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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Planning for the most difficult purchase of this life

So, while I'm not exactly ancient, in years, it's time that I put aside the nonsense of living as if I'm immortal. That was fine when I was young, but planning for that most difficult expense is simply the mature thing to do, now.

Yes, I'm talking about planning our (husband and myself) funeral/burial expenses.

I won't go into what a frugal person should choose -- a pine box vs cremation, or plots with a view (who are we kidding -- whose view?) or remains scattered at sea (a lovely touch is to bring rose petals, and drop those along with the remains). But where I am in the planning process, right now, is getting used to the idea, and determining our wishes, on this.

My dad passed away in 2002. My brother, sister and I had to hastily make arrangements within a few days time. His passing came on very short notice -- diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of the month and gone by the third week of that same month. We didn't have a chance to talk about what he wanted, with him. We loved our father, so, of course, we wanted the very best of everything for his burial and memorial service. Isn't that how this plays out in most families? You want the best, so you spare no expense.

By talking about this now, and doing local research, I can let my children (they're all adults, so not talking to school-age kids about my end of life) know just what matters to me and how I want to be remembered. I'll tell you, this isn't something you can marathon your way through. I've had to do research, in small bits at a time, to prepare my mind for all of these details. But it's best to do this now, and not let the unspoken continue until the time for planning is too late.

Things that I've thought about . . .

. . . that I wish to be buried and not cremated
. . . but I do not want a viewing or embalming (which means I don't want someone putting makeup on my face for burial), and I'll wear my own clothing, thank you
. . . that I want a wooden casket and not a metal one (my box does not have to last forever)
. . . simple flowers, I don't need a large elaborate spray of flowers
. . . that I do want to be buried near our family home, so my kids can visit as they need, in the early years
. . . that I want a weekday burial service
. . . and a weekend memorial in our church (more friends and family could attend if they wish to)
. . . some music that was meaningful to me
. . . a small home reception, in the family home, perhaps using a grocery delivery service to provide deli catering trays
. . . that I'd like to help write my own obituary, now, with the possibility for updates by my children, later. I'll keep my obit with a copy of our trust documents.

And that's about as far as I've gotten on this.

What I learned in doing my research, besides caskets coming in a large range of price points . . .

. . . that there is such as thing as a cardboard casket -- who knew? And families will decorate these caskets to reflect the life of the passed family member.
. . . a large spray of flowers for the casket can cost a couple hundred dollars -- yikes! that is so not my style. I am honestly fine if my kids go to the grocery store the evening before the burial, and pick up a few bouquets to lay neatly, on the top of the casket, themselves.
. . . you can pay up to $10,000 for a plot in some memorial parks (and yes, that seems to be the industry name for cemeteries, these days -- memorial park sounds much lovelier), and a family garden (with room for several family members, a bench and maybe a small tree) goes for $150,000 in a swanky memorial park that I'm familiar with. But our local memorial park has comparatively reasonable rates of one to two thousand per plot.
. . . that Saturday burials often come with a surcharge
. . . that you can buy burial clothing through the mortuary. Um, just weird, to me. Something from my closet will do.
. . . that you can rent a casket. That sounds laughable, right? But seriously, if you plan to be cremated, you can rent a casket, for a viewing, prior to cremation, if that's your wish.
. . . and that there may be lower-priced caskets whose models are NOT on display. You need to ask about these, specifically.
. . . embalming is not necessarily required. It's pricey. You can spend close to $1000, for embalming and body prep work. The alternative is refrigeration. Minimal cost, average seems to be about $50/day.
. . . that there are lists, online, of popular music used at memorial services, and you can even find lists of the music played for the services of a few famous people (like JFK, Princess Diana). Ditto for poems and sayings/quotes.
. . . that there seems to be a charge for every single detail from death to final rest. Transportation of the body, death certificate copies, storage of the body before burial, a sealed casket (presumably to keep the elements out -- and, but why? I ask).

What I learned from my experience with my siblings, when our dad passed . . .

. . . there were so many decisions, large and small, to be made in such a short span of time.
. . . we each had our own ideas of what we thought should be done. Fortunately, the 3 of us are very good at compromise. But if we had known what my dad would have wanted, we could have saved a lot of time and energy.
. . . it was very easy to get swept away in the spending, with a thought process like "well, it's Dad's money after all, might as well go for the very best". And while the 3 of us get along very well, we have different spending/saving personalities.
. . . that while the funeral director is required to provide a list of all of the services with a breakdown of fees, we weren't in the right frame of mind right then, to take our time going over that list and find alternatives or do without some line items.

