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

Letting your survivors know your wishes saves them the difficulties 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.

Planning some of these details in advance can also help 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 help ensure that costs will be controlled or kept to a minimum.

Why not leave these instructions in my will?

A will is not a good place to express your death and burial preferences for one simple reason: your will probably won't 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.

What happens if I don't leave written instructions?

If you die without leaving written instructions about your preferences, state law will determine 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:

  • spouse
  • child or children
  • parent or parents
  • the 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. But such disputes can be avoided if you are willing to do some planning and to put your wishes in writing.

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:

  • the name of the mortuary or other institution that will handle burial or cremation
  • whether or not you wish 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.

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 arrangements with a cemetery
  • conducting ceremonies related to the burial
  • preparing the body for burial, and
  • arranging to have the body transported for burial.
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 making final 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 a 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 and Memorial Societies of America (Web: http://funerals.org/famsa/; Phone: 800-458-5563).

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, proximity and cost.

Copyright 1999 Nolo.com Inc.