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National Funeral Directors Association


By Joel Dresang

Two of my brothers died in the last year. Neither gave the family much direction about what to do afterward.

My brother Dick passed away without warning in March. While he was on life support in the hospital, his children had to scramble to decide on and pay for his funeral services.

It’s not what he would have wanted.

Gary, who died last August, had an extended illness, which allowed my siblings and me some time to make arrangements in advance. Whenever we asked what he wanted, though, he’d quip, “I don’t care. I’ll be dead.”

Of all the significant life events we can plan for, our afterlife is most often left untended. We put it off, and we put it on our bereaved survivors to try to guess what to do with our body and how to mark our passing.

Gary’s funeral was easier in part because of my older sister, who had done much of the heavy lifting on our mother’s funeral the year before. And yet, she says she and her husband don’t have their own arrangements planned yet. (She has, however, told her sons where she keeps a list of songs she wants played at her funeral.)

My oldest brother says he and his wife have discussed having green burials at a site outside of Madison, where they live. But they haven’t made any plans yet. (He offers that he wants “Varsity” sung at his funeral.)

My younger sister is a hospice nurse. She says she and her husband have completed advanced directives, which cover their wishes for end-of-life care as well as “final disposition.” (She also has a playlist, she says, though she has misplaced it.)

I’ve been doing some thinking myself about funerals. I brought up the subject to my wife and daughters. My wife and I don’t have strong feelings about what happens to our bodies, but I wanted to know how our daughters wish to remember us. Do they want us buried some place where they could visit occasionally? Do they want our cremains scattered somewhere special ala “The Big Lebowski” or bottled up like a dormant genie on a mantle or in a cupboard? (Dick’s children have stored his ashes in a stoneware crock he always used for one of their favorite foods – his baked beans. I referred to the crock’s current contents as has beans.)

In so many words, our daughters have told us that they don’t much care whether we’re cremated or buried. So, we’ll just make our plans and keep them posted.

As I sort through options (and start listening to music differently), I’ve found some tips and resources worth sharing.

Tip: Talk about it.

As with most potentially sensitive topics, open discussion can help set everyone at ease. Ask questions. Listen to answers. Respect one another’s feelings and opinions.

Tip: Inform yourself as a consumer.

Shopping for any big-ticket item without knowing what you’re doing is a mistake. You compound your disadvantage when you’re emotional and hurried. The Funeral Consumers Alliance is a membership-based nonprofit with educational materials to help individuals plan end-of-life services.

Resources: Funeral Consumers Alliance of Greater Milwaukee, a consumer empowerment and advocacy group with membership benefits and resources (part of the national Funeral Consumers Alliance)

Consumer Resources, from the National Funeral Directors Association (based in Brookfield, Wis.)

Tip: Know your rights.

Since 1984, the Federal Trade Commission has been enforcing laws that protect vulnerable consumers from predatory sales practices by funeral homes. Among other protections, the Funeral Rule lets funeral home customers buy only the services and merchandise they want and requires itemized price disclosures.

Resource: Shopping for Funeral Services, from the Federal Trade Commission (including a description of the FTC Funeral Rule and a funeral cost checklist)

Tip: Write it down.

Don’t further burden your survivors by making them remember or guess your wishes. Be explicit. The process of writing can stimulate thoughts you hadn’t otherwise considered. Include instructions – if not provisions – for funding. And if you really don’t care, say so in writing to discourage second-guessing.

Resources: Putting it in Order, a useful form provided for members of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Greater Milwaukee. It lets consumers declare their wishes for afterlife services and notify survivors of important financial accounts and contacts.

Authorization for Final Disposition, a form that’s among the advanced directives available through the Wisconsin Department of Health Services

Tip: Let somebody know.

All of your planning could be for naught if you don’t inform anyone of what you want or where to find your documents.

I lost another brother, Bryon, 14 years ago. He was 49. He and his wife were so composed during his year-long illness that they discussed his funeral arrangements – as agonizing as those conversations must have been. When the time came, she took their sons, my parents and her parents to the funeral home. They made final decisions on the casket, the headstone and the service.

She let them know how much they meant to Bryon by letting them share decisions about how to send him off.

It’s what he would have wanted.

Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company.

(initially posted July 31, 2018)
Fun funeral facts
  • Research suggests consumers buy one of the first three caskets they’re shown. As a result, federal law requires funeral directors to reveal a list of caskets sold – with descriptions and prices – before showing any caskets.
  • Funeral directors must agree to use a casket you bought elsewhere.
  • State laws do not require burial vaults or liners, but many cemeteries specify that such containers be used.
Source: Federal Trade Commission, Funeral Costs and Pricing Checklist