Last Updated on October 1, 2020
Funeral planning isn’t something you do every day.
You probably feel totally overwhelmed. Your emotions are all over the place, people are calling and texting, and there’s a thousand little decisions to make.
Often what ends up happening is that you simply take the advice of the funeral home. It’s just easier.
But… what if there were easy ways to make the service more meaningful and personal? What if there were options that could save the estate thousands of dollars?
Whether you’re reacting to an immediate need, helping a friend, or planning ahead for the future, all it takes is a few steps now and you will save yourself and your loved ones loads of time, money, and stress.
Let’s learn how.
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Funeral Planning Guide
Table of Contents
- Choose the Service Type(s)
- Graveside Service
- Memorial Service
- Plan the Funeral Events
- Wake or Viewing
- Funeral Decor
- Service Elements
- Religious Elements
- Formal Mourning Period
- Plan the Final Disposition
- Green Burial
- Alternative Methods
- Choose a Funeral Home
- Choose a Final Resting Place
- Ground Burial at Cemetery
- Mausoleums, Crypts, Tombs
- Natural & Eco-Friendly Options
- Cremation & Scattering
- Cremation & Inurnment
- Create Your Funeral Planning Checklist
We’ll close out the guide with an easy-to-use downloadable funeral planning checklist. (You’ll see it at the end of the post.)
Once you know your options and have a general understanding of what’s ahead, you will be well on your way to planning the funeral the right way.
How to Plan a Funeral
1. Choose the Service Type(s)
Which type of service(s) do you want, or need to plan? Let’s take a look at each one.
At a funeral, the body is present in a casket. The casket can be open or closed, and there can be a time of viewing and final goodbyes for all present.
- Body present in a casket
- Held at a church or funeral home
- Sometimes followed by a graveside service
- Almost always followed by a reception
- Cremation (if chosen) will occur after the funeral
The graveside service is held at the cemetery where the deceased’s remains will be buried or interred. This is often a smaller gathering than the funeral or memorial service. It’s when you say your “final goodbyes,” the last time you and other loved ones will see the body of the decedent.
- Sometimes held immediately after the funeral
- If so, you would typically extend an open invitation to all who are at the funeral
- Sometimes held at a separate time, apart from the funeral
- If so, you would often invite only close friends and family for a more intimate affair
A memorial service is a special gathering to honor a loved one without the body present. This is often held after the burial or cremation, sometimes weeks or even months after. Occasionally, when cremated remains are at the service, this can be called a funeral, but generally “funeral” is reserved for a service with a non-cremated body present.
- The body is not present at a memorial service
- If cremated, the remains may be there in an urn
- Allows more freedom for scheduling, especially when travel is involved
- No need to arrange transportation of casket
- Service can be held just about anywhere: church, funeral home, event center, community center, home, etc
- Can be a little less formal than a traditional funeral
Related: 34 Unique Memorial Service Ideas
OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER
Here are some additional things to consider when planning the service itself. These will be incorporated into the checklist below.
- Funeral/memorial service location
- Funeral officiant (the person who leads the service)
- Select pallbearers
- Ask people to deliver a eulogy
- Choose who to deliver prayers and other readings
- Select music to be played or sung
- Create a list of invitees
- Ask people to donate to a special cause
2. Plan the Funeral Events
There are more events than just the funeral itself. Viewings and wakes happen before the service, receptions and formal mourning periods may happen after. Plus there is a lot to think about concerning the elements within the funeral itself.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Wake or Viewing
- Funeral Decor
- Service Elements
- Religious Elements
- Formal Mourning Period
BEFORE: WAKE OR VIEWING
The terms “wake” and “viewing” are often used interchangeably. The key idea is that it is a gathering before the actual funeral service with the body present. Hence the term “viewing” – to view the decedent.
This gathering can take place at a home, funeral home, or church. Sometimes a few words are said, perhaps a prayer. Most often this is an open-casket affair. The idea is for mourners to see the deceased one last time, say goodbyes or pay final respects, and express condolences to the family.
