Funeral and End of Life Planning

How to get your life and death together for your inevitable mortality.



I need help planning a funeral. Where do I begin?

Knowledge is power when planning a funeral, especially if you want to spend your money wisely and make sure you’re getting exactly what your mother/grandfather/husband wanted for their funeral.

(Even when Your Loved One’s Last Wish Was ‘No Funeral’)

We suggest starting with the Funeral Consumers Alliance. They have an easy to use website and their goal is to ensure that consumers are fully prepared and protected when planning a funeral for themselves or their loved ones.

To understand more about the (sometimes) unscrupulous ways the funeral industry operates, enjoy this episode of Adam Ruins Everything– Caitlin makes an appearance in the episode talking about natural burial options.

Remember, it doesn’t matter what great ideas you have for your funeral if you don’t get them in writing. Talk is Cheap. Burials Are Not: Why Only Telling People What You Want For Your Funeral is Not Enough.

How do you even go about making a death plan? No worries. We have you covered in this video with practical steps on how to get started and inform your  chosen family.

Finally, what if your family is a little, shall we say, tense? Estranged? Full on battle mode? Here are pieces on what to do when families disagree over funeral arrangements, and how to avoid conflict when there’s no plan.

Some states in the U.S. offer social assistance. You can find a list of what is available in your area here.

 

Ok, but what about funeral planning outside of the United States?

Good question, here are some planning resources for:

CANADA

Canadian Integrative Network for Death Education and Alternatives

Information on Funeral Laws in Canada

 AUSTRALIA

Natural Death Advocacy Network

THE U.K.

The Natural Death Centre

Many people will wish to have their bodies retuned for burial or final disposition in their home country, this process is called repatriation. In these cases it is best to work with a funeral home to answer questions regarding legislation, customs declarations, consulate forms and the logistic requirements in each country. To give you an idea of the process behind land transportation of remains, such as U.S. to Mexico, visit this webpage.

 

Who has the legal right and responsibility over my body when I die?

The answer is a bit different in each state/country. The general rule, however, is that your legal next of kin holds this right and responsibility (including decisions of disposition, interment and financial responsibility). This is true unless you have an Advance Directive, legally giving this right to someone you have designated prior to your death.

This right begins at the moment of death. Here is an in-depth fact sheet put together by the Good Funeral Guide on legal rights and responsibilities.

 

Why are Advanced Directives important?

To give you an overview, start with this episode of Ask a Mortician on the importance of Advance Directives.

Taking action to ensure your end of life and death care wishes can be daunting, but we assure you that it can be done, and we’re here to help. We all have the right to have our ultimate wishes respected, but to ensure that they are, you’ll need to take action by creating your advance directive, appointing a health care proxy, and in some states, designating a funeral agent.

Our team here at The Order suggests you begin by creating your Advance Directive/Living Will, this will help ensure your wishes are protected, in writing. Our friends at Cake explain:

Step One: Advance Directive/Living Will Form

What you would want regarding care at the end of your life. 

May also be known as: Advance Healthcare Directive, Personal Directive, Personal Wish Statement, Medical Directive, Life-Prolonging Treatment Form.

Step Two: Designating a Health Care Proxy

Who you trust to make medical decisions if you can’t speak for yourself.

May also be known as: Medical Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney, Healthcare Agent, Healthcare Surrogate, Healthcare Representative, Healthcare Attorney-in-fact.

Selecting a Health Care Proxy, someone who can speak for you when you cannot, is a big decision. 

Your proxy will be making decisions about medical treatments, surgeries, life sustaining interventions, funeral arrangements, and more.

Here’s a short video from The Conversation Project  that can help you determine who might be a good fit for this important role. Now that you have a few choices in mind, check out this list of good traits for a proxy, as well as ones to avoid, from Cake. They also address alternative options for those of us who can’t think of anyone to fill this role.

Once you’ve decided who you want to be your proxy, you’ll need to ask for their consent and discuss your wishes. You’ll find helpful advice for starting this conversation, as well as for those of you who are considering taking on the responsibility and privilege of being a proxy, right here.

Step Three: Designating a Funeral Agent

The person who will make decisions about your funeral. 

May also be known as: Personal Preference Laws for Body Disposition, Appointment of Agent to Control Disposition of Remains.