There's a huge benefit to beginning these talks now, while I'm still in good health. This difficult conversation is not charged with emotion the way it would be if I were seriously ill. And financially, planning for this right now, and talking about this with my children, will allow me time to budget and set aside money to specifically cover this expense, so my kids won't feel the financial burden when I pass.

This isn't morose. It's loving, to want to take care of my kids one last time in my life. Okay, someone hand me a tissue, please.


  1. I have also had to make those decisions after a sudden death in the family. The pressure from the funeral/memorial industry is subtle but extreme - the workers seem to give you mournful, disappointed looks and prompt you to buy the "very best of everything" for your loved one.

    1. Hi anexacting,
      I think we tend to forget that it is a business, after all. And like in all businesses, there will be some employees who take advantage of our vulnerability. There will also be some employees who don't, so I don't want to paint the industry broadly.

      But, it is up to us to do some research in advance, and prepare our children/spouses in the knowledge of our own wishes, and what is available.

      It does really bother me that a family might feel pressured to over spend, and then find themselves paying off a credit card for many years.

      Death is one of those occasions where people lose track of what is sensible, and think only with their hearts.

  2. You're giving your kids a great blessing! My Grandparents pre-planned and pre-paid their funerals - right down to writing the obituaries and choosing the outfit, and arranging and providing money for a Memorial meal. It was SUCH a help. My Mom freely discussed these things, and when the time came for me to "purchase" her funeral - at least I knew exactly what her preferences were, and that made it so much easier!

    1. Hi Anna,
      Your grandparents were extremely wise. They insured that their funerals would be carried out exactly as they wished, and didn't leave a burden for their children. I think that is so loving.

      And doing this very open planning, in advance, prevents someone from putting together a memorial service that just isn't right for who we are.

  3. Well said. I have not done a preplan but my parents and in-laws have. My husband even works for a funeral home and sees a lot of expense that goes with as well as a lot of cheaper ways to bury a loved one. Death is always something that comes unexpectedly even when it's expected.

    I just don't have the money right now to plan and pay for a funeral. We talk about what we don't want in our funerals during casual family conversations. We should preplan but we haven't yet. We do have a will especially when the kids were young and I wanted to make sure family would raise them not the state. They are all adults now so and we moved so that all has to be revised sometime. We have life insurance on everyone so it's really just to plan a funeral and buy a plot.

    Lili, you spoke on embalming. I know where we live there are rules about when you must embalm and when you don't have to have it done. Something like buriel must happen within 48 hours to not have embalming or something like that. I don't see the point in embalming to keep the body looking good for years and years. I don't know for sure what to plan so maybe that's why we haven't yet. Food for thought that's for sure.


    1. Hi Alice,
      You know, you're so right about that, even when we know that a loved one will pass away soon, we still deny it to some extent. And we rarely think past the moment of death and think about funeral expenses.

      I think it's good that you are talking openly with your kids about what you want. It will really ease the decision-making for them.

      I believe the embalming laws vary from state to state. And there are specific circumstances where it's absolutely necessary, like if you want to have the body transported across state lines, to be buried in a different state from the death, then I believe embalming is necessary. My dad used to talk about how you had to be buried within a day, if you wanted to forgo the embalming, but I believe the time has been extended to a few days. My own dad passed away on a Tuesday morning, and was buried on a Friday afternoon, with no embalming. So, in the state of California, at least, the time period is at least 3 days, where refrigeration can be substituted, or was in 2002. It's a very personal choice. And that's why I want to be the one making that choice, as it's personal.

    2. I had the same thought as Alice--there are different regulations for burial/embalming/etc. in different states. I suspect that different funeral homes have variable price points, as well--worth checking out long before you need those services.

      I knew about renting a casket. We found that the package expense the funeral home had for my dad ended up making the most sense (we chose a lower-end price point but not the lowest, and it was still a lot of money!). Cremation didn't seem to save as much money as I thought it would, but I think if there was time to research it, you could have the funeral home perform the cremation and hold a service at a different location at the time of the family's choosing (again, checking around at different funeral homes prior to needing the service may be a good idea).

      I think you are so smart to figure this out beforehand. Dealing with a loved one's death is difficult and, at least in my case, my brain wasn't always working the way it was supposed to.