A wake or viewing can be long or short. Sometimes it is a scheduled hour at a funeral home, other times it is several days at the family’s home. Flowers and gifts are acceptable, but not required. Food can be brought by all, provided by the family, or skipped entirely. A lot of this will be dependent on the culture as well as the time, location, and number of friends and family invited.
One difference that you might pick up between the two terms is that a wake is usually the term used in a religious context. Viewing is often the preferred term for non-religious gatherings.
A visitation is very similar to a viewing, but without the body present. This is simply a time to express love and sympathy to the family; a time of mourning and an outpouring of love.
Sometimes a visitation is necessary because of the cause of death, location, or other issues that prevent the body being present. Other times it is a personal preference of the spouse or family.
Keep in mind that funerals are larger affairs, and the family will be hard pressed to see people for more than a few moments. Visitations, viewings, and wakes provide an opportunity for a little more personal time for family and friends to mourn together.
The decor will depend in part on the venue and how long it is available. With time, space, and volunteers, you can easily go all-out and decorate with flowers, personalized banners, photographs and collages, trinkets and keepsakes, and more.
But as with most things, a few nice and meaningful accents are much more powerful and resonant than a little bit of everything. (Of course, that may have been their personality – a pack rat, a dedicated thrift store shopper and garage sale expert, a mechanic who always tinkered with bits and bobs, a splashy artist. If that was them, go for it.)
So for the best combination of simplicity, peace of mind, elegance, and functionality, we suggest the following three decor elements.
1. Photograph Display
Choose a great photo as a centerpiece. You can get it printed on a canvas, framed canvas, collage, wood print, framed and matted, and much more at WalMart Photo. We suggest WalMart because their quality and price is highly comparable to most other printers, and you can get the prints done and picked up quickly in a time crunch. Most funeral homes and many churches will have a display easel you can use if you don’t already have one.
Alternately, you can set up a photo frame taken directly from the walls of your home. If you are preparing your own funeral or making any sort of advance arrangements, now is the time to get a nice portrait ready. Get photos taken if you can, or go through the old boxes or computer file folders for the right one. Then print it out, frame it, put it up on the wall, and write down in your funeral arrangements planner where it is so you or the family can be ready.
Remember, every little headache you can remove before the funeral will make it that much easier on yourself later, or on your family when your time comes.
It is a little bit of a trend to skip the flowers and do donations to a charitable organization or cause instead. That is perfectly fine, but you and your loved ones can still appreciate the beauty and symbolism of flowers at the funeral.
Choose a favorite flower, or pick out a few bouquet styles ahead of time. List a favorite local florist in your plans, along with their contact information. Or perhaps a close friend or family member keeps a flower garden going and will be willing to provide the arrangement. Any and all of these are great options.
The key to remember is that you don’t want the funeral decor to look bare and dry. One or more floral arrangements will do wonders to enhance the look and feel of the service.
3. Funeral Guest Book
A creative funeral guest book can be as much a part of the decor as anything. It will be one of the first things that attendees interact with, and it will be one of the few things you keep from the service itself. So it might as well look good. Here are some highly creative guest book ideas, or you may prefer a rather classy burgundy leather guest book with a more traditional look.
You can ask the funeral director or religious officiant to handle the service itself. They will generally want to know if there are any specifics you would like to include in the service. Here are some common elements.
- Musical Prelude
- Introduction or Words of Welcome
- Reading of Obituary
- Eulogy or Tribute
- Brief Informal Tributes (Open Mic)
- Musical Selections
- Slideshow or Video Tribute
- Thank you and Acknowledgements
- Viewing of Deceased (open casket) or Paying Final Respects (closed casket)
- Closing and Invitation to Reception and/or Graveside Service
A pastor or priest will almost always have resources for funerals. In many traditions there is plenty of room to personalize the service by choosing your loved one’s favorite hymns and texts. Below are a few common religious elements for funerals.
- Scripture Readings
Receptions are optional, but remember that the point is to spend time with friends and family as you mourn and celebrate your loved one’s life together. There is something unique about funerals that cause people to open up and connect (or reconnect) in a deeper way, so don’t miss out on this.
