Letting your survivors know your wishes spares them the difficulty of making these decisions at a painful time. And many family members and friends find that discussing these matters ahead of time is great relief—especially if a person is elderly or in poor health.
In addition, disputes can arise if you don't write down your wishes. If you die without leaving written instructions about your preferences, state law determines who will have the right to decide how your remains will be handled. In most states, the right—and the responsibility to pay for the reasonable costs of disposing of remains—rests with the following people, in this order:
Clashes might happen if two or more people—the deceased person's children, for example—share responsibility for a fundamental decision, such as whether the body of a parent should be buried or cremated. Or if you have a partner but aren't legally married, your family members will be able to override your partner by law, even if you've informally shared your wishes with your partner.
Such disputes can be avoided if you're willing to do some planning and put your wishes down in writing. For more information, see Making Funeral Arrangements in Your State.
A will isn't a good place to express your death and burial preferences for one simple reason: Your will might not be located and read until several weeks after you die—long after decisions must be made. A will should be reserved for directions on how to divide and distribute your property and, if applicable, who should get care and custody of your children if you die while they're still young.
In almost all states, you can use your health care directive or another written document to express your wishes for final arrangements and name a person to carry out those wishes. For more information, see Making Funeral Arrangements in Your State.
You have many options for writing down your wishes and plans. If you like, you can write a simple letter to your executor and other loved ones that spells out the details of your final arrangements. But however you document your wishes, be sure also to talk to your loved ones about your plans. At the very least, let them know where the information is stored and how to get to it when the time comes.
Finally, it's a good idea to review your plans every year or two to be sure they still reflect your wishes. Update your letter or other instructions if you change any of the details of your arrangements.
What you choose to include is a personal matter likely to be dictated by custom, religious preference, or simply your own whims. A typical final arrangements document might include:
For more guidance, see Planning Your Funeral or Memorial Service.
If you need help organizing your thoughts, Nolo offers two resources that can help:
Most mortuaries or funeral homes are equipped to handle many of the details related to disposing of a person's remains. These include:
Note that the costs of these services vary dramatically. It's essential that you shop around if cost is an important part of your decision.
From an economic standpoint, choosing the institution to handle your burial is probably the most important final arrangement that you can make. For this reason, some people join memorial or funeral societies, which help them find local mortuaries that will deal honestly with their survivors and charge reasonable prices.
Society members are free to choose whatever final arrangements they wish. Most societies, however, emphasize simple arrangements over the costly services often promoted by the funeral industry. The services offered by each society differ, but most societies distribute information on options and explain the legal rules that apply to final arrangements.
If you join a society, you will receive a form that allows you to plan for the goods and services you want—and to get them for a predetermined cost. Many societies also serve as watchdogs, making sure that you get and pay for only the services you choose.
The cost for joining these organizations is low—usually from $25 to $100 for a lifetime membership, although some societies periodically charge a small renewal fee.
To find a funeral or memorial society near you, check for a local chapter of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, or search online for your region and "memorial society."
If you don't want to join a society, of course you can look for a mortuary or funeral home on your own. You'll have to shop around to find the institution that best meets your needs in terms of style, location, and cost. It's also possible to buy a plan that require you to pay in advance, but it's often better to set aside your own fund to cover funeral goods and services.