Mom and Dad wanted to have the talk. Here's what happened when we sat down.

My parents pre-arranged their funerals last week, and then they wanted to sit down and talk to me and my sister about it. This is a conversation that can be incredibly uncomfortable to everyone involved, but I’m here to tell you that it’s doable — and it’s actually really important. 

My parents are both early Baby Boomers, and my sister and I are both Gen X, and statistically that means that none of us is at all interested in spending a Wednesday evening talking about what’s going to happen at Mom’s or Dad’s funeral. But given the choice between talking about it then, or doing it on our upcoming beach vacation  the next time we’d all be in the same room together we went for it.  

The conversation started with a question. Mom and Dad had made many of the decisions themselves, without our input, but they wanted to know: Would we want to have an open-casket visitation prior to their cremations?  

My sister and I have always been on the same page about disliking this piece of the traditional funeral. So it was easy to say, “No, we can skip that,” without having to think too hard about the specifics or creating an inner visual of one of our parents in a casket. 

And that was the key to the whole conversation: not imagining the reality of the future too intensely. Approaching my parents’ death as a theoretical possibility, rather than the inevitability that it is, made it easy to ask questions like what kind of headstone they want (they’ve already made plans for a memorial bench) or whether they’ve considered writing their own obituaries (no, they assumed I’d do it for them, which is a fair assumption since it’s what I do for a living). 

Keeping it theoretical, at least in her own mind, is also what got my mom through the process of planning her own funeral. She told me that if she stops to think about the idea of her own death, she finds it very scary and unsettling but she was able to detach from that and plan her funeral like she was planning for someone else. Yes, that’s a nice casket (for someone else). Yes, our church is the ideal service location (for someone else). Yes, Pastor Borling will preside over the service (for someone else). 

My dad is the opposite. He’s very matter-of-fact about his own death. In the last few years, he’s started dropping occasional bombs of “I know I won’t be around much longer” into conversations not to make us feel guilty or pamper him, but just out of his pragmatic sensibility. He knows it’s true, so why not talk about it? 

Dad found funeral planning to be no more upsetting than any other organizational task. He’s probably in the minority, but there are definitely others like him out there, who see their eventual death as a condition of life, not something to worry about. He told me funeral planning was something everybody ought to do, so of course he did it. 

Mom and Dad offered some details, though they didn’t lay out every single thing that they talked about with the funeral home. Mom showed us a photo she took at my uncle’s funeral last year, where his urn was displayed next to a framed photo of him. Since my sister and I said no to an open casket, this is what they want the display to look like at the service.  

They know what their urns will look like, where they’ll be buried, and who is making the memorial bench that will mark their gravesite. They know they each want some of their ashes to be scattered and some to be mixed together in an urn and then buried. They’re very on top of the details details that would have felt overwhelming for my sister and I if we had to nail them all down the day after Mom or Dad died. 

They told us they’re working on choosing photos for a memorial video that the funeral home will coordinate at the time of the funeral. If we want to display photos on a memory board at the visitation or reception, that’s up to us. I suspect for my parents, especially my mom, there’s some emotional disconnect in looking through the photos of their lives to assemble a video for their funeral. Sifting through old photos is always pleasant, but doing it for this reason comes with that constant reminder that one day you’ll die.  

Before we called it a night, Mom and Dad showed us the price list put together by the funeral home, detailing how much every part of their funerals cost. They have the money to cover these expenses now, and they’re proud to have been able to take care of it so my sister and I won’t be blindsided with arrangements and expenses in the future. They were both heavily involved with planning funerals for their own parents at the times of their deaths, because none of my grandparents pre-planned. Mom and Dad know from experience how hard it is to plan a funeral while you’re grieving, and they wanted to spare us that emotional and financial pain. 

As my mom said, it comes down to this: It’s practical and sensible to pre-plan your funeral. That’s why they did it, even though she felt squeamish about it. And it was also sensible for them to share the details with me and my sister, so we know what to expect when the time comes. We weren’t thrilled to have the conversation, but we got it out of the way and now we don’t have to think about it hopefully for many, many years. 

My parents are both 76, and although they’re in pretty good health for their age, they’re knocking on the door of the average U.S. life expectancy (78.7 years). They’ve both had some health concerns that may or may not have been what made them decide it was time to visit a funeral home and get these things figured out. But it’s pretty unusual that they actually got as far as making an appointment with the funeral home and following through with completing their arrangements. 

Only about 25 percent of adults over 40 have done any pre-planning at all, and that includes the people who have just talked about what their funeral should be like. The percentage who have actually laid it all out on paper and paid for it like my parents did is very small.  

The overwhelming majority of adults haven’t done any real, practical pre-planning. Maybe they’ve told friends or family members that they want to be cremated, or that their memorial service should be more like a party than a somber funeral. Hopefully, someone will remember that bit of passing conversation, in the stressful moment when their family is planning a funeral after their death. But maybe they won’t. Or maybe they’ll think, “Mom didn’t really mean that. We should give her a traditional funeral with burial, like we did for Grandpa.”

Just talking about vague concepts for your funeral is no guarantee. Getting a funeral home involved and paying in advance is the best way to ensure your loved ones will memorialize you the way you want them to. 

If you’re in your 30s or 40s or 50s, you probably haven’t started thinking about pre-planning your own funeral and you probably don’t need to yet. But if you have practical, sensible parents like I do, this conversation might be on the horizon for you, too. It might be the last thing you want to talk about with your parents, but it’s a conversation worth having.  

I’m glad I endured an uncomfortable half-hour talking about my parents’ future funerals, because now I know what to expect and who to contact in order to set their plans in motion when the time comes. When it comes down to it, their pre-planning wasn't about them at all  it was about taking care of my sister and me. They saved us the difficult task of planning their funerals years down the road. It’s an incredible gift, one that will allow us more space in our heads and hearts to grieve the way we'll need to. 


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