If you’ve never planned a funeral before, you might feel overwhelmed and not sure where to begin or what questions to ask. If so, you are not alone.
Many people assume a “traditional” funeral that includes embalming, a fancy casket, a viewing, funeral service, procession and burial is “normal.” If this is you, you might be surprised to learn that this type of funeral is actually a relatively recent commercial invention that is rarely practiced outside the US and Canada and has no roots in Christianity, Judaism, Islam or any other religion.
If you are doing what your family or religious group “always” does, remember that you have the right to honor your dead in almost any way that is meaningful to you. Your personal philosophy, taste and budget should guide your choice, and remember that no religion or belief system encourages burdensome spending.
($ = money saving tip)
Follow this decision tree to figure out what you want.
Then head over to Funeral Homes and Prices.
1. What To Do With The Body
Cremation rates are rising rapidly and now over 40% of Americans are cremated. Several states are over 70%, closing in on England 90%, India 85% and Japan 99%. Most religious groups permit cremation. Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus mandate it. Since Vatican II Council in 1964, the Code of Canon Law allows Catholics to be cremated. Eastern Orthodox Christians, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Baha’i, and some conservative Christians oppose it.
$ Direct Cremation (no embalming, no formal viewing, service after cremation) is the least expensive option (other than donation). Cremation with some additional funeral home services is still generally less expensive than full body burial. Cemetery plots for cremated remains are less expensive than those for bodies.
Cremation offers flexibility in terms of timing and location of funeral/memorial services. Without the time pressure associated with the presence of the body, family and friends can plan a meaningful service and hold it at a time and place convenient for all to attend. $ Without the body present, there is no need to pay a funeral director for use of their space – you can have the memorial service anywhere.
Cremated remains can be kept, scattered or buried in a cemetery. They are portable and can be divided (ex: some scattered and some buried, some buried with first spouse and some with the second, divided among children, etc.). See What Can I Do With the Ashes?
Cremation occurs at a crematory. There are about 25 in NJ. NJ law dictates that a funeral director must be present “at disposition” so you can hire the funeral director to bring the body to the crematory or you can meet them there if you’d like to transport the body yourself and/or be present for the cremation. In NJ, cremation cannot occur until 24 hours after the death. If the cremation will not occur until after 48 hours after death, the body needs to be cooled or refrigerated.
Interested in the Easiest and Least Expensive Option? Consider Direct Cremation
The majority of Americans still choose burial. Keep in mind that in addition to what you will pay the funeral director, you also have to buy a plot from a cemetery and pay their grave opening and closing fees. Many require you to purchase a vault, and most people purchase a headstone. Visit cemeteries and compare prices. Buying a Grave Plot.
$ Immediate Burial is the least expensive burial option, but it is what it sounds like; the funeral director picks up the body and arranges for burial at a time convenient for them. However, many funeral directors are willing to negotiate a reasonable extra charge to have a graveside service and/or for family to be present for the burial.
Green Burial is rising in popularity as an environmentally friendly alternative to “traditional” burial.
You can donate organs and tissue (see Organ and Body Donation) but this sort of donation takes place within the first few hours after death and you still have to decide about body disposition, services, etc.
$ The least expensive option: You can donate your entire body to a medical school or a not-for-profit research organization.
2. What About a Ceremony
Public or private (family and close friends)? At the place of death, at home, at a religious institution or a funeral home?
$ If the person dies at home, consider keeping them there for a few hours or a day and let family and friends come say goodbye in this natural, comfortable setting. Nursing home or hospital? You usually have a few hours to do the same. Ask your religious institution if you can hold a viewing there.
If you want the body embalmed and/or don’t want to keep the body home for a viewing, you will need to use a funeral home and should choose one that is physically convenient and appealing to you. Visit several, talk with the funeral directors, and choose an honest, flexible one that will honor your choices with caring and dignity.
$ If you are interested in simpler and less expensive options, choose to have a single viewing directly prior to the service.
It is rarely required by law. While there are situations where it can be useful (e.g. a long time between death and viewing, an accident), it is not required when burial or cremation take place within two days (in NJ) or if the body is refrigerated.
Though there is no law prohibiting it, funeral directors can make their own rules. If you would like a viewing without embalming, shop around to find a funeral director who is familiar and comfortable with that.
An FCA pamphlet: Facts About Embalming
Body present at funeral service?
If you want the body present at a funeral service you can have the service at home, a funeral home or a religious institution. If you are a member, it is likely to be free. If you have no affiliation, ask your local Unitarian Universalist or Quaker group what they charge for use of their generally religiously-neutral spaces. It could cost less than a funeral home and is likely to be a nicer environment.
$ An extremely personal and the least expensive option is a home funeral.
$ Another option is to have the service graveside. Graveside services are often the most personal and touching and have the added advantage of being simpler and less expensive.
A memorial service after the body is buried or cremated?
$ If you want a memorial service after burial or cremation has taken place, there is no need to pay to have it at a funeral home. Hold the service at a religious institution, home, park, club, hotel, or community center.
My Funeral Memorial Wishes Our simple free form for recording your wishes and sharing them with likely survivors
Before I Go You, Should Know The Funeral Consumers Alliance’s comprehensive end-of-life planner