      My parent's church provided a meal after the service for my dad (pretty typical in Protestant churches in my neck of the woods) for free. However, during the looong visitation the day prior (pretty much a whole day), mom paid for a catered luncheon for the family--nibbly sandwichy bits of food, through a caterer that works with the funeral home--I know it seems like a lot of money but it was such a blessing to us. None of us kids lived close by and making sure people (including mom!) were eating appropriately was important. It would have been mentally more than I could have handled to pull together a meal that day.

  4. I have pre-planned and pre-paid for my funeral. However I didn't do the research that you have and would make a few changes now that I know. I was told that I HAD to be embalmed. I had to ask about a "pine box" because they didn't offer it as an option. I learned from Dave Ramsey that I could make money by investing the $6000 rather than prepaying. Have you looked into Chapel of the Resurrection at Cedar Park. I like that they are a ministry not a FOR-PROFIT business.
    Thanks for doing and sharing your research I'm sure it will be helpful to a lot of your readers.

    1. Hi frugal spinster,
      The laws in our state, on embalming could have changed since you pre-purchased your own funeral. I don't know if it's possible to amend your plan, now. But if it's important to you, you may want to check and see. It could also be that the embalming as a requirement, was sold as an incase thing, like you die while out of the state, and your body has to be transported over state lines, then it would be required. I don't know. Just making guesses. Anyways, I don't have the citation in front of me, but I'm pretty sure I read that embalming is not necessarily required in every state of the US. I'll have to check on that.

      Thank you for the Chapel of the Resurrection. Very much appreciated. I'll look into it.

    2. Hi again, frugal spinster,
      I was just reading the site from Chapel of the Resurrection. Re embalming:

      "Except in certain special cases, embalming is not required by law. Embalming may be necessary, however, if you select certain funeral arrangements, such as a funeral with viewing. If you do not want embalming, you usually have the right to choose an arrangement that does not require you to pay for it, such as direct cremation or immediate burial. Shipment via common carrier (airplane or train) or entombment may also require
      embalming. Washington state law requires that the funeral home must either embalm or refrigerate immediately after removal of deceased from place of death and until final disposition:"

      Immediately following this statement, is the actual regulation, citing "Revised Code Washington". Maybe the regulations have changed since your pre-purchase.

      Thank you for giving me the name of this funeral home/mausoleum, frugal spinster.

      For any Washington state residents, Chapel of the Resurrection is located in Bothell, WA. They have a fee schedule on their website, for your planning purposes.

  5. I have also told my family what I would like in the end. I can't see putting all of that money into the ground when it could do so much more good being used on the living. I would like the money donated to a favorite charity instead. It isn't a real comfortable topic to many, but I think it is a very important one to let feelings be know about.

    1. Hi Mary,
      I commend you on your reason to pre-plan, so that you can minimize expense and make a charitable donation that could benefit someone still living.

  6. Funny (not really), not a day goes by that I don't think about my mortality. We have a will, advanced health care directive, power of attorney, revocable trust (due to out of state properties at the time), and a plot (my aunt wanted to give us, actually my dad, her double internment plot that has special burial rites for four people, but we insisted to pay her, so she finally settled on what she paid in the '80s, a very good price according to the cemetery officer when we went there to sign the transfer of ownership papers). We don't have a funeral plan because we want a private service and cremation, with as little fuss, no obituaries, etc. When my mother died, it was sudden and we were unprepared, but the funeral home made it very easy to prepare a lovely memorial with catering. We didn't have a burial because my father wanted to keep her ashes with him. In our Buddhist tradition, we did the same for my grandmother, and had memorial service every "obon" season at the nearby church, carrying her ashes with us. When my grandfather passed away, we buried their urns together. We don't want any obon services, so a burial is fine immediately after.

    What I worry most about, however, is how will my husband keep track of our financial accounts if I am incapacitated. He says he can't keep up, so one day I will have to explain what to do very clearly. I am in the process of writing it down, but it is so wordy, I don't think he has the patience to read and learn as we age. I wonder too if I have the beginnings of dementia, as lately I draw complete blanks when I try to recall things. This is what scares me the most, losing my mind, and one day can't continue the maze I've created. It is not terribly complicated for me today, but my husband hates all manner of paperwork, so that's the problem. I assure him that we have smart children who will come and help him, but he says they are too busy. Well, if there is money that they will inherit one day, they will come I told him. We are debating whether to hold a meeting with our children to inform them more specifically what our wishes are and where documents are in case we both go at the same time in an accident.