Funeral receptions can be as simple or lavish as you like. It is very common and perfectly acceptable to ask invitees to bring a dish or side. If you have the event catered or at a restaurant, you should foot the bill.
Here are some options for receptions following a funeral service.
Types of Funeral Receptions
- Favorite dishes made by family
- Crudités or hors d’oeuvres
- Dessert only
- Reserve a restaurant or buffet
Funeral Reception Location
- Funeral home
- Community center
- Banquet hall
- Home of family or friend
Funeral Reception Decor
- Move items from service to reception
- Stay with a similar theme/style
- Flower petals on tables
- Centerpieces (see item #12 here)
- Photos (in frames or loose on tables)
- Memorial table filled with personal trinkets and hobby items
- Feel free to keep it simple
Funeral Reception Events
You do not need to plan any events at a reception. It is perfectly fine to let conversation flow freely. However, one or two less formal events that you weren’t able to do in the funeral service itself can work better at a reception. For instance:
- Memorial slideshow running on repeat in the background
- Tribute video or slideshow celebrating their life
- Open mic sharing time
- Invite people to fill out “My special memory of you” cards
- Favorite music playing in the background
FORMAL MOURNING PERIOD
Some traditions, religions, and/or cultures entail a formal mourning period after the death of a loved one. Typically this involves spouse, children, and parents, and can also include extended family and close friends.
Dressing in black is one of the most recognizable elements of a formal mourning period. It can vary by tradition, but typically the spouse wears black for a year to a year and a half, and other relations the same or less time. This is the practice espoused, for example, in Roman Catholicism.
There are other ways and lengths of time for formal grief. Some people set aside 30 days for purposeful mourning. This length of time hearkens back to the biblical practices in ancient Israel.
Consult your local clergy member for advice on a formal mourning period. Expressing your grief in visible ways can be an important part of your healing after a loss, so do not neglect this in your funeral planning considerations.
OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER
You do not need to plan every aspect of the funeral service in advance. Your funeral director and (if applicable) pastor or clergy member will be very helpful with a lot of these elements.
However, the more you plan ahead the easier things will be at the time of need. This is especially helpful in arranging the small but sometimes brain-draining choices of what photo to use, music selections, quotes, readings, and more.
3. Plan the Final Disposition
The final disposition is what happens to the body after the funeral. This can mean traditional ground burial, cremation, eco-friendly “green” burial, or one of a growing number of alternative disposition methods. We’ll look at disposition methods here, and then in #5 we’ll get to more specifics regarding the actual final resting place.
Full-body ground burial is still, in general, regarded as the “traditional” disposition option. This is where the body is placed in a casket and buried in the ground, marked by a headstone or grave marker.
Prior to the burial, the body may be embalmed. Embalming is the process by which the normal body fluids are removed and replaced by a chemical preservative. This slows the decomposition process and allows (in concert with makeup) a more lifelike and natural appearance.
For an open-casket service most funeral homes will require embalming. This is an additional cost. With caskets more expensive than urns, and full-body burial plots more expensive than burial plots for cremated remains (or the burial skipped entirely with ashes scattered or kept at home), you can see why “traditional” burial is typically the more expensive option.
However, there are ways to keep the costs down. Plan the funeral right away, skip embalming, build your own casket (or get a kit like this one), and opt for a less-than-premium hilltop burial plot. With a little DIY and some smart planning, you can get full-body burial costs to be fairly comparable to those of cremation.
Cremating the body after death has recently overtaken “traditional” burial as the most common disposition method in the United States. Cremation involves lower average costs, more options, more ways to personalize, and more time for family and friends to gather. With all these benefits, it’s no surprise that more and more families are choosing cremation.
If you choose cremation, you can still have the funeral service with the body present. This will need to be done within a few days of the death, then the cremation usually follows immediately after the funeral.
You can choose to be present at the cremation as a witness, depending on how and where the cremation is done. Older facilities may not be set up to allow easy witnessing, but most newer crematoriums have a glass viewing window or other arrangements that make it pretty simple for you and a limited number of family members to be there for the cremation.
