Checklist: Everything You Need to Do to Plan a Funeral

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There are many steps to take when making arrangements following the death of a loved one.  You may not go through all of these steps in exactly this order, but this checklist will get you started on planning for a funeral.

Set a budget

Simply put, funerals can be expensive. Having a good idea of what you can afford to spend will help guide your decisions throughout the process. It will also keep you from overspending without realizing it. If you’re pre-planning your funeral, you might consider setting aside cash for the costs, investing in burial insurance, or pre-paying some or all of the costs to help lessen the expense for your loved ones.

Choose burial or cremation

Cremation or burial is a deeply personal decision. Read our article on the pros and cons of both options:

Choose a funeral home 

While some people choose to have a home funeral, most Americans use a funeral home to manage all aspects of handling the body. You can browse funeral homes in your area using our service finder:

Burial questions

Decide if the body will be embalmed 

Decide if you plan to host a viewing before the service 

Consider if you want a greener option  

There’s also been a recent uptick in both traditional and eco-focused cemeteries offering burial sites especially for natural or “green” burial, in which the body isn’t embalmed and a simple shroud or biodegradable casket is used in place of a traditional casket.

Choose a casket

You can buy directly from the funeral home or opt for a different retailer. You can customize elements like material (wood, metal, bronze), color, size, engravings, handles, interior cushions, and decorations.

Pick out burial clothes 

In the past, the deceased were almost always buried or cremated wearing formal attire. That’s changed somewhat in recent years, with some people preferring to dress their loved ones in a favorite outfit or lucky sweater instead.

Cremation questions

Decide when the cremation will take place

Do you want the cremation to take place right away (known as direct cremation), or do you want friends and family to have a chance to see the body first? You can have a viewing or funeral service with the body present, then have the cremation afterward.

Choose a cremation container

If the body will be cremated, you can still choose a traditional casket. You could also opt for a cremation container (a cardboard box or other simple container that they put the body in for cremation) or rent a casket for the service only.

Decide what to do with the ashes 

Will the ashes be scattered, buried below ground in an urn, placed in a columbarium, or kept by a loved one?

Burial location

Choosing an eternal resting place isn’t a process to be rushed.

Choose a cemetery 

Is proximity to loved ones or your hometown a consideration? Is there already a spot where other family members have been laid to rest? Would you prefer a cemetery that’s focused on a particular religious group?

Decide whether the body will be placed underground in a burial plot or stored in a mausoleum above ground.  

Select a gravestone  

You don’t have to settle on a marker or headstone (or what you’d like inscribed on it) before the funeral, but most people fold these decisions into the funeral-planning process.

Funeral service: where and when?

Some questions to consider:

Will it be at a funeral home or in a house of worship? 

When will the service take place? 

Will you have the service followed by the burial or cremation? Or will you have the burial or cremation privately and host a memorial service at a later date?

Will you have a separate service at the cemetery or when you scatter ashes?

If the deceased is a veteran, will you want military funeral honors?

Getting the word out

You’ll want to spread the word as soon as you know the date and location of the service, so that guests have time to travel (if needed). Consider which of these options you feel comfortable with.

Make a list of people who must be notified and invited directly

If you’re preplanning your own funeral, this sort of list can save your loved ones a lot of time hunting for phone numbers or second-guessing who might have been overlooked.

Create an obituary or death notice 

An obituary or death notice in the local newspaper will typically include details, as well as mention of whether the funeral is open to the public or family only.  

Post on Facebook  

Social media has become a more common means of reaching extended friends and colleagues. It may also be helpful for generating a list of invitees, by combing through the deceased person’s friends list. (That’s an easy task to delegate, if you think it will be too emotionally taxing.)

Send invitations  

Invitations aren’t traditional for a funeral, but they are becoming more common. To avoid delays with regular postal mail, consider sending electronic invitations.

Funeral service planning

What happens during a funeral service varies immensely by custom, culture, and religious beliefs. And even within a particular framework, you may want to personalize the service to reflect your loved one, whether that means incorporating their favorite music or creating a memorial video or slideshow to be played during the service. You can also incorporate different family members into the funeral by assigning them particular parts of the service.

The main service elements could (but don’t have to) include the following:

Readings

These may be religious texts, poems, prayers, or favorite literary passages.

Eulogy 

While an obituary is a short biography of your loved one’s life, the eulogy is typically more emotional and gives a sense of the person’s spirit and personality. The person who writes and delivers this speech is called the eulogist. You may have more than one eulogist at a funeral.

Music 

If you don’t have a preference over which contemporary or religious music is played, the funeral home should have suggestions.

Memory elements 

It’s increasingly common for modern funerals to include a video of the deceased person’s life, a memory board filled with photos, personal memorabilia that reflects their accomplishments or hobbies, or a blank book for loved ones to write down their thoughts and memories.

Flowers 

While extended family and friends will typically send floral arrangements to the funeral home to be displayed during a viewing or service, flowers for the casket are usually the responsibility of the person planning the funeral (in other words, the immediate family).

Travel logistics

Some funerals are held entirely in one spot, but if visitors will be expected to change locations (from funeral home to cemetery or from cemetery to a post-funeral gathering), you’ll want to think through some logistics:

Choose pallbearers 

If the funeral will include a graveside service, pallbearers (typically six to eight) are chosen to help move the casket from the funeral home or place of worship to the cemetery.

Choose transportation for the funeral procession 

The funeral home will typically arrange for a lead driver (to guide the line of cars from the funeral home to the cemetery) and hearse (to transport the casket). The immediate family can either drive their own vehicles as part of the procession or, more commonly, travel by limousine between sites.

Printed materials

Though not essential, printed materials can be helpful during and after the service.

Programs 

These can provide a brief biography or photos of the deceased, as well as guide guests through the service, so they know what to expect.

Guest book 

A place for guests to write their remembrances and condolences to the immediate family, this is displayed during the service.

Remembrance cards 

Also known as memorial cards, these take-homes can include photos, inspirational quotes, a list of the immediate survivors, and suggestions for charitable donations.  

Other gatherings

Plan pre- and post-funeral gatherings 

Religious beliefs and cultural norms may play a part in deciding whether or not to host gatherings before and after the funeral. In Judaism, for instance, it’s expected that the immediate family will sit shiva for a seven-day period of mourning following a death, with extended friends and family visiting to offer condolences and provide food and support. Yet gatherings aren’t always religious in nature.

  • You can host a viewing or wake before the service. You can host a visitation either before or after the service.
  • Pre- and post-funeral gatherings are typically held at a family home, the funeral home, or the social hall of a place of worship.
  • Refreshments are usually central to these gatherings, whether that means a catered meal or a potluck in which everyone contributes a dish to share.
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