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8 Tips for Funeral Planning

How to make smart decisions and arrangements

spinner image planning a funeral
Sam Kaplan for AARP

None of us likes talking about death. Or funerals. But at some point, you’re going to shuffle off this mortal coil and need a funeral. You can make things easier on your family and get the send-off you want by planning your own.

To some, this feels like death-obsessed prepping. That’s probably why just 36 percent of Americans have talked with or written plans for loved ones about their funeral, according to a 2021 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). You’re also likely to plan a funeral for a family member at some point, so you need to know how to make smart decisions. Here are some tips to help you.

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1. Learn what’s involved

To plan a funeral, you need to know what happens at one. There are three general components: preparing the corpse, holding the ceremony and handling the interment.

There are a range of options for each. Embalming or cremation? A full service at a funeral home, a graveside one or a DIY ceremony? Who will be there? A viewing of the deceased or not? Burial in the ground or in a tomb, or ashes scattered someplace meaningful?

You can get funeral planning checklists online to help you know what decisions you’ll need to make.

2. Plan in advance, but don’t pay in advance

Funeral homes sell plans that promise better rates if you buy a package now, years before you die. Don’t do it, says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA), a death-care industry watchdog group.

"You can plan a funeral ahead of time without prepaying,” he says. “Planning is not the same thing as prepaying.”

The drawback to prepaying, Slocum says, is that your situation can change between the time you pay and the time you die. Funeral homes go out of business, which leaves no one to honor the plan you bought. Or you may die in a city far from where you paid for a funeral and a plot. “A much better approach to save money is to comparison shop at the time of death,” he says.

The one exception is if you’re facing a Medicaid drawdown. In that case, a prepaid funeral can be a smart move.

If you’re worried about there being enough money to pay for your funeral, set up a payable-on-death account, Slocum says. This is a bank account that lets a person you designate as beneficiary receive the money in the account when you die. The idea is that your beneficiary will use the money to pay for your funeral. A payable-on-death account works just like a regular bank account, so you can make deposits in it regularly while you’re alive.

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3. Find out average costs

The FCA has links on its site to itemized lists of funeral costs, by state. Check it out so you have an idea of what you can expect to pay in your area for everything from a casket to the cost of that final hearse ride to the cemetery.

4. Shop around

The national median cost for a funeral with burial in 2021 is $7,848, according to the NFDA. You need to treat it like any other large purchase. You wouldn’t buy a car from the first dealership you walked into. So don’t pay for a funeral without checking with more than one funeral home.

You may be able to save thousands of dollars just by going a few miles down the road. Call several funeral homes and get quotes. Some may be reluctant to reveal prices, but if they resist, insist. The Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule requires them to quote prices over the phone or in person.

They are not required to give prices online or by email, but there’s a push underway on the part of consumer groups to update that 1984 rule for the digital era and require funeral homes to post prices online. You can get some pricing info online at the funeral comparison site, which offers itemized lists of goods and services available at 10,000 funeral homes, more than half of the nationwide total.

5. Understand the package deal

Funeral homes sell packages of goods and services, but sometimes there’s more wrapped into them than you want. Sometimes they don’t have all the goods and services you want. For example, a gravestone and cemetery plot may not be included in a package. Ask for an itemized list upfront, with prices for each service or item.

6. Buy only what you want

You don’t have to buy a package. You can unbundle them and buy goods and services individually, and combine them into the funeral you want.

You don’t have to buy everything from the funeral home, either. You may save money by buying flowers, an urn or grave site elsewhere. You can even buy a casket somewhere else. The median cost of a casket bought from a funeral home is $2,500. Amazon will deliver a $999 casket, including free shipping for Prime members. Really.

7. Consider joining a memorial society

These nonprofit organizations offer price surveys of local funeral homes and guidance in planning a funeral. Many negotiate discounts at local funeral homes for members. They’re like a buyers club for funerals. One-time membership fees vary but generally cost less than $50. Check the FCA’s state-by-state directory of local affiliates to find one near you.

8. Talk it over and write it down

Tell your loved ones what sort of funeral you’d like to have, and how much you want to spend. Be specific, but realize your loved ones may not be able to deliver on everything you want.

“Funeral planning is not a dictation to your survivors,” Slocum says. “It’s a conversation you have with your kids [or other loved ones]. Make them part of the process.”

You can make the burden of organizing your funeral greater by being too specific with your plans, Slocum says. Your family may not be able to pull off that jazz funeral you wanted, so don’t leave them feeling guilty because they didn’t fulfill your final wishes to a T.  Tell them it’s OK if plan B is a sax solo, graveside. You won’t be listening anyway.

Editor’s note: This article, originally published July 7, 2020, has been updated with 2021 data from the National Association of Funeral Directors.

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