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Preplanning a memorial service, together

Kelly Kowalski, Cliff Noreen, and Bronwyn Shinnick

Posted on December 01, 2022

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Look at the emotional challenges involved in discussing memorial or funeral particulars ahead of time. 

Suggest ways of broaching the subject with sensitivity and tact. 

Note what factors should be taken into consideration when planning out services.

Planning a memorial service can be difficult as family and friends try to put together a ceremony that honors a life lost and creates a space for grieving survivors. That’s why funeral preplanning, like elder care and medical decisions, is more and more something people participate in while they’re still alive.

Determining which kind of remembrance a person wants is the first step in planning. A funeral is typically a ceremony held with the deceased person’s remains in attendance, while a memorial is typically held without the body present and can occur weeks or months after the death. (Related: Funeral costs and considerations )

You can have one or the other, or even both, in remembrance of a person. If you’ve settled on a memorial, the next step is figuring out what it should include and what it should look like.

“Sometimes people with a terminal illness will tell you directly what they might want, but a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge that they are facing death at all, let alone help plan a memorial,” said Randy Anderson of Radney Funeral Home in Alexander City, Alabama.

He said that recently a woman who was dying of cancer came into his office with a few family members and planned out everything for her service, which in this case was a funeral. But that kind of in-person planning isn’t very common, he noted.

Memorial specifics

Many people will detail in a will or other legal document whether they want to be buried or cremated, and whether they want a funeral or memorial services; but not everyone provides that information. Planning your own funeral can, after all, be a little off-putting. Even those who are clear that they want a memorial rarely state specifically what it should entail.

When a person dies suddenly or is too ill to communicate, taking the time to remember the things that the person loved or that you shared together is one way to piece it all together. But if you’re fortunate enough to still be able to communicate with the ill person, consider opening up a conversation to find out how the person would like to be honored. (Related: End of life planning guide)

Picking a style, deciding on a venue, choosing the participants, finalizing the date, inviting the guests, and arranging the details are all crucial steps. Memorials can be as informal as a barbecue in the backyard or as formal as a wedding with ushers, caterers, and a reception line.

How to bring up memorials and funerals

Taking a soft approach in bringing up the conversation with a person is often the best way to go, Anderson said, such as asking questions about a person’s preference here and there in the midst of other conversations. Find out what kinds of music the person likes, whether the person has a favorite song, movie, hobby, food, or color. Find out what the person is particularly passionate about and see if it can be incorporated into a memorial.

For example, a recent client he worked with was known in the family to be a great cook, so some of her favorite dishes were prepared and served at the memorial. Another person collected antique autos, which were then used in the funeral procession and later displayed for people to examine and learn more about. Someone who loved gardening had gardening tools and plants displayed at the memorial.

If asking the ill person questions is also too hard, consider starting the dialogue by sharing stories, which can be an easier and gentler way to introduce the preplanning process, said Jessica Koth, public relations manager with the nonprofit National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), an industry trade group. She said in an email exchange that sometimes working with a memorial counselor or even going through a workbook together can help.

The nonprofit Funeral and Memorial Information Council (FAMIC), of which NFDA is a member, has a website based around their “Have the Talk of a Lifetime” Initiative, which gives families ideas of how to open up the conversation.

“The anticipation is far worse than the actual conversation,” said Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA). “Five minutes into a frank discussion about remembrances, most people find that the fear is gone and it’s actually a relief to be able to talk about something so important with the circle of people closest to them.”

Most want to be part of the decision

If the thought of initiating this kind of conversation makes you uncomfortable, consider whether you would want to play a role in funeral wishes and how you are remembered. If the answer is yes, your terminally ill or aging friend or family member may feel the same way.

Many people don’t, however. Only 21 percent of Americans have even spoken to their loved ones about their wishes, according to the NFDA’s latest survey on the subject. Yet over 62 percent believe it’s important for people to communicate their funeral plans and wishes to family members prior to their deaths. (Learn more: Making sure that heirs don’t fight)

So rather than wait for the topic to be brought up, consider bringing it up yourself. In initiating a preplanning conversation, or in participating in one arranged by friends or family, consider what is most important to you, but also what might be feasible for your friends and family to carry out.

Indeed, funeral preplanning can allow for consideration of costs in advance. The median cost of an adult funeral with viewing and burial was $7,848 in 2021, according to the NFDA.2 When the cost of a vault is added, something required by most cemeteries, the cost rises to $9,420.

“Sixty percent of those who have pre-arranged their services have prepaid for some or all of them,” said FAMIC. “The main reason for doing so (74 percent) was so survivors wouldn’t have to worry about them or pay for the services, potentially eliminating stress for their friends/family after they are gone.” (Related: Options for life insurance in later years)

Sometimes a person’s last wishes, in terms of a funeral or memorial, can be too elaborate or too financially draining for a survivor to undertake, leaving the person with feelings of guilt or failure, should they be unable to come through for the loved one, said Slocum. So, in expressing your wishes for how you’d like to be remembered, also consider the people who will survive you.

“No matter what we want today, we are not going to be there to experience it,” Slocum said. “So, the question should not only be ‘how do I want to be remembered?’ but ‘how do they want to remember me and what is most feasible for them?’”

Discover more from MassMutual…

Hospice care: What you need to know

What to do when a loved one passes

Wills and the Basics of Estate Planning

This article was originally published in October 2016. It has been updated.


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The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.