Part of creating an Advance Directive is ensuring who will make decisions about your funeral. In most places, including many states in the US, the person you name as your Health Care Proxy will be the person authorized to make funeral arrangements on your behalf – they will have to decisions like:

  • How to handle your body after death (burial or cremation)
  • Whether to hold a funeral or memorial service
  • Whether your funeral follows religious or cultural customs
  • Where all services take place

Some places require that you list a designated funeral agent in your living will, some places have a separate Appointment of Agent to Control Disposition of Remains form, and some places are not bound by law at all to recognize the authority of your funeral agent or Health Care Proxy after your death. One more reason Advance Directives are so important. Better to have your wishes stated somewhere than not at all.

To give you an idea, here is a list from the Funeral Consumers Alliance breaking down how each US state handles Personal Preference Laws for Body Disposition. 

Regardless of where you live, it is never a bad idea to write down your wishes before death. Even if they are not bound by law, your trusted Health Care Proxy or funeral agent should know what you want. 

As Cake advises: “Taking a few minutes to review your state [or local] laws helps you know what to expect when the time comes. Whether you’re preparing for your own funeral or helping with a loved one’s funeral, every step is important. Don’t leave your family in the dark when it comes to your end-of-life planning.”

Ready to create your advance directives? Visit this page we created in collaboration with Cake, and click on your state of residence to get started.

COVID-19 NOTE: With office closures and “social distancing” requirements, in-person meetings can shift to video platforms and/or telephone connections.  Draft documents can be sent via email or U.S. Mail. Additional details HERE

Advanced Directives can be especially crucial for the LGBTQ+ communities. From Health Care Proxy:

It is especially critical for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to know that if you do not create a health care proxy naming your partner or a friend as your agent, the hospitals and courts will look to your closest biological family member to make health care decisions for you, and your partner or friend will have no legal right to make such decisions. Also note that a health care proxy becomes ineffective at your death and it is, therefore, critical that you also have a will.

Scroll down to the question “As a Trans or non-binary person, how can I ensure my identity and end of life wishes are protected?” for detailed links and resources specifically for LGBTQ individuals.

 

 

How should I plan for my end of life?

Besides having a solid Advanced Directive in place (see above) it’s important to have conversations about what you want your final days to look like. A “good death” never happens by chance, especially when you’re dealing with the modern medical system.

A good place to start is The Seven Principles of Person-Centered Care – note that you’ll have to scroll down the page to find this useful guide.

If you or someone you love is entering hospice, read What You Need to Know About Hospice Care. And look into The Coalition for Compassionate Care which promotes high-quality, compassionate care for everyone who is seriously ill or nearing the end of life.

Of course, not everyone has equal access to quality end of life care. Here are specific resources for those.

Unable to afford End of Life care: (What do people do when they do not have health insurance and cannot afford end-of-life care?)

People with disabilities: Supporting and Improving Healthcare Decision-Making and End-of-Life Planning for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

The LGBTQ+ communities: Know-Your-Rights Guide for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Elders in California 

If you are a caregiver supporting a loved one at the end of life, Our Turn 2 Care is a wonderful resource. Created by a caregiver, Our Turn 2 Care was designed to provide accessible and culturally competent information to young adults, carving out additional spaces for marginalized groups, including people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.

If you find yourself in a position where you need to make treatment and care decisions on someone else’s behalf, head over to Compassion in Dying.  This organization is U.K. based, but has universal  information and guidance.

As a Trans or non-binary person, how can I ensure my identity and end of life wishes are protected?

We’re so happy that you’ve decided to take action on your end of life plans.

Taking action to ensure your end of life and death care wishes can be daunting, but we assure you that it can be done, and we’re here to help. We all have the right to live and die confident in our identity, and have our ultimate wishes respected.

To make things as easy as possible we’ve teamed up with Cake to provide this simple and free resource to help you find relevant forms in your state – you can access this page by clicking HERE

Forms like:

living wills

health care proxy forms

Once you’re finished, we hope you’ll spread the word! This is information that everybody should know. It is not privileged information. These are your rights, your community’s rights, your human rights.

According to the experts at Cake, Advance directives are documents that express your wishes for medical care in the event of a medical emergency where you can no longer speak for yourself. These documents can also express what should be done with your body after death.”

You can also watch a video from our founder, Caitlin Doughty, who explains what an Advance Directive is, why it’s important to have one, and how you can create your own – it’s easier than you think!

Our team here at The Order suggests you begin by creating your Advance Directive/Living Will, this will help ensure your wishes are protected, in writing. Cake explains:

Step One: Advance Directive/Living Will Form

What you would want regarding care at the end of your life. 

