Discussing the end of life is an uncomfortable topic for many people. However, it is something that we all will face at some point in our lives. Sharing our wishes, fears and ideas about death helps us to come to terms with this natural event. Conversations about death also help families to be better prepared emotionally and financially for a loved one's passing. The following strategies and information can assist you in navigating this difficult subject.

Having ‘The Talk’ about End of Life Arrangements

First and foremost, when it comes to discussing end of life matters, it is important to clearly express your preferences to family members. The options are many and varied, and this can make it difficult to 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 vault or want their remains to be cremated and scattered in a special place.

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

When should you have this conversation? Since it can be nerve-wracking to initiate ‘The Talk,’ many people put it off until it is too late. Spelling out your wishes is a wise move at any age. Most experts recommend preparing or reviewing your end of life documents at least every five years and any time you experience a major life event such as a marriage, divorce, birth of a child, or a health scare. If you have been diagnosed with a serious or terminal illness (or even been referred to hospice care) and do not have your final wishes and estate in order, it is crucial that these documents are completed as soon as possible.

It is best to put these stipulations down in writing in addition to conversing about them, that way you have a document for family members to reference if they ever forget or get confused about the specific desires. Grief tends to envelop people like a fog, which can make it difficult to clearly recall what it is the deceased requested (or specifically wanted to avoid) for their final arrangements. Furthermore, emotional overspending is common with family members who are planning a funeral or cremation with little or no direction.

Many individuals have a difficult time articulating what their final wishes are, or they simply have not thought it through in detail before.

Questions to Ask When Planning a Final Wishes Document

  • 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 or a celebration of life?
    • 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 cemetery plot or mausoleum)?
    • What should be done with your cremains? (Ex: scattering, placement in a columbarium niche, an urn garden, a family plot, etc.)
  • Personal Preferences:
    • Would you like to be interred or cremated with any personal items or wearing a particular outfit or clothing item?
    • 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?

All about Funeral Planning

The Federal Trade Commission enforces a special Funeral Rule that protects a number of consumers’ rights when planning a funeral in advance and after someone has passed. These rights enable you to request specific pricing information in order to competitively price funeral homes and their services. This assists you in only purchasing the appropriate goods and services that you want or need, and empowers you and your family to save money. Other rights include the ability to make funeral arrangements without a costly embalming process (it is rarely required) and the ability to purchase an urn or casket from somewhere other than the funeral home.

For some consumers, pre-paying for a funeral is a viable option for saving money. Since funeral services are subject to inflation, pre-paying for a funeral can 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 if you are trying to spend down your assets to qualify for Medicaid. Irrevocable prearranged funeral plans are exempt from Medicaid asset limits. Be sure to check if there are additional limitations on pre-paid funeral planning costs in your state.

This option comes with a few risks, however. It is possible that the funeral home you already paid may go bankrupt or go out of business before you pass, losing you this investment. If you choose to pre-pay for your final arrangements, it is wise to ensure that, if you move, your selected funeral provider will honor the transferability of your prearranged services. Otherwise, you may not receive a full refund. It is also crucial that your family members are made aware of your pre-paid arrangements to prevent them from unnecessarily paying 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 burial in a VA national cemetery, headstones or burial markers, monetary burial benefits, or reimbursement of funeral or cremation costs. Check with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to see if you or your loved one meet the guidelines to receive VA burial benefits.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) may also provide financial assistance via a one-time death benefit to the spouse or child of an eligible recipient. If the decedent was receiving Social Security before they passed, it is important that a family member contact the SSA as soon as possible to inform them of the passing and ensure that they receive all the benefits they may be entitled to.

Life insurance policies can be another source of funds to help cover final expenses. There are a number of 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 your level of coverage, it is important to remember that funeral costs are subject to inflation, but your policy is not protected against these fluctuations. Adequate research on today’s costs for your chosen funeral plan are not likely to reflect the price of such goods and services in 25 years.

“Payable on Death” bank accounts can also serve as a method of pre-paying for final expenses. This keeps funds safely in the bank under your name and only gives the beneficiary access to them upon your passing. Just be sure to entrust these funds intended for funeral arrangements to a family member or friend that you know and trust.

Burial Alternatives

Two arrangement options that tend to be more cost effective are cremation and whole body donation. Although cremation has been historically less common than traditional burial, its popularity is growing—especially in light of recent economic challenges. 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. However, adding features such as a funeral service or renting a casket for a viewing beforehand can greatly increase the price. From there, cremains can be interred in a columbarium, scattered in a favorite place, stored in a family member’s home, buried, made into jewelry and countless other options.

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 health and medical knowledge, but it is also 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 one’s cremains approximately six to 12 weeks later, and may even request an explanation of the medical benefit that resulted from their loved one’s donation.

Final arrangements are a reality that we all will face someday. It is a precious gift to give your family members as much peace of mind as possible and limited financial responsibility when it comes to carrying out your wishes at an already emotionally trying time.