Let’s talk honestly about death and dying. Seriously contemplating our own eventual death and actively making plans as to how we would like to exit this world (some call it “pre-need planning”) is a funny thing. On one hand, we are afraid of it and don’t want to discuss it. On the other hand, we make light of it. “Send me out on a Viking funeral pyre!”
The fact of the matter is, it isn’t important for us to discuss our wishes in advance so that we’ll enjoy a good send-off. We’ll be, at best, passive participants in the whole affair by that time. Instead, it’s important that we make plans and discuss our wishes openly and honestly with our loved ones so that they will know how to proceed in our absence.
Don’t care about your family at all and aren’t concerned about leaving them scrambling and confused, making rushed, poor decisions and perhaps feeling guilty about what they did or didn’t do during one the most painful periods in their own lives? Then, by all means, don’t make a plan.
If, however, you wish to be remembered as someone who was thoughtful, caring and loving, someone who wanted to make their passing as easy as possible for their loved ones during this most difficult time, then you need to make a plan. By doing so, it could also save thousands of dollars.
Whether you want to talk about it or not, you are going to die. It could be next week. It could be next month. And it doesn’t depend on your current health or how long great-granddaddy lived. The fact of the matter is that making a plan or not making a plan are your only two choices in the matter at this stage.
It’s only through choosing to make a plan that you get to make any other choices. It’s that simple.
Real conversation is a two-way street.
You may have never given serious thought to your passing. Or, you may have given it considerable thought—yet never once given voice to your wishes. Either way, the absolute best time to start that conversation is now. With someone you love and trust. Someone who you know would be most affected by your passing. And someone who would most want to honor your wishes.
That special someone could be your wife. It could be your husband. It could be your daughter or grandchild. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you have that conversation. That it’s open and honest. And that you both participate in it equally—no matter how difficult it may be to get started.
That’s because as much as you might think, due to age or health, that you will in all likelihood be the first one to go, in all reality, you might not be. Unfortunately, accidents happen all the time. So does crime. And how would you feel if you knew you had completely missed the opportunity to know their exact wishes and be able to act upon them? Well, that’s exactly how they will feel if you don’t make your wishes known to them.
Then, write those plans down in the form of advance directives or through a website such as Everplan or My Final Wishes. For each of you. And make sure your loved ones know where those plans are, if not what they are.
Burial or cremation—or something else?
It used to be a simple question with a simple answer. We all knew what each term meant. And, in Western society, there were only those two options.
Burial was consignment to a casket or coffin (the terms are often used interchangeably as they perform the same function, but they are constructed differently) fashioned from the wood or metal of choice, followed by internment in the ground.
Cremation meant consignment to a crematorium, followed by interment in an urn and eventual disposition in a columbarium, scattered to air, sea or land or in an urn on a mantle—though, as funeral director Amy Cunningham commented, she hasn’t sold too many of those lately. “I think that Ben Stiller scene in ‘Meet the Parents’ killed it,” she said.
The definitions of burial and cremation have been changing, however. And other intriguing options are available, as well.
Certainly, one can be buried in the traditional manner. With some 2.4 million Americans dying every year, it’s being done hundreds, if not thousands of times a day at a median cost of $8,500—which does not include the price of a grave or grave marker.
You may already have a particular cemetery “back home” in mind. Your family may have been interred there for generations. And that’s an absolutely perfect choice for you—if you make others aware of it in advance.
However, there is now another option for burial, as well—a “green” or “eco-friendly” burial, which is typically cheaper than a traditional burial. With no embalming or embalming with formaldehyde-free products, you also have the choice of a biodegradable shroud or casket made from paper, cardboard, willow, seagrass or bamboo that can break down with little environmental impact.
According to EverPlans, “This helps to maintain the natural habitat of the environment, including maintaining clean groundwater, preserving the natural landscape, and providing an environment for native plants and animals to thrive.”
With some 10,000 Baby Boomers now turning 65 every day, there is a crisis on the horizon for available burial space. Looking into the future at the numbers who will reach the average life expectancy of 78 just between 2024 and 2042 alone, author Amy Biegelsen notes, “it would require roughly 130 square miles of pure grave space, not counting roads, trees or pathways. That’s an area about the size of Las Vegas.”
Unfortunately, available burial space has stood “at a near standstill” over the past 60 years.
Due to the shortage of suitable sites and personal preferences, cremation is taking on greater importance and popularity, with some 48.6 percent of passings now following that route—at a cost ranging from $1,000 to $8,000. Again, however, there are now choices even with cremation.