After the cremation, you can have the remains buried in the ground, placed in a mausoleum niche, scattered, or taken home and kept in a beautiful and meaningful cremation urn. We’ll explore those options a little later on.
For now, note that cremation is usually a little more affordable than ground burial. Generally speaking, an urn is less expensive than a casket, a ground burial plot for ashes is less expensive than a full-body space, and you can often skip embalming and some of the body transportation fees.
If you would like the simplest cremation service at the lowest cost, you should explore direct cremation. Most funeral homes and crematoriums offer a pared-down cremation without frills at a simple rate, usually $600-1200 depending on your area. Read more about direct cremation here.
Green burial is another of the old-but-new ways of life that eco-conscious people are rediscovering. It’s certainly not new, but against the backdrop of the last hundred years of funerals being the exclusive domain of the professionals, green burial seems radical and different.
The essence of green burial (also known as natural burial) is the idea that a body should be returned to the earth in the most natural yet respectful way possible. Those who take care of the body should be those who were closest to them in life.
Thus the old rituals return: laying out the body on the bed or kitchen table, wrapping in a natural burial shroud or family heirloom quilt, building your own pine wood coffin, and burying in the backyard or family cemetery plot. Much of this is DIY, but there are “death doulas” and eco-friendly funeral professionals who are happy to help you.
There are many ways to have a green burial. Many green cemeteries are popping up in large urban areas, and they are becoming more popular in rural settings as well. Do a search for “green burial [your city]” and you can find the resources available to you.
Note that green burial is often much more “hands on” than having the funeral home professionals do much of the unsettling work for you. For some, this is therapeutic and a helpful part of the grieving process. For others, it is much more stress and hassle at a difficult time. Many times it is wise to advantage of the services that professionals have to offer. We recommend doing extensive research before committing to such a course.
If you would like to learn more about green burial, we recommend The Green Burial Guidebook by Elizabeth Fournier. It is a very accessible and practical approach that guides you through the options and how to do each step.
There are several other disposition methods that are more uncommon. Whole body donation, plastination, next-gen body composting, alkaline hydrolysis (aka “liquid cremation”), cryogenics, freeze-drying, mummification; these are a few of the alternative body disposition methods that can be arranged.
OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER REGARDING DISPOSITION
Sometimes the disposition method will be decided for you based on the individual’s wishes, will, or circumstance of death. There are times when an unexpected death rules out the option for an open casket, a religious conviction rules out cremation, or body/organ donation requires cremation.
Also, you will want to think about whether the body should be embalmed. Most funeral homes require embalming if there is going to be an open casket or if there is more than a couple of days between death and the funeral.
The upside of embalming is that it make the person look nice, leaving you and others with a final look of “how they looked during life.” The downside is that it is an additional cost and involves heavy use of environmentally harmful chemicals.
4. Choose a Funeral Home
Now, you do not have to work with a funeral home if you do not want to. In fact, the growing trends of natural burial, death doulas, green burial, and home funerals encourage a hands-on approach for the family rather than contracting it out to the “professionals.”
This is one of the reasons we created this funeral planning guide. We want you to be as fully informed as possible so that you can confidently take charge of your own or your loved one’s funeral arrangements.
When you are closely involved with all the funeral preparations, there can be a sense of true closure as you lay your loved one to rest. Many people feel a closer connection with their loved one as they work on a funeral, a sense of peace that comes with grieving in close proximity to a loved one rather than outsourcing much of the work to funeral professionals.
However, funeral homes provide many helpful, valuable, and necessary services. Most people find that there are some tasks they would rather leave to the professionals, and the funeral home does have the right equipment and knowledge to do things much more easily and with less stress that you could do it on your own. So it is wise to enlist a competent and caring funeral director.
You can have the funeral home do as much or as little as you like. They can arrange body transportation, cremation, death certificates, headstones, and more.