May also be known as: Advance Healthcare Directive, Personal Directive, Personal Wish Statement, Medical Directive, Life-Prolonging Treatment Form.

Step Two: Designating a Health Care Proxy

Who you trust to make medical decisions if you can’t speak for yourself.

May also be known as: Medical Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney, Healthcare Agent, Healthcare Surrogate, Healthcare Representative, Healthcare Attorney-in-fact.

Selecting a Health Care Proxy, someone who can speak for you when you cannot, is a big decision. 

Your proxy will be making decisions about medical treatments, surgeries, life sustaining interventions, funeral arrangements, and more.

Here’s a short video from The Conversation Project  that can help you determine who might be a good fit for this important role. Now that you have a few choices in mind, check out this list of good traits for a proxy, as well as ones to avoid, from Cake. They also address alternative options for those of us who can’t think of anyone to fill this role.

Once you’ve decided who you want to be your proxy, you’ll need to ask for their consent and discuss your wishes. You’ll find helpful advice for starting this conversation, as well as for those of you who are considering taking on the responsibility and privilege of being a proxy, right here.

Photo by Zackary Drucker for The Gender Spectrum Collection.

Step Three: Designating a Funeral Agent

The person who will make decisions about your funeral. 

May also be known as: Personal Preference Laws for Body Disposition, Appointment of Agent to Control Disposition of Remains.

Part of creating an Advance Directive is ensuring who will make decisions about your funeral. In most places, including many states in the US, the person you name as your Health Care Proxy will be the person authorized to make funeral arrangements on your behalf – they will have to decisions like:

  • How to handle your body after death (burial or cremation)
  • Whether to hold a funeral or memorial service
  • Whether your funeral follows religious or cultural customs
  • Where all services take place
  • And perhaps most important to Trans or non-binary people: how you will look, be named, and be remembered at your funeral or viewing. 

One more reason it is so important to trust your Health Care Proxy. 

Some places require that you list a designated funeral agent in your living will, some places have a separate Appointment of Agent to Control Disposition of Remains form, and some places are not bound by law at all to recognize the authority of your funeral agent or Health Care Proxy after your death. One more reason Advance Directives are so important. Better to have your wishes stated somewhere than not at all.

To give you an idea, here is a list from the Funeral Consumers Alliance breaking down how each US state handles Personal Preference Laws for Body Disposition. 

Regardless of where you live, it is never a bad idea to write down your wishes before death. Even if they are not bound by law, your trusted Health Care Proxy or funeral agent should know what you want. 

As Cake advises: “Taking a few minutes to review your state [or local] laws helps you know what to expect when the time comes. Whether you’re preparing for your own funeral or helping with a loved one’s funeral, every step is important. Don’t leave your family in the dark when it comes to your end-of-life planning.”

Cake has also created a checklist to guide you through each step of the process.

COVID-19 NOTE: With office closures and “social distancing” requirements, in-person meetings can shift to video platforms and/or telephone connections.  Draft documents can be sent via email or U.S. Mail. Additional details HERE

We have numerous articles on our website, including Trans Death Rights Are Human Rights in which questions about dying queer are answered by experts like lawyers, death professionals and cemetery workers. In addition to this you can also read Dying Trans: Preserving Identity in Death,and “What is it like to die queer in 2018?”

For those of you in the U.K.:

Things are a little different, but the basic tenets of planning – preparing your documents ahead of time, appointing people you trust to carry out your wishes, and being explicit in your death care desires are just as important. 

One notable difference in the UK is the “Next of Kin”. In the UK you can choose to appoint your next of kin – they don’t have to be a family member, they can be a friend or partner. Your next of kin is the person who will register your death, receive your death certificate, and give the death certificate to the funeral director. Only after the funeral director receives the death certificate from your next of kin, can the funeral legally happen. 

While the next of kin will not have any legal rights – if you want them to have legal rights you need to grant them Lasting Power of Attorney – they will be the person who interacts with the funeral director and arranges your funeral. So it’s important to make sure your medical records are up-to-date with the person you want to be recognized as your next of kin. 

To get you started, here is the Queer Funeral Guide by London funeral arranger, Ash Hayhurst.

Should I consider a prepaid funeral plan?

 

We don’t offer prepaid funeral plans at our funeral home because we don’t believe they are in the best interest of the family.

