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How to Pre-Plan a Funeral

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Our detailed checklist will guide you through the steps of pre-planning a funeral.

With any big decision in life, it’s helpful to have time to research and consider options — and funeral planning is no exception. Pre-planning your funeral can protect your family from having to make stressful decisions while grieving, as well as relieve the financial burden on surviving family members. You are the guest of honor at your funeral, so why not be part of the planning process? Planning ahead enables you to design your final send-off and share your last wishes with your family so that, in the end, you get the funeral you want.  

Our detailed checklist will guide you through the steps of pre-planning a funeral. 

O  How do you want to be remembered? Think about the most memorable funerals you’ve attended. What made them meaningful? Did they bring comfort to the survivors? Also, think about your own personal style. Would you rather be remembered with a solemn ceremony or a colorful celebration? Keep these things in mind as you decide the details of the service. 

First you'll want to decide where you'd like it to be held — at the funeral home, your place of worship, graveside, your home, or some other location. Maybe there's a meaningful place in your life where you think friends and family should gather to remember you.  

Many of us live far from our hometowns—or have multiple places we call home—and most of us have family and friends spread out across the country or around the world. If any of these apply to you, consider having more than one memorial event (e.g. a funeral in your hometown and a memorial service in the place where you lived for 20 years) to give the people you love the opportunity to come together to celebrate and honor your life.  

If there are any religious guidelines for the funeral, make them clear as you pre-plan. You'll want to specify whether the funeral will be officiated by a religious leader or someone else. If there are certain passages of scripture or other writings you want read, note them — you can even designate who you would like to read each piece. You might have specific songs or hymns you want played (or you might want to specify that there's a song you absolutely don't want played no matter what). You also can outline what kinds of floral arrangements and memorial displays—like a photo board or a video—you want at your funeral. 

If there are additional services or ceremonies you would like—wake, visitation, reception, Shiva, military honors—list them. And be sure to note any other unique element you want included in the services, whether it’s a favorite color, flower, hobby, sports team, school, or other interest. 

Last, but not least, will you want your body to be present at your funeral? If so, should the casket be open or closed? Or do you prefer to be cremated prior to the service and have your ashes present? (Note, even if you choose cremation, you can decide to have your body present at the funeral and/or other services.)

O  How would you like to be laid to rest? Deciding how your body should be laid to rest is one of the most important decisions to make ahead of time. Most people choose burial or cremation, and in recent years, cremation has become the most common choice in the U.S. There are other options as well, such as anatomical donation and water cremation. 

If burial is your preference, then you have a few specifics to decide. Where do you wish to be buried and what is your preferred cemetery? Do you prefer traditional or  natural burial? Do you want your body embalmed? (Embalming isn't required, but it's often preferred when there will be a viewing.) Will the casket be buried in the ground or entombed in a mausoleum? What type of casket and how much money are you prepared to spend (or ask your survivors to spend)? 

If you're choosing cremation, you can decide if you would like it to take place before the service (known as "direct cremation") or after the funeral, so the body is available for viewing at the service. Also think about what you would like your survivors to do with your ashes. Should they be scattered in a meaningful place, buried in a cemetery, or kept in an urn at a loved one's home? If you want your ashes to be placed in an urn, what type of urn do you prefer?

Interested in an alternative to burial and cremation? Be sure to do your homework well in advance. Other forms of body disposition are not as readily available and may have special considerations. 

If you wish to donate your body for scientific research or anatomical study, work out a specific plan ahead of time. If the extent of your planning is telling your family “Just donate me to science,” it’s unlikely they’ll be able to carry out your wishes. Look into medical schools and research facilities as well as forensic anthropology facilities (also known as "body farms") to determine the best option for you. Only certain facilities accept anatomical donations, and they may have criteria you must meet. Make sure you call and confirm that your preference is a possibility.  

For some alternatives, such as water cremation (also known as resomation or alkaline hydrolysis) and recomposition, the main obstacle is availability. These new forms of body disposition may or may not be legal in your state, and even if they are, there might not be a facility near your home. If you have a strong preference for one of these options, you'll want to research to confirm it's possible and locate a facility where it can be done. 

O  Research funeral homes and find the one that's right for you. Choosing a funeral home can seem daunting, but there are a few basic steps you can take to make sure you're selecting the best fit for your needs. Speak with funeral directors at two or more different funeral homes. Ask each for a general price list (GPL) to help you understand the types of services offered as well as the prices for each. Share any crucial needs or unusual requests you may have (for example, specific religious practices, green burial, size of venue) to make sure the funeral home can accommodate. If one funeral home is unable to meet your specific needs, ask the funeral director to recommend another home. 

O  Consider your budget and payment options. Planning your funeral in advance can make a lot of sense financially. With a little planning, you can save yourself and your family money. 

In some cases, you may decide it makes sense to pay the entire cost of the funeral before you die, freeing your family from that financial burden. 

Did you know that prepaying funeral expenses can help you get the most out of Medicare and Medicaid? Many seniors have health care expenses greater than what Medicare will cover. To maximize benefits and cover the cost of long-term care, many choose to pre-pay funeral costs in order to “spend down” assets and qualify for additional coverage through Medicaid. 

Here are five ways to cover funeral costs in advance.

O  Decide about charities and flowers. Friends and family may want to make a donation in your memory or send flowers to the funeral. You can make decisions now to help guide their efforts.  

Do you have favorite causes or charities? Request memorial donations to them. It's a beautiful way to continue giving to the organizations you support even after you're gone. Another way to continue giving: starting a memorial fund to support your surviving family or a charity that’s important to you. A funeral home can help set up a memorial fund, so talk to your funeral director if this is an option you’re interested in. 

Also consider how you feel about flowers at your funeral. Sending flowers is a time-honored tradition and one of the most common ways to show sympathy. For some families, the flowers sent to a funeral are a great comfort and a tangible way to understand how much people care. For others, it's one more thing to deal with in the overwhelming period after a death, and some would prefer money be given to charity rather than spent on flowers. If you don't want flowers, you can request charitable donations in lieu of flowers. 

O  Make your funeral wishes known. You have planned the ultimate farewell — now make sure your family and friends know about it. Though you can include your final wishes in your will, be aware that the will may not be read before the funeral. We recommend creating a separate funeral plan and sharing with your next of kin so they will be prepared to send you off in style.