounts will transfer automatically to the co-owner of the account upon death. You can name anyone a joint tenant on an account or a property, including a spouse, a partner, a child or a friend, thus avoiding having to name them in a will or put them through probate.
It is possible to reduce the size of your estate by distributing assets throughout your life. You can also set up a living trust which would take the place of a will. It puts all of your assets in a trust and distributes them upon your death. The process remains private, unlike probate court.