From Funeral Consumer’s Alliance:

The truth is that it is usually not wise to pay ahead. No matter how attractive the business makes it sound, there are serious drawbacks to pre-paying that the seller will not tell you about. The children and survivors of those who have prepaid often misunderstand the contracts, are unaware of them, or find themselves surprised that there are additional fees to be paid. In addition, many states have inadequate laws protecting funds in pre-need plans, and money invested there could be at risk.

More information of the drawbacks here: Prepaid Funeral Plans Could Be a R.I.P. Off.

 

What about my online and digital legacy?

As we live more and more of our lives online and in front of a computer, protecting your digital legacy will only become more important.

 

 

Death Goes Digital provides practical help and answers to many questions regarding your digital legacy. To look into even more options here are 7 Resources for Handling Digital Life After Death.

Remember to Plan Your Digital Legacy and Update Often, and here is how your fave social media outlets Facebook and Twitter will handle your death.

 

How can I get my parents/partner/child to talk about death with me?

It’s not that talking about death with your parents or other loved ones will be fun (although we think in some cases it can be!) as much as how difficult and awful everything will be if you don’t have the talk. Think about the people you leave behind.

Here’s an Ask a Mortician video about Talking to your Parents About Death and a functional follow up of 12 Tough Questions to Ask Your Parents.

If someone is reluctant to talk, share how a lack of planning and reluctance to talk about death can fracture families.

In this video Order founder Caitlin Doughty talks about how to respond to the more extreme death deniers in your family, and provide helpful responses to the many deflections you may have to contend with.

To make the conversation more lighthearted and fun, you might want to try the Starter Kit from the Conversation Project. Finally, here is a robust list of further resources from Dying Matters.

 

How do I talk to children about death?

The best time to start talking to kids about death is now.

In addition this video on the importance of discussing death with children, The Order’s director, Sarah Chavez, covers a lot in this podcast, dedicated to addressing death in early childhood, as well as how to respond to more challenging questions or anxious feelings about death from your kids.

But, what if someone in your family or circle of friends died and you need to address the subject immediately? The Sharing Center, a grief support organization for children, has offered some fact based explanations about death, suicide, types of death and illness, and also how to explain issues like death by murder.

In the Books section of our resource guide, you’ll also find suggestions devoted to both children and young adults.

Dying fat: what are your funeral options?

We want everyone to have a good experience at funeral homes (even during a terrible time). Because we need dialogue about the needs of fat people in death, we made a video to address many of your questions and concerns.

Is cremation right for me?

What goes on inside that cremation machine? This video explains exactly what happens to a body before, during and after cremation. If you have more questions after watching that last video, even more questions about cremations are answered right here.

One question we often get is, how do you keep track of cremated remains?  “Am I actually getting back my loved one’s remains?!” Don’t worry, we have our ways of keeping track!

What about things like pacemakers or breast implants? What happens to those? Get answers to these questions in one of our most popular Ask a Mortician videos.

Now that you know all about cremation and have decided it’s the right choice for you, how do you get a direct cremation? Let’s start with what is a direct cremation and why out is often the least expensive option for disposition.

It’s true, cremation is not the greenest option so how can you lessen your carbon footprint? Here’s founding Order member, Sarah Wambold with some suggestions:

  • Choose the crematory closest to you that has the newest equipment. The newer retorts are going to be subjected to strictest emissions regulations – for whatever that is worth!
  • Buy carbon offsets yourself or find a funeral home the purchases these for every cremation. See if you can purchase additional offsets for the cost of the drive over there and for the courier who drives to get cremation permits. A word about offsets: I know there are a lot of scammy offset programs and the whole cap & trade idea they are born out of feels likes helping the rich profit off of climate control, but there is some (small) evidence that they are helpful. Do your research and purchase from groups with proven results (full disclosure: my friend who owns a funeral home uses this group).
  • Don’t buy funeral products that insist they are going to make a tree out of the ashes. For one thing, the tree doesn’t grow from the ashes because they basically turn to cement when they get wet. Second, the product was most likely shipped, or needs to be shipped, to you creating more of a carbon footprint. Instead, read this soothing gardening forum about how you can bury ashes in a meaningful way yourself.

What if I am dealing with the death of an infant or child?

This can be one of the most difficult deaths because of the shameful silence around it. Parents are often made to feel like their grief cannot be open and valid. It’s important to seek communities, even online, to know you are far from alone.

People of color, Black mothers particularly, have an incredibly high risk of maternal and infant mortality rates. Learn how to be an advocate for yourself or others, using this toolkit put together by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance.