You can mix and match many services, for instance using your church or renting a local community center for the service while working directly with the cemetery for the burial, and having a carpenter friend build the casket. The funeral director can provide tremendous help in arranging all these elements while transporting the body and taking care of the proper documentation along the way.
Or you can keep things simple and let the funeral home take care of the whole thing. In that case, use this guide and our many additional resources to educate yourself to be aware of all your options, save money, and honor your loved one in creative, outside-the-box ways.
TIPS ON CHOOSING A FUNERAL HOME
Get an idea of what you would like for the funeral and burial/cremation beforehand. We cover just about all of the main topics in the article you are reading right now, and have many more in-depth blog posts and guides that take you deeper into almost all of these issues.
You can also ask the clergy in your religious tradition as well as friends and family members for tips and ideas. At the very least, by reading through this guide and filling out even part of the checklist you will have a fairly good head start on the funeral plans.
Call around and ask for price lists. Funeral homes are required by law to give you pricing information over the phone. This enables you to compare the prices and services of several funeral homes. You can then look up online reviews for each.
A quick note about online reviews: Be aware that people tend to post their negative experiences online far more often and vehemently than the positive experiences, especially those involving a sad part of their lives like the death of a loved one. If a business has just a handful of reviews and there is a nasty one-star review, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a sub-par or uncaring business. It could simply be a misunderstanding at an emotionally difficult time.
Once you have an idea of what you want and what the funeral home has to offer, head down to your first choice to get a feel for the place and the staff. Bring a friend along; preferably someone who is close to you but not quite as close to the decedent. Having a slightly more “impartial” companion will help keep you from making decisions based on emotion. Most funeral homes are honest and trustworthy, but like any business they will have tried-and-true sales tactics that compell you to buy more and more costly things. With a wise friend at your side who knows what you want, they will help keep you focused, on task, and under budget.
Lastly, when choosing a funeral home make sure you like it. The people, the facilities, the chapel, the grounds, the products and services they offer, the attitude of the receptionist and the funeral director. If you do not like it, you are not obliged to use their services.
And on the flip side, if you have a great experience where you and your family were treated well and the staff went above and beyond expectations, be sure to send them a thank-you note and leave a 5-star review online. Tell your friends, maybe send a plate of cookies for the staff or a special gift for the funeral director.
5. Choose a Final Resting Place
The final resting place is where the body is actually buried, stored, scattered, or kept. This will depend partly on what you decide in #3 for the disposition method.
GROUND BURIAL AT CEMETERY
A ground burial at a cemetery is still considered the traditional option, though that is rapidly changing as funeral costs rise.
You can choose to bury the body in a traditional full-body casket or in a cremation urn after cremation. The cost for a cremation-sized plot will be significantly less than a full-body burial plot.
Here are a few options that are offered by many cemeteries:
- Single-depth burial plot – For one person.
- Double-depth burial plot – The same size as a single person burial plot, but for two people. The first person will be buried at a lower depth, and the second person will be buried above them at a standard depth.
- Double burial plot – Two burial plots next to each other. Typically purchased for spouses, sometimes available at a lower rate.
- Family lot – Multiple burial plots in one grouping or section. These can vary in the number of plots depending on what the cemetery has available. Usually you will get a better rate when purchasing multiple plots.
- Cremation plot – A smaller plot for the burial of cremated remains. Often available with single, double, or (sometimes) more depths.
- Private estate – A large section of the cemetery reserved for you and your family. These can be a private mausoleum or a larger area with trees, gardens, fences, walls, walking paths, and benches.
MAUSOLEUMS, CRYPTS, TOMBS
There are many alternatives to placing a casket or urn directly into the earth.
A mausoleum is an above-ground building for the permenant placement of a casket.
Crypts are chambers of stone or concrete within a building that hold the casket, often within walls or beneath the floor of a church or chapel.
Lawn crypts are concrete shelters, often among the “regular” burial plots, that house the casket out-of-doors but protected within the crypt itself.
A tomb is a container for the remains, and can be partially or fully in-ground and are designed in varying ways.
