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Who Pays for the Funeral? Defining 'Immediate Family'

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Money is always a touchy subject...

Q. A friend of mine has been asked to help pay for the funeral of a cousin she was never close to. Somehow it doesn't seem right, especially when the bereaved are not exactly poor. Whatever happened to families taking responsibility for such costs? And how can my friend handle this situation without feeling trapped?

Money is always a touchy subject, whether you're requesting financial help or being asked to provide it. Friendships and family relationships have fractured over money issues because expectations and boundaries can vary widely. "Need" is in the eyes of the beholder. And as I discovered while researching this subject, the very definition of "family" may differ. In our culture, we tend to accept responsibility for the funerals of first-degree relatives who haven't left resources to cover funeral costs. It's one of the obligations of adulthood. However, my idea of "immediate family" may not be the same as yours. My personal definition has included grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, spouse, siblings, plus spouse's parents, grandparents, and siblings.


3 Reasons to Plan a Funeral in Advance


In fact, according to Dictionary.com, the term "immediate family" also includes step-parents, step-children, foster children, sibling-in-laws, step-great-grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. Employee benefits plans vary in their definitions. Will you be paid if you take the day off to attend the funeral of your sister's mother-in-law? It depends on where you work.

Another complication: Does your ex's father qualify as a relative? How far out do you go? It's an individual decision, and there's no single answer. The quality of relationships counts, too. A second cousin may mean a great deal to you.

Your friend is in a tough position. It's hard to say "no" because of the possible fallout. For example, will she feel awkward attending the funeral if she refuses to contribute? Yet it's also hard to say "yes" if you feel taken advantage of. Is this a scenario for ongoing resentment? One possibility is to say, "I was going to donate (amount) to (name of charity or cause) in memory of (deceased). What I can do is give you that money for the funeral instead." Or your friend can just offer any amount she feels comfortable with – no more.

The world is changing so fast that the rules of etiquette haven't had a chance to catch up. And even when they do, there will be those who just don't care.


Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes and Conversations. If you have a question for Florence, send her an email.


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