Dealing with the death of a loved one can be one of the most devastating and emotional experiences any of us will go through.
Planning a funeral to honor and celebrate that loved one's life can be equally stressful, however — especially if your loved one didn't have a chance to communicate their final wishes. While many middle-aged or retired people make a point of drawing up a will and planning burial arrangements, not everyone is able to do so, especially when it comes to tragic accidents or other unforeseen circumstances. So when planning a loved one's funeral — and whether you're considering a burial or cremation — here are some ways to help make those arrangements a little less difficult.
What to Do First
After reporting the death and informing immediate family members, you might consider reaching out for support from friends and relatives during this time. Your family should also be able to help you with arrangements so you don't have to handle everything on your own. Someone in the family may have had discussions with your loved one about how the funeral should be handled or may know where your loved one stored this information, in a will or through other funeral instructions. Having this information is key, because it can help ease some of the stress you might otherwise experience during an already emotional time.
It's also important to report the death to obtain a death certificate. If the death took place at a hospital or nursing home, the staff can start the death certification process and provide additional information about what you need to do. If you've already chosen a funeral home or company to handle cremation services, the funeral director will handle the remains and file the death certificate.
Once the certificate is filed, you'll be able to order copies from either the city hall or the municipal records office in the city and state where your loved one passed away. You'll need several copies of the death certificate to make funeral arrangements and handle your loved one's affairs, including claiming any life insurance policies, property or other benefits set to pass on to designated beneficiaries.
Considering Different Burial Options
If your loved one didn't leave specific instructions for burial, you and your family can handle the funeral service in several ways, depending on such factors as family tradition and what you think your loved one might have wanted. If a funeral service in a church followed by a traditional burial seems best, you can proceed by working with a funeral home to handle those arrangements, including securing a cemetery plot. Or you and your family might prefer a memorial service followed by a private burial with only immediate family in attendance, in which case you should also communicate this to the funeral home.
If your loved one was a veteran and wanted to be buried in a Veteran's Affairs cemetery, you'll need to work with the cemetery's funeral director to gather discharge documents and other important information, and then call the National Cemetery Scheduling Office (part of the Veterans Administration) to request a burial. If the office determines your loved one qualifies for burial benefits — which include opening and closing of the grave, a government-provided headstone and burial liner, ongoing care of the gravesite and potential honors and memorials — your family will receive these services for free.
Burial options include:
- In-ground burial: The most traditional arrangement, which typically involves a funeral service with a casket followed by a burial in a cemetery plot with a designated headstone or marker.
- Above-ground burial: Involves storing the body in either a community or private family mausoleum or lawn crypt. Mausoleums are indoor structures that house bodies in their own separate crypt. A lawn crypt is also an above-ground structure, but it's outdoors, requires a casket and a grave site, and has a marker or monument where family members can leave flowers or other keepsakes when they visit.
- Natural burial: Also called a "green burial," this is a more environmentally friendly approach to burials that doesn't involve the use of toxic, nonbiodegradable materials like pesticides or embalming fluid. Instead, the body is covered in a shroud or biodegradable casket and buried directly in the ground — usually without a headstone or marker to designate the grave site. These burials must take place in a green cemetery, and there are several of these cemeteries in many states throughout the country.
In some cases, your loved one may have wanted to be cremated, or your family may decide on this option instead of a traditional burial.
Some funeral homes handle cremations, but there are also several companies that offer cremation services throughout the U.S. You may have to complete an authorization for cremation form if the coroner or medical examiner's office has possession of your loved one's remains. After this, you can arrange to have the body transported to a funeral home or crematory for cremation.
With a cremation, the body is placed in a container or casket. After the cremation itself, family members receive the remains or ashes, which they can scatter, bury or place in an urn. You can schedule a traditional funeral or memorial service before or after a cremation takes place, allowing your family more flexibility when it comes to the funeral arrangements.
Death is never easy, and nobody really wants to discuss it — and planning a funeral in a way that honors a loved one's legacy can be especially challenging when you're still grieving. That's why it's so important to discuss funeral wishes beforehand, if possible, just as you'd discuss financial matters like life insurance and estate planning. But whether or not you've had that discussion, working with other family members and a funeral home or crematory can help you celebrate a loved one's life in the most meaningful way possible.