If your baby has died at a hospital, here are the actions you will have to take right away: What to do if you baby has died.

Remember you have the right to bring your stillborn or deceased infant home with you. More information and resources can be found here. You can also find out if a Cuddle Cot is available in your area.

If you would like your child photographed for remembrance, look into Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.

 

What do I need to know about Death With Dignity?

More and more countries and states are legalizing life-ending drugs for terminal patients with a small time left to live. This returns power to very sick people to end their suffering, and takes the stigma of “suicide” (which is not what this is) out of the equation.

In 1994 Oregon became the first state to legalize assisted dying. A beautiful introduction to this law can be found in the documentary How to Die In Oregon.

Learn more about receiving medical aid in dying here: Medical Aid in Dying: A Hallmark of Patient-Centered Care

The best resource for the United States is Compassion and Choices.

Learn more about the laws in Canada here: Assisted Dying in Canada and the U.K. here: Dignity in Dying – U.K.

How can I donate my body to science?

Start with this Ask a Mortician primer on Scientific Body Donation.

It’s important to know that even if you donate your body to a medical school or private donation company, they can reject it for any reason at time of death. Too large! Too old! Too unique a cause of death! Make sure you have a back up plan as well.

Here is How Can You Donate Your Body in the U.S. and in Canada,

Find out What Happens When You Donate Your Body to Science?

Or perhaps you’d like to decompose in nature, maybe donating to a Body Farm is for you, which is discussed in this video: Open Eye Wakes & Body Farms. This used to be just an option for Americans, but now they’ve opened facilities in Australia, Canada, and Europe as well.

How can I donate my organs?

We strongly encourage you to consider donating your organs. Information on Organ Donation and Transplantation in the U.S. – sign up to be a donor, details on the donation process, and much more at organdoner.gov.

If you’ve heard some things that give you pause, read the Myths About Deceased Donation.

If you’re worried you can’t donate and also have a home funeral or keep the body at home, you have options! Watch a video about this subject, or read about them in Organ Donation and Home Funerals.

 

What happens to people with no family/next of kin and the homeless?

One of the most powerful and fascinating documentaries is exactly on this topic. A Certain Kind of Death which lays bare a mysterious process that goes on all around us – what happens to people who die with no next of kin.

What happens when someone dies suddenly or mysteriously? Here’s a behind the scenes episode of This is Life With Lisa Ling as she shadows employees at the LA County Coroner: America’s Busiest Coroner.

You can learn more on what happens to unclaimed bodies in two pieces, The Tale of the Body No-Body Wanted and The Unclaimed Dead.

Here is a study about how to engage homeless individuals in end of life planning, including completing advance directives.

The Muslim Free Burial Association is dedicated to providing Muslim burials for those without family or friends.

What happens to unclaimed remains?

Each state has different laws and methods in place if no one steps up to bury or cremate a body. Here is some general information to start.

You’ll have to turn to Google for the procedures in your specific city, but take a look at a few examples of what occurs in: Washington, Los Angeles, and New York.

What about pets?

There are numerous considerations depending on if you are planning for your pet’s end of life, or including them in plans in the event of your own death. For most people pets are cherished family members and it is important to take into account many of the same considerations we do for ourselves, or human members of our family.

A good place to begin to plan for your pets in the event of your death (or if you are hospitalized for an extended period of time), is this guide created by NYC Bar. Here, they go over everything from designating a caretaker, providing funds, and how to create a note to place in your wallet in case of emergency.

We’ve created several videos over the years on pet death, including one about providing a good death and home funeral for Caitlin’s own cat, The Meow.

The Green Pet-Burial Society has a wealth of helpful information. They are also advocates for “Whole Family Cemeteries” which allow for humans and pets to be interred together.

Maybe you’re interested in how the death of a pet is approached outside the West? Here’s a wonderful piece from Ask a Mortician’s producer, Louise Hung on post death care for pets in Japan.

By Silent James Live Illustration

Ok, friends, this brings us to one of the really hard parts, when or if you should consider euthanasia for your pet. In this article veterinarians “were asked to answer some of our deepest — and, frankly, sobbiest — questions about pet euthanasia.” Being a a good caretaker means making informed and often heartbreaking decisions. Please reward yourself with a pizza, or a drink – you deserve it.

Seattle’s Resting Waters have numerous resources on their website, including answers to questions about providing euthanasia at home, to details about aquamation (or, water cremation for pet disposition), to a variety of options for grief support (both both kids and adults).