With a traditional cremation, the remains are placed in a chamber and exposed to extreme temperatures of up to 1,800F. Depending on the size of the body, the process usually takes between 1-3 hours, leaving only three to nine pounds of ashes behind. These are then placed in an urn or another container to be returned to the family.
Another option gaining awareness, but not available in every state, is “green cremation” (also called water cremation, bio-cremation, alkaline hydrolysis or resomation). In this process, the body is instead dissolved in strong alkaline water at temperatures up to 350F. After two to three hours, it is reduced to bones that are then crushed into a fine, white powder for a return to the family. You can also have the option of bio-degradable urns.
Believed to be more akin to the natural decomposition of a body, green cremation leaves less of a carbon footprint than traditional cremation. This, as author Traci Rylands notes, is because it is “purported to use about one-seventh of the energy required for traditional cremation. Some studies indicate that AH could save 30-million board feet of hardwood each year from cremation coffins. That’s very attractive to some people.”
If you’re the charitable type, your generosity can follow you in death—perhaps for decades to come—either to help others directly through organ or tissue donation or by donating your body to science. In fact, CNN lists ten different thing uses for your body after you die.
Funeral home, crematory or both?
Depending upon your preferences, you may opt to have a traditional funeral in a funeral home. If so, you’ll want to shop around for both a funeral home and a director. You may know someone from the local service organization or the golf course. On the other hand, you may not know anything more than the fact that you went to a funeral last year at that place over on Market Street and “they did a nice enough job.”
Just as you might go from one auto dealership to another for a new car, however, you’ll want to visit different funeral homes to look at plans and pricing. That certainly doesn’t sound like a fun afternoon. And, honestly, it probably won’t be. But the other choice is leaving your family with the same task during their time of grief. You decide.
If you opt for cremation, rather than burial, you still may want the services of a funeral home—with the attendant ceremony and internment services. If so, you could literally rent a casket from the funeral home for the service.
However, if you’re not interested in the services of a funeral home, you could also contact a crematory directly, such as The Neptune Society, and make your plans through them.
Services or not?
Services often go hand-in-hand with the selection of a funeral home. If so desired, you could choose from an open casket or closed casket, a memorial service at the funeral home or a simple graveside service.
However, if you’re going to forego services through a funeral home, your options are limitless. You could choose from a traditional church funeral with an open or closed casket followed by burial to a simple memorial service on the beach or in your own backyard.
If you have particular things you’re proud of, make an outline of them so that they can be mentioned. If you’re retired, your current golfing buddies or bridge partners may know nothing about your military service or your past professional accomplishments of which you’re justifiably proud.
Just keep in mind that you don’t need to plan every detail of your service or memorial. Your loved ones will want to participate in remembering and celebrating your life, as well. Simple guidelines and direction with flexibility to allow them to contribute is sufficient.
Final resting place?
Whether you choose burial or cremation, you will need to make your wishes known as to your choice of final resting place.
With your choice of burial, it could be the family cemetery “back home” or it could be a memorial park down the street. Depending upon where you live, it could be on your own property—though check your local regulations before you proceed in that direction.
With the choice of cremation, your family would then have the option to retain the ashes (or “cremains”), scatter them or have them made into a variety of products. An article by the Huffington Post provides a fascinating look at what some have done with remains including:
- Vinyl records
- Teddy bears
- And more
If you’re planning for your family to scatter your ashes, your options are as limitless as your imagination. They can:
- Become part of an Eternal Reef in the ocean, while preserving and protecting the marine environment for the benefit of future generations.
- Be a part of a forest through Memorial Ecosystems, where your gravestone is a stone marker natural to the area.
- Be scattered in a place that was special to you—even if happens to be through “wildcat scattering.”
- See that you go out with a bang (literally) as part of a fireworks display or loaded into shotgun shells, rifle or pistol cartridges.
- Allow you to shine even brighter in death after being compressed into a manufactured diamond.
Be aware, however, that the Neptune Society warns, “Each state has its own laws on scattering, and in the case of scattering ashes over water, federal law may take precedence over state law. So as part of your planning, check local and state laws and familiarize yourself with any federal laws that may apply to an over-water scattering.” In short, you just might get that Viking Funeral Pyre you’ve always joked about—subject to local, state and federal regulations, of course.
As you plan your final rest along the gray mile, there are a myriad of choices available. They all have one thing in common, though. If you make your own plans in advance, your loved ones won’t have to. And they can be the best gift you can give them as they commemorate your passing.