The end of life is an uncomfortable topic that most people would prefer to avoid discussing. However, death is something that we all will face at some point in our lives. Sharing our wishes, fears and ideas about death helps us come to terms with this natural event. Conversations about dying also help families prepare both emotionally and financially for a loved one’s passing. The following strategies and information can assist family caregivers and seniors in navigating this difficult subject.

Having “The Talk” About End-of-Life Arrangements

When it comes to discussing funeral planning, it is important for family members to clearly express their preferences to one another. The options are many and varied, and this can make it difficult for surviving loved ones to accurately remember and execute final wishes. Some people request a celebration of life in lieu of a funeral, opt for a “green” burial without a traditional casket, or want their remains to be cremated and scattered in a special place.

Starting a discussion like this can stir up a lot of strong emotions but doing so will ensure that a person’s requests will be respected and give family members some solace in knowing exactly what steps to take when the time comes. Furthermore, making preferences known ahead of time allows for adequate financial planning to fund the arrangements.

When should you have this conversation? Since initiating “the talk” can be a nerve-racking experience, many people put it off until it is too late. Spelling out one’s wishes is a wise move at any age. Most experts recommend preparing end of life documents, such as wills, living wills and an authorization for final disposition, early on. Common practice is to review these legal documents at least every five years and any time a major life event occurs, such as a marriage, divorce, birth of a child or health scare. Diagnosis of a serious or terminal illness is often what spurs people to share their final wishes and get their estate in order, but the longer one waits to address these issues, the harder it will be for the family to see them through.

It is best to discuss end-of-life arrangements in person and put one’s stipulations down in writing. This allows family members to ask questions and receive immediate clarification and provides them with end-of-life instructions that they can reference at a later date, should they need guidance. Grief tends to envelop people like a fog, which can make it difficult to clearly recall what the deceased requested (or specifically wanted to avoid) for their final arrangements. Furthermore, emotional overspending is common with family members who must plan a funeral or cremation with little or no direction. Spelling out instructions for surviving loved ones may help minimize their desire to purchase unnecessary goods and services.

Questions to Ask When Drafting a Final Wishes Document

Many individuals have a difficult time articulating their final wishes, usually because they have not thought through them in detail before. The following questions can help family members consider their options and work through what they envision for their own memorials.

  • Final gathering(s):
    • Would you like no gathering, a small private gathering, or one that is open to all friends and family?
    • Would you prefer it to be a solemn occasion, a celebration of life or both?
    • Where should the gathering(s) be located? In a church or funeral home, at the gravesite, a beloved restaurant or park, or in someone’s home?
    • Do you wish to have a viewing, visitation and/or religious service?
  • Remains:
    • Would you rather be buried or cremated?
    • Do you want to be interred above or below ground (in a mausoleum or cemetery plot)?
    • Where would you like your cremains kept? (e.g. scattering in a special location, a columbarium niche, an urn garden, a family plot, retained by loved ones, etc.)
  • Personal Preferences:
    • Would you like to be interred or cremated with any personal items or wearing specific clothing?
    • Who would you like to deliver your eulogy?
    • If you plan to have a gathering, would you like a certain song played, poem read or religious passage recited?

Consumer Rights to Be Aware of When Planning a Funeral

The Federal Trade Commission enforces a special Funeral Rule that protects consumers’ rights when planning pre-need and at-need funerals. Consumers have the right to request itemized pricing information in order to competitively price funeral homes and their products and services. This assists families in only purchasing the goods and services that they want or need, helping them to save money. Other rights include the ability to make funeral arrangements without embalming (it is a costly process that is rarely required) and the ability to use an urn or casket that has been purchased from somewhere other than the funeral home.


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Pre-Paid Funeral Arrangements

For some consumers, pre-paying is a viable option for ensuring a funeral is fully funded. Since funeral home services are subject to inflation, pre-paying can also help keep costs down by locking in current prices for a service that may not be used for many years. Pre-paying for a funeral is also doubly beneficial for seniors who are trying to spend down their assets to qualify for Medicaid. Irrevocable prearranged funeral plans are exempt from Medicaid asset limits, but be sure to check if there are additional limitations on pre-paid funeral planning in your state.

Pre-paying for final arrangements does come with a certain level of risk, and protections for consumers vary widely by state. It is possible for one to lose their investment if the funeral home has already been paid and then goes bankrupt or goes out of business before the contracted goods and services are needed. It is wise to ensure that a selected funeral provider will honor the transferability of prearranged and prepaid services regardless of the consumer’s geographic location. Otherwise, consumers who move may not receive a full refund. It is also crucial that family members are made aware of pre-paid arrangements to prevent them from unnecessarily paying again at a different funeral home.

How to Pay for a Funeral

Veterans are eligible to receive certain burial benefits depending on the circumstances of their service, discharge and death. A veteran’s service must be documented and verified through discharge papers (also referred to as DD Form 214). Eligibility requirements vary for burial benefits, which may include a gravesite in a VA national cemetery, a government headstone or burial marker, and a burial allowance to help defray burial and funeral costs.

Read: 10 Important Facts About VA Burial Benefits

The Social Security Administration (SSA) may also provide financial assistance via a one-time death benefit to the deceased’s surviving spouse or an eligible child. If the decedent was receiving Social Security benefits before they passed, it is important that a family member or the funeral home contact the SSA as soon as possible to inform them of the death.

Life insurance policies can be another source of funds to help cover final expenses. There are several different kinds of policies, but a small permanent life insurance policy is useful for covering funeral costs (and possibly for leaving an inheritance). When choosing a level of coverage, it is important to remember that funeral costs are subject to inflation, but life insurance policies are not protected against these fluctuations. For example, adequate research on today’s costs for a pre-planned funeral are not likely to reflect the prices of the same goods and services in 25 years.

Payable-on-death (POD) bank accounts can also help consumers save money for final expenses. These accounts allow an owner to keep funds safely in the bank and name a trusted beneficiary who will be granted access upon the owner’s passing. Of course, it is important to carefully consider who to name as a beneficiary and ensure that this person will use the funds to cover final arrangements.

Affordable Alternatives to a Traditional Burial

Two final arrangement options that tend to be more cost effective than a conventional burial are cremation and whole-body donation. Although cremation has been historically less common, it is growing in popularity. The average cost of cremation ranges from $700 to $1,200 compared to $7,000 to $10,000 for a funeral and burial in a cemetery. Direct cremation, which is performed without a funeral in the days immediately after a death, is the most affordable option. However, adding features like a funeral service or renting a casket for a viewing beforehand can greatly increase the price. There are countless options for keeping or scattering cremains, which may come at an additional cost. They can be interred in a columbarium, scattered in a favorite place, stored in a family member’s home, buried, made into jewelry and much more.

Whole body donation is another alternative for individuals who wish to continue giving back to society even after they have passed. Not only does this option contribute to the advancement of medical training and knowledge, but it is also typically free of cost to the deceased and their family members. For example, once a donor passes and is accepted into the program, MedCure, a non-transplant tissue bank, covers all costs associated with transportation, donation and cremation. Families will receive their loved ones’ cremains approximately six to 12 weeks later and may even request an explanation of the medical benefit that resulted from their loved ones’ donation. Medical schools often run their own organ and whole-body donation programs as well, and each sets specific eligibility criteria and consent requirements for donors.

Tackling Tough Issues Is a Gift

Final arrangements are a reality that we all will face someday. It is a precious gift to give family members as much peace of mind and as little financial responsibility as possible when it comes to carrying out these wishes at an emotionally trying time. Clearly communicating one’s desires and creating a plan to fund them will help ensure all goes as smoothly as possible.