While it's inevitable that someday you'll die, you can lighten your family's burden by preplanning your own funeral or memorial service. However, taking this step is not always easy.
Gail Ruben, also known as "The Doyenne of Death," is educating the public about funeral preplanning. Besides speaking to audiences on this matter, she also authored A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don't Plan to Die, which gives readers the tools they need to create funerals, memorials, and other end-of-life rituals. A Good Goodbye, also has an abundance of information available on this topic.
Ruben, 53, who holds a bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Maryland, recently took time out of her busy schedule to talk about funeral preplanning.
LoveToKnow (LTK): How did you get involved in funeral preplanning?
Gail Ruben (GR): When Dave and I got married in 2000, we had a really creative Jewish-Western wedding. It was so much fun, I planned to write a book on creative life cycle events and call it Matchings, Hatchings and Dispatchings. I started a newspaper column with that name and the articles on death got the most reader response, which told me there was a real need for the information. I decided to focus on the "Dispatchings" since there were already plenty of books about creative wedding planning.
When we went to preplan a funeral for his father as part of my research, I was amazed at how much information was needed that we didn't have. Thank goodness his dad was still alive to provide the details! When my father-in-law died three years later after seven weeks of hospitalization, the family was exhausted. Because we had pre-arranged, we were able to finalize details in under an hour -- a real blessing after everything we had been through. Following that experience, I wanted to help others realize the the benefits of funeral preplanning.
It's Never Too Early to Start Planning
LTK: What is involved in funeral preplanning?
GR: First, we have to recognize reality and accept the fact that the gift of life is, in fact, a terminal condition. Just as talking about sex won't make you pregnant, talking about funerals won't make you dead, and the family will benefit from the conversation: Avoiding stress at a time of grief, reducing conflict, saving thousands of dollars, and creating a meaningful, memorable "good goodbye."
Funeral preplanning involves organization and communication among family members before a serious illness or disability sets in or death occurs. We organize all of our vital information and important papers and communicate our wishes to those who would carry them out. We can take it a step further and actually arrange and prepay for all the elements of a funeral or memorial service to take that weight off of surviving family members.
LTK: At what point should a person consider preplanning his or her own funeral?
GR: Today. We never know when our number will be up. One man told me the story of a good friend who had written out her instructions when she was in her 20s before going abroad. She died in an automobile accident after she returned to the United States. While he was saddened by the loss, he was very glad to have her instructions to draw upon.
When a couple gets married, they should definitely have a conversation about what each would want and any arrangements that have already been made. Before serious surgery is another time to consider preplanning. I helped a friend pre-arrange for cremation a few weeks before he was to undergo heart surgery. He had been meaning to do it for years, but the scheduled surgery finally got him to take action.
LTK: What is the most important thing to keep in mind when preplanning?
GR: There's a mind-boggling range of choices to make and funeral homes may have wildly different prices for their products and services. It's most important to shop around before someone is sick or dying to find the prices and personalities that work best for you. When you preplan, you avoid making decisions under the duress of grief. You can choose with your rational head, not just your emotional heart.
Making the Tough Decisions Now
LTK: Why do you think so many people put off making their final arrangements?
GR: There's the superstition "if you talk about it, you will make it happen." Guess what? It's going to happen whether you talk about it or not. It's much better to be prepared and it's much easier to do so when there's no death imminent.
We're uncomfortable with the idea of our mortality, that this joy ride called life has an end. If anything, funeral preplanning helps you better appreciate living. It's not being morbid, it's being a smart realist.
Understanding Your Choices
LTK: How does a person decide between a funeral and a memorial?
GR: A body is present at a funeral, which means the event is usually held within a week of death. If someone already has a burial plot, chances are the family would choose to do a funeral.
At a memorial service, either there is no body present or there are cremated remains. The memorial service can be scheduled weeks or months after the person has died, so there's more flexibility in getting far-flung members of a family together. It's beneficial to hold a memorial service sooner rather than later, for the healing such rituals offer.
Religious observances and family traditions play a role in this decision. Muslims and Jews traditionally are buried within 24 hours and usually avoid cremation.
LTK: How does a person choose a funeral home or cemetery?
GR: Look for a well-established funeral home with membership in organizations that require ethical standards, such as Selected Independent Funeral Homes or the National Funeral Directors Association.
In cemeteries, look for well-maintained grounds and helpful staff. If the family already has plots in a cemetery, they may look to buy additional plots there. Do an online news search for articles that may indicate if a specific cemetery or funeral home has been in trouble for mismanagement.
LTK: What are some common misconceptions about funeral preplanning?
GR: There are no state laws that require a body be embalmed. The funeral home's own policies may dictate embalming a body for viewing any longer than a quick peek by immediate family. Most funeral homes have refrigeration units that can keep the body preserved with cold storage for a few days instead of embalming.
You don't have to pay when you preplan. The funeral home will offer to "lock in" today's prices and prices will go up over time. If you do plan to pay ahead of need, make sure the funding goes to a funeral insurance policy that is portable should you move elsewhere in the future.
Finally, there is the idea that funerals or memorial services have to be conducted a certain way. Individuals and families have more latitude than ever before for holding creative services. Most funeral directors will go to great lengths to personalize services and make them especially meaningful for the family.
LTK: What are the main things an individual should remember when preplanning?
GR: The top things you need to know about everyone in the family are:
- Social Security number, place of birth, date of birth, mother's maiden name, and veterans information. These items are required for a death certificate.
- Make a written file of your online passwords. Without these, a person's virtual life may become eternally frozen.
- Talk to your family about your wishes and write them down. Indicate your disposition preferences. Do you want your body displayed? Would you like a Viking funeral?
- Let your family know where important documents are kept and, if you have a safe deposit box, where the key is located. Documents include advanced healthcare directives, your will, insurance policies, deeds, etc.
- If you currently have no "Master List" of contacts for family and friends, put one together.
- Consider doing a video of yourself passing along your words of wisdom.
- A "good goodbye" memorial service incorporates these four Rs: Recognize Reality, Remember, Reaffirm, and Release.
- Consider this fifth R: No Regrets. Live life fully each day so that when it's time to say goodbye, you can die with no regrets.
LTK: Is there anything else you'd like to share?
GR: So many people say "Don't have a funeral for me when I'm gone." Remember that the funeral may be about you, but it's for those who will miss you. Grief counselors tell me all the time that people who skip a ritual to honor a loved one's death often have a hard time with grieving and moving on. Let your loved ones know it's okay to have a funeral or memorial service - they'll bless you for it.