Final Arrangements FAQ

Planning some of the details of your burial or cremation -- and your memorial service -- can be a great relief to your survivors.

Why not leave instructions for my final ceremonies and the disposition of my body in my will?

A will is not 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 them out. Just two states -- New Jersey and New Mexico -- require that you name this person in your will.

For more information, see Making Funeral Arrangements in Your State.

Where is the best place to leave written instructions for my final arrangements?

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.

Whatever method you choose, be certain to talk to your loved ones about your plans. If you write down what you want, 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.

Want Additional Help?

If you need help organizing your thoughts, Nolo offers two resources that can help:

  • Quicken WillMaker Plus can create a final arrrangements document for you. The software program asks you questions about your wishes and then produces a detailed letter you can give to others.
  • Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won't Have To, by Melanie Cullen with Shae Irving, is a workbook with CD-ROM that provides a complete system for documenting information for your executor and family members, including your wishes for final arrangements.

Why should I leave written instructions for my final ceremonies and the disposition of my body?

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 order:

  • your spouse or registered domestic partner
  • your adult children
  • your parents
  • your next of kin, or
  • a public administrator, who is appointed by a court.

Disputes may arise 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. Such disputes can be avoided if you are willing to do some planning and to put your wishes in writing.

In most states, if you make a health care power of attorney, you can give the person you name to make health care decisions for you (your "agent") the power to make decisions about your remains. But, even if you do this, you may want to leave written instructions about your wishes. Your health care agent will be legally required to follow your directions, though he or she is not required to pay for the arrangements -- the money will come from your assets or family members who are legally required to pay. (For more information about making a health care power of attorney, see The Living Will and Power of Attorney for Health Care: An Overview.)

Just two states -- New Jersey and New Mexico -- require that you use your will to appoint the person who will oversee your final arrangements.

For more information, see Making Funeral Arrangements in Your State.

What details should I include in a final arrangements document?

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:

  • whether you want your remains to be buried or cremated
  • the name of the mortuary or other institution that will handle burial or cremation
  • whether or not you want your body to be embalmed
  • the type of casket or container in which your remains will be buried or cremated, including whether you want it present at any after-death ceremony
  • the details of any ceremony you want before the burial or cremation
  • who your pallbearers will be if you wish to have some
  • how your remains will be transported to the cemetery and gravesite
  • where your remains will be buried, stored, or scattered
  • the details of any ceremony you want to accompany your burial, interment, or scattering, and
  • the details of any marker you want to show where your remains are buried or interred.

For more guidance, see Planning Your Funeral or Memorial Service.

What services can I expect from a mortuary?

Most mortuaries or funeral homes are equipped to handle many of the details related to disposing of a person's remains. These include:

  • collecting the body from the place of death
  • storing the body until it is buried or cremated
  • making burial or cremation arrangements
  • conducting ceremonies related to the burial or cremation
  • preparing the body for burial or cremation, and
  • arranging to have the body transported for burial or cremation.

Note that the costs of these services vary dramatically, however. It is essential that you shop around if cost is an important part of your decision.

Where can I turn for help in choosing cost-effective mortuary services and burial arrangements?

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, many 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 $20 to $40 for a lifetime membership, although some societies periodically charge a small renewal fee.

To find a funeral or memorial society near you, look in the yellow pages of your telephone book under Funeral Information and Advisory Services, or contact the Funeral Consumers Alliance at 800-765-0107, or online at www.funerals.org.

If you don't want to join a society, 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. But beware of plans that require you to pay in advance; it's better to set aside your own fund to cover funeral goods and services. (For more information, see The Prepaid Funeral and its Perils.)

Why should I leave written instructions about my final ceremonies and the disposition of my body?

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 and death is expected soon.

Making plans can also save money. For many people, death goods and services cost more than anything they bought during their lives except homes and cars. Some wise comparison shopping in advance can ensure that costs will be controlled.

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