    1. Hi YHF,
      Very interesting about the Buddhist tradition. I was not familiar with obon. Thank you for sharing this.

      Oh, the financial stuff -- I totally get that!! I do absolutely everything related to finances in our house. And it does become a maze over the years. Something I need to simplify for my own minds' sake. At one time, I did leave some written instructions on how to manage the basic accounts, and where to find the info. But that needs updating even now. My H would have a struggle with how I've set it all up. But I do like your reasoning, that the kids are smart and they know that if they want to inherit anything, they'd best get themselves over to see Dad and help him take care of the finances!

      When my step-grandfather passed away, my grandmother had begun with some dementia. My uncle took her and all her statements over to the bank and had them handle all of her bills and tax paperwork from then on. Of course there was a fee for this service, but it was a great relief for my grandmother to know that bills were all taken care of, and she could just live her life.

      Yep, my memory isn't what it used to be either. I now tell my kids to remind me of things, regularly, because I just don't remember as well as I used to. I worry I will forget to do the taxes some year, and we'll get an angry letter in the mail from the IRS.

  7. I love this. You wanting to take care of your children one last time in life. That is so sweet. For my funeral I don't want anyone to spend money on flowers but rather if they choose to, send a donation to their local food bank in my name, so that others won't go hungry, which is a much better way to spend any money.

    1. That sounds very nice, Belinda. Thoughtful of you to want to help someone else.

  8. Well, when my mother passed suddenly 3 years ago, my brother and I were tossed into the whole funeral planning thing. My mother had pre-paid for a funeral, but unfortunately when we got there it wasn't actually that simple.

    While she had come up with a plan and pre-paid for a service, she hadn't actually communicated that information to anyone. I guess she just figured the packet would be found in her belongings. Fortunately I had a vague memory that she had made plans, so that gave us a starting place, but it turned out I only had about half of the equation, and after calling cemeteries literally from coast to coast, we came very close to paying for a plot when it turned out that there already was one that we just didn't know about.

    So, I'd say that it's important to communicate clearly - I'd suggest writing something up and giving a copy to each of your children and perhaps to a sibling or someone outside of your immediate family in case, heaven forbid, something were to happen to happen to make it impossible for your kids to be the ones dealing with your arrangements.

    Another thing I'd recommend based on my experience with my mother is to be sure that you update your plan as the years go by. My mother made arrangements when we all still lived here in Denver, but by the time those arrangements were needed, she had moved across the country multiple times, and it all just got very complicated.

    And finally, you might want to give some thought to leaving a "Plan B" for your loved ones just in case something unforeseen happens. What if you were to pass unexpectedly when you were out of the country? What if you were to go in such a way as to make an actual burial difficult? In our case, my mother (who had become a bit of a hermit) wasn't discovered for nearly a week after she passed, and that complicated things tremendously. Apparently there is only a short window of time in which to do certain things, and once you are past that window, things get... well, ugly - especially when you're talking about transporting remains over long distances.

    Anyhow, I applaud you for taking on this task and laying the groundwork to make things easier for your kids when the time comes. I promise you they will be eternally grateful.

    1. Thank you for your input, Cat. And you're very right that all of this info needs to be kept in a place that is very easily accessible to family, maybe several copies of the info.

  9. My husband and I have been to a number of funerals in the last few years. I've let him know what I like & don't like about each one. I've even let the kids know some of my desires for a funeral service. I have to say, my list so far is almost identical to yours. I think it is very good to have a plan ahead of time. When our pastor's wife passed away from cancer 2 years ago, her funeral was beautiful. Pine coffin. Spray of white flowers on top of it. Nothing said about her at the service, except for her love of Jesus. The service was focused on the worship of our Lord & Savior. Beautiful! Melisa

    1. That sounds like a beautiful service, Melissa.

  10. I have recently begun researching funerals as well as my parents have been in the hospital approximately 8 different times in the last year. My dad in serious condition a couple of those times. I think I began by going to the Veterans Affairs website and clicking on Burial and then there were links to other websites on funerals. I was relieved to learn that just like a wedding, one can go all out and spend life savings or still have a nice service but not have it be a financial drain. I have only gone so far as to research and bookmark sites. I need to go back and reread, write down what I want and then begin researching cemeteries and funeral homes in my area. Apparently, it pays to shop funeral homes and they are required to give you a price list if you ask. Be sure to read all of the pages as the lower fee items/services tend to be on the last pages..... something families dealing with a loss are not prepared to read through at the time.


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