Most cemeteries and funeral homes will offer at least a few of these options, usually at a premium price. Also, several of these terms can be used interchangeably, so it is best to visit the local cemetery and ask what options they provide. They will also be able to show you examples of each, which is much better to see in person than by looking at photos online.
NATURAL & ECO-FRIENDLY OPTIONS
The main idea behind natural burial is that the body is returned to the earth as naturally as possible. No embalming chemicals, no fancy manufactured casket, no preservatives or high-gloss finishes, just a few simple materials that will biodegrade along with the body. This is the way we humans have buried one another for ages.
Usually a natural or green burial happens soon after death. If it will be more than a few days, the body can be preserved using refrigeration at a mortuary or natural burial facility.
There are two broad categories for natural burial locations. The first would be on your own private property, and the second is at a green cemetery (or a cemetery with a green burial section). If you are burying on your own property, we would advice enlisting the help of a local funeral director or “death doula” to help you navigate the legal and practical issues.
Your loved one can be buried wrapped in a natural burial shroud or an eco-friendly casket. Depending on the policies of the cemetery, a plain pine box coffin is also sometimes permitted. You can even get a build-your-own pine coffin kit shipped to your door, which most natural burial cemeteries will allow. Any of these options will work for a burial in private property.
Again, if you are thinking about a natural or eco-friendly burial, we suggest that you get The Green Burial Guidebook. It will walk you through each of these options and issues in an in-depth and easy-to-understand way.
CREMATION & SCATTERING
With cremation, you have three basic, traditional options for what to do with the remains.
Well, you actually have tons of options, but some can get pretty bizarre or super-niche. Things like mixing the remains into tattoo ink and getting memorial tattoos, or shooting off the ashes into the sky in fireworks. If you are into that, great, here are some crazy ideas.
But for most people, one of the three standard options will suffice. These are ground burial at a cemetery (or placement in a niche), scattering the ashes in a meaningful location, or placing the remains into a funeral urn and keeping at home.
For burial, the options are pretty much the same as the full-body options from above. Instead of the casket you will have a much smaller urn.
As for scattering, there are many places to scatter. These include:
- Ground scattering
- Traditional scattering
- Water scattering
- Water burial
- River scattering
- Air scattering
- Green burial
For an overview of each of these options, read more here.
To scatter the ashes, all you need is a container that is easy enough to open and pour out the remains. This can be straight out of the plastic bag in which they come or it can be an urn specifically designed to help you easily pour out the remains.
You are free to scatter on any private property with the owner’s permission. Out in nature, on hiking trails or in the forest somewhere, you should ask the land caretakers for permission but realistically if you are discreet and don’t bother anyone no one seems to mind. For places like Disney World and sports stadiums, you absolutely must ask for permission (and they will probably say no).
CREMATION & INURNMENT
Cremated ashes are always placed (“inurned“) into a container. This can be a simple plastic or cardboard box, or it can be a specialty handcrafted art piece, or a stock item from the funeral home.
Even if you are going to scatter the remains, until you scatter the ashes they will reside in a container. This container is a cremation urn.
Some things to consider when choosing the urn:
- Where will it be placed?
- What material do you like best?
- Do you want a theme, like fishing, gardening, or hummingbirds?
- Would you like it personalized with name and dates?
OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER
Keep in mind that you can combine many of these options. Especially with cremation, you can have a traditional funeral complete with casket, then after the cremation have a private scattering ceremony with a few close friends and family members. This can be a week later, or two years down the road.
You can scatter or bury all or part of the remains, and keep all or part at home. There are cremation urns that hold all the remains down to lovely little jewelry pieces that hold just a pinch.
You can also price shop for everything. There are 3rd party body transportation services and headstone monument providers. You can work directly with the cemetery for a better deal or perhaps the funeral home gets special rates that save you money on burial costs.
With a little pre-planning, a little education, and some smart shopping you can have the funeral you want at a price you can afford.
6. Create Your Funeral Planning Checklist
We’ve distilled all of this into a handy funeral planning checklist for you. Click here for the checklist, a no-fuss printable PDF that you can use to fill in the blanks.