Where to Start?

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)

Save time and money by learning about and deciding what you want.
Know the answers to these questions before you call or visit a funeral home. 

1. What To Do With the Body

Cremation?

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.).

Burial?

The majority of Americans still choose burial.

$ 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.

Burial can be in the ground (some cemeteries offer double depth so two bodies can be in one grave) or in above ground mausoleums. Prices vary greatly between cemeteries. In addition to the cost of the space, cemeteries charge grave opening and closing fees.

Green Burial is rising in popularity as an environmentally friendly alternative to “traditional” burial.

Donation?

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 To Do About Ceremony

Embalming?

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), in Pennsylvania it is not required when burial, cremation or refrigeration (or cooling if at home) take place within 24 hours.

Though there is no law prohibiting viewing without embalming, funeral directors can make their own rules. If you want a viewing but no embalming, shop around to find a funeral director who is familiar and comfortable with that.

An FCA pamphlet: Facts About Embalming

Viewing?

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, have a single viewing directly prior to the service.

Body present at funeral service?

If you want the body present at a funeral service you can have the service at home, at a funeral home, or a religious institution. If you are a member of a religious institution, 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 to have 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.

Planning Tools

Before I Go You, Should Know The Funeral Consumers Alliance’s comprehensive end-of-life planner

How To Choose a Funeral Home

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