Pre-Planning Your Own Funeral: Why Would You Do That?

Jamie Sarche, Director of Outreach and Prearranged Funeral Planning, Feldman MortuaryJamie Sarche is the Director of Outreach and Prearranged Funeral Planning at the Feldman Mortuary in Denver, Colorado. I sat down with her to discuss why someone would want to prearrange their own funeral and other issues that she recommends people consider when thinking about how they want to be memorialized after they die.


Okay, so Jamie, I have had a lot of clients tell me that, as far as burial and memorial arrangements go, their primary goal is to just make it as easy on their family as possible. Often they think any kind of funeral or memorial service is just too big of a deal. Is there something wrong with that?

Well, let’s dispense with the idea that having a funeral or memorial service is making a big deal of yourself. An important reason why we have funerals is that the surviving friends and family members need some structure to deal with their loss. A funeral or memorial service is the only time the community can publically embrace your loved ones and share memories about you and the impact you have had on their lives. Ritual is tremendously important in helping people know what to do at a very difficult time

There are about 120 decisions to be made and a lot of information that needs to be provided to have a funeral or memorial service. The time of a death, when your loved ones’ thinking is clouded by grief, is a terrible time to make those plans. Sadly, for more families than you might expect, when the glue of the family has just died, there is often a wedge created – many families argue about who was dad’s favorite, or who is most qualified to determine whether he would have wanted a specific casket, or whether he wanted a religious service. And on and on.

And then there are the practical reasons to plan ahead. When you pre-plan your funeral, you get to pay for it at today’s prices. Right now, a funeral and burial typically costs between $6,000 and $15,000. If current trends continue, it will cost twice that ten years from now. For most people, that’s a lot of cash to come up with on short notice. I’ve seen people who had to call relatives to ask for credit card numbers so that they could give their loved one the kind of sendoff they felt that person deserved.

On top of that, people don’t want to risk looking like they’re being cheap with their deceased family member. It may sound crazy when you’re not in the heat of the moment, but it can be hard, when you’re sitting there a day after your mom’s death, to say you want the $2,000 casket for her instead of the $6,000 one. It’s an extremely vulnerable time.

So if you really want to give a gift to your family, both emotional and financial, you should take this burden off of them. In all my years of helping people through this process, I have never once gotten to the end of a funeral that had been pre-planned and had a surviving family member say to me, “I wish I had gotten to do more of the planning for this funeral.” Or, “I wish I had been allowed to pay for this funeral.” Quite the opposite, actually. Family members always express so much gratitude for the wonderful gift their loved one gave them by taking care of it for them so that they could focus on remembering their loved one.

$6,000 to $15,000? Why is it so expensive, and what if I really do just want my family to save its money? What’s the cheapest it could be done?

There’s a lot more that goes into a funeral than most people think. It typically takes our staff about 50 hours to do everything that needs to be done – meeting with the family, visiting with the doctor to get a death certificate signed and getting certified copies made with the county, arranging with the clergy and cemetery, creating the obituary and any memorial items, etc. Then there is the merchandise a family would choose. Caskets can cost anywhere from $1200 on up. If the family wants a limousine-guided procession and more, those items add up.

If you really want the most minimal option, direct cremation, you’re probably still looking at about $2,000. It is not going to include any of the services and rituals described above that are so important to helping your family have the structure on which to grieve.

I think I read recently that the typical American family moves about every 7 years. Hopefully, I’ve got more than 7 years to go before my funeral. What if I plan my funeral and then move to the other side of the country?

A pre-planned funeral is fully transferable to anywhere in the country. Funeral homes in Colorado are not allowed to accept money for services they are not providing today so they put the funds in an escrow account held by an insurance company. At the time of death, any funeral home can service that contract and get paid by the insurance company.

As part of my estate planning services, I typically help my clients complete a “Burial and Memorial Instructions” form, providing general instructions on how they want their remains to be handled and how they want to be memorialized. How does pre-planning a funeral go beyond that?

Well, like I said, there are a lot more decisions that need to be made when planning a funeral than most people realize. Those “Burial and Memorial Instructions” are better than nothing. It’s helpful to know whether the person wanted to be buried or cremated, where they want their final resting place to be, and whether they want a religious ceremony. But we go way beyond that when we plan the funeral. And of course, the burial and memorial instructions don’t provide the funding. And, in the 5 years I’ve been working at Feldman Mortuary, I’ve never once seen someone bring the form to the arrangement. On the day we lose someone we love, we don’t even remember that stuff exists.

Speaking of cremation, what if I just want to be cremated? Doesn’t that remove a lot of the complications and expenses associated with a funeral?

It typically is cheaper, but there are a lot of misconceptions about cremation. People tend to think that it’s more environmentally friendly than being buried. It isn’t. Cremation releases smoke and toxins into the air and the cremated remains are toxic to the place they are scattered. Remember how we used to burn trash and leaves and now we compost? Burial without embalming, in an all-wood casket, also known as green burial, is compost. You’ll be feeding the earth. It’s very natural. And while a lot of people worry about taking up space, there is enough space in the United States to bury every person who dies every year for the next 10,000 years. And cemeteries actually are beautiful places that provide grass and trees and open space – and they cannot be turned into a shopping mall.

Okay, for people who are convinced that pre-planning your own funeral is a good idea, when do you recommend they look into it?

The farther ahead of time you do it, the more price protection you’re going to get. And of course, none of us know when our time is going to come. Most people expect that they’re going to live at least into their 70s, but a lot of people don’t.

At the same time, people with kids still at home probably aren’t yet ready to handle this kind of expense. I would say that by the time you’ve got the kids out of the house, that’s a good point at which to start considering it. For most people, once you’ve reached your mid-50s, pre-planning your funeral starts to make a lot of sense. You’ve got the financial means, and you’re at a point in your life where you have been to enough funerals to start developing an opinion about what you want.

Just be sure to ask family and friends for recommendations about which funeral homes they have had good experiences with. I truly believe it is best to use an independent funeral home, instead of a corporate one. You want a funeral home that is worried about the families they serve instead of their shareholders.

Dan McKenzie
Dan McKenzie
dan@themckenziefirm.com

Dan specializes in estate planning, estate administration, and small business counsel. He opened the McKenzie Law Firm in 2013, after spending 10 years as a litigator, seeing what can happen when people fail to carefully identify and mitigate their risks. He is pleased to be raising four kids in the same state where he grew up.