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Last act of love: 3 factors for pre-planning your memorial service

With a little preparation, you can help make a difficult transition easier.

When the future promises good things like careers, vacations, children and retirement, it’s fun to dream and plan for them. But most people don’t like to think about a future without themselves in it.

And their exit strategy — such as the logistics of planning their own funeral or memorial service — is left up to chance. However, keep in mind the words of Benjamin Franklin, who famously said, “Nothing can be said to be certain — except death and taxes.”

Instead of leaving it up to your loved ones to pick up the pieces during a very difficult time, consider pre-planning your own funeral or memorial service. It can be your last act of love — and can be done any time, even years in advance.

By doing so, you can play a part in helping ease the emotional and financial burden of your loved ones — and bring them the closure they need. And your life can be honored in a way that you want it to be.

Here are some things to consider.

Leave a message for loved ones

There’s something very comforting knowing that you can make a lasting impression even after you’re gone. You can do this through your words.

First, think about how you’d like to be remembered: As someone who valued friendships and family above all else? As someone who took chances in life? Also, what words of wisdom do you want to share with loved ones? You can put these personal thoughts into a special journal.

Then, you’ll be ready to draft a preamble to your will or your obituary. You can also create a “last wishes” document, one that states your general preferences regarding the planning of your funeral or memorial and names and contact information of lawyers, CPAs, financial professionals and others.

Don’t turn the discovery of your last wishes into a treasure hunt. Be sure to let a trusted family member or friend know where you’re keeping this personal information. You might want to store it in the same secure place where you’re keeping your financial information, such as a legacy lock box or safe-deposit box.

Funeral or memorial service considerations

It’s become a common question: Do you want to be buried or cremated? Just a few years ago, in 2015, consensus was about equal between the two: The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) reported a cremation at 47.9 percent and burial at 45.2 percent.

However, cremation is growing in popularity. In 2020, the NFDA projected the cremation rate will be 56 percent and the burial rate 37.5 percent. And by 2025, they predict cremation rates will increase to 64 percent and burial rates will decrease to 30.1 percent.1

Average cost of a funeral and burial

The cost of an average funeral — one that includes burial — ranges from $8,000 to 10,000 or more, depending on where you live and the choices you make.

For the funeral service, big ticket items include a professional services fee for the funeral home (about $2,200); embalming and body preparation (about $1,000) and facility rental (about $450).1

If you choose burial, you will also need a metal casket (averages $2,500),1 as well as the plot, grave liner, and opening and closing of the grave, which adds an average of about $2,600.2

Finally, a gravestone or grave marker adds between $1,000–$5,000, depending on what you choose.3

Some personal touches you’ll want to think about including: music that means something to you, readings that promote self-reflection, and special photographs or mementos.

If you decide on a traditional burial, you may be able to save on some of the costs. For example, you aren't required to purchase a casket through the funeral home, and the majority of states don’t mandate that you hire a funeral director. That means a loved one could host the memorial service.

Cremation benefits

Direct cremation — meaning the body is not prepared for viewing at a funeral or memorial service — is significantly less expensive because there are no real estate or burial costs, and no preparation of the body is needed.

The average cost of direct cremation through a funeral home ranges between $1,600 and $3,000. Direct cremation through a crematory is slightly less expensive, averaging between $1,000-$2,200.4

The lower cost of cremation might be why more people are choosing it. Also, many families — who are not likely to live in one place their entire lives — like the option of taking their loved ones’ ashes with them, wherever in the world they may go. Or they might scatter them in a final resting place with special meaning to them — and to you.

Green funeral options

Here’s another consideration: is it important to try to reduce your impact on the environment? Then you might want to consider some alternative options and make your funeral a bit more green.

People who choose the green route might opt out of the embalming process altogether, or request the funeral home to only use formaldehyde-free products. Biodegradable caskets or urns might be an option.5

If you want to be buried, there are also at least 10 states that have "green cemeteries" — which are considered natural burial grounds and don’t allow the use of outer burial containers or toxic chemicals. Rather than traditional grave markers, rocks or natural markers are used, or the burial locations are marked using GPS coordinates. The first green cemetery in the United States opened in 1998 and there are now more than 60 operating.6

If these options are a little too green for you, you can still be to be earth-friendly. At your service, you might incorporate flowers grown at a local farm that uses sustainable practices. Or you choose to use a green funeral home — one that operates in an environmentally responsible way.7

Funeral or memorial service payment considerations — should you pre-pay?

You might think pre-paying your funeral costs will make things easier for your loved ones. But the Funeral Consumers Alliance suggests a better option: Plan ahead without paying ahead. You can do some funeral homes comparison shopping and then inform your loved ones of your choice.8

However, if you’re set on paying for your funeral expenses ahead of time, it’s a good idea to put the money into a “payable on death” (POD) account to ensure a trusted family member or friend will use the expenses properly. Keep in mind, the interest gained is subject to income tax.

Doing what you can now to prepare for your final act can give you and your loved ones peace of mind today — and in the future.

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End of life planning resources

End-of-life planning decisions can be difficult to think about and discuss with loved ones. We've prepared information to help guide you through the process — from wills, directives and final arrangements to resources for coping with the death of a loved one.

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1. National Funeral Directors Association. Statistics. Updated July 18, 2019.

2. "Funeral costs: How much does an average funeral cost?" Parting Blog, September 14, 2019.

3. Williams, Geoff. "Funeral costs to plan for." U.S. News and World Report, April 30, 2019.

4. "Funeral costs: How much does an average direct cremation cost?” Parting Blog, September 6, 2020.

5. What it means to be green. National Funeral Directors Association, 2020.

6. "Green burial, an environmentally friendly choice." Funeral Consumers Alliance, 2020.

7. Remembering a Life. Green funerals. National Funeral Directors Association, 2020.

8. "Should you prepay for your funeral? Safer ways to plan ahead." Funeral Consumers Alliance, 2020.

DOFU 9-2020