August 13, 2007

Planning Your Own Funeral

Having the last laugh first

When my mother returned from a vacation to Florida with her sister a number of months ago, I called to ask how it went. “Oh, we had the best time!” she said. “We spent most of the trip planning our funerals. It was hilarious!” Well, that wasn’t quite what I was expecting to hear. On previous vacations my mom has gone on cruises, even tried parasailing, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what activities she considered fun. Funeral planning was a bit of a surprise. It’s not that she’s ill or expecting to die soon. But, as she put it, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

I’ve seen some of those late-night commercials trying to sell funeral insurance, with the idea being that you can save your grieving loved ones the considerable expense associated with funerals and burial. But that wasn’t what my mother had in mind at all. (In fact, she made a point of saying that since she’d relieved the family of the burden of funeral planning, the least we could do is pay for it!) Rather, she’d gone to some local funeral parlors and asked them for pre-planning forms she could fill out, detailing her background and family contact information, and specifying her wishes for things like burial versus cremation, type of casket, a minister to preside over the ceremony, and so on.

Survivor: The Afterlife
What made this all so funny? For starters, these forms—which, mind you, are intended to be filled out by the person on whose behalf the services will be performed—often begin by asking you to list your survivors. That whole idea gave Mom and Aunt Ruth the giggles—how would they know, now, who will survive them? But even though you may have to leave a few sections blank, planning your own funeral gives you the chance to approach the details of how your death will be observed with a rare mixture of detachment and subjectivity. In other words, while you’re alive and healthy, you can have fun with the activity in a way that your bereaved loved ones, under the stress of the moment, never could.

Most pre-planning forms ask for basic things like whether you’d prefer a religious, secular, or military funeral. But you can get as detailed as you’d like. List the music you want to have played or sung. What kinds of flowers you want, if any. Scripture passages, poems, or other readings you’d like to have presented. Names of potential pallbearers. And even details about what clothes or jewelry you’ll be wearing while lying in that casket, whether you’ll have your glasses on, and what items should be added or removed before the casket goes in the ground. (My dad has always joked that he’d like to be buried with a plate of spare ribs. It could happen.)

Lay-Away Plan
Although it has always been possible to state your own funeral preferences, either in a will or elsewhere, the trend of doing more involved funeral planning for oneself seems to be picking up steam. The topic is covered in various books and Web sites, and of course most funeral directors can supply you with brochures, forms, and other information about their particular services. But for some people, merely planning out a memorial service is not enough. Among the other things you can now arrange are the following:

Have your ashes scattered at sea. The Neptune Society specializes in planning for cremation, and offers optional ceremonies at sea.

Rebuild Atlantis. I am absolutely not making this up. You can have your ashes encased in concrete and used as one of the building blocks of an artificial reef being constructed off the coast of Miami. The Atlantis Memorial Reef is being designed as an underwater garden that looks like some artist’s idea of Atlantis, and you can spend eternity there if you want.

Go into space. It’s not just for celebrity zillionaires and starship engineers. You, too, can have a small portion of your ashes sent into space by Memorial Spaceflights. Prices start at just $500 for a brief trip into zero gravity and back; $1,300 for an indefinite stay in orbit; or $12,500 to have your ashes sent to the moon—or even into deep space on a spacecraft powered by a solar sail.

Cut glass. If you’d like to keep your eternal remains close to home, you can have your ashes compressed into an artificial diamond by a company called LifeGem. That’s right: you can wear Grandma around your neck. Prices start at $3,300 and go up to $25,000. Only slightly less creepy: the same company can make gems from a lock of someone’s hair—dead or alive.

Furnish your home for the afterlife. If you think cremation offers more attractive options than burial, you haven’t visited CasketFurniture.com, which makes sofas, coffee tables, beds, entertainment centers, and other pieces of furniture that not only look like coffins—they can be converted, upon your death, to hold your remains. If you spend all your time lying on the couch anyway, why not buy one you can enjoy for centuries to come?

One step my mother has not yet taken—but plans to—is writing her own obituary. She wants to make sure it hits all the most interesting and important highlights. Unfortunately, you can’t control everything that will happen after your death. Maybe it’ll rain the day you’re buried; maybe the cat will knock over your urn of ashes; maybe your eulogy will have irritating grammatical errors. These things happen. You may not get the very last laugh, but you can at least make the Reaper a bit less grim. —Joe Kissell

More Information about Planning Your Own Funeral…

Thanks to reader Toni Coleman for suggesting today’s topic!

Memorial Preferences is a $12.95 ebook about funeral planning. I haven’t read it, and the site won’t even load in Safari…caveat lector.

This funeral preplanning questionnaire from the Korisko Larkin Staskiewicz Funeral Home in Omaha, Nebraska gives you a good idea of what decisions you might want to make about your funeral.

You can find some additional funeral planning tips at the New York State Funeral Directors Association.

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Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death Revisited is a funny but sobering look at the ins and outs (well, mostly ins) of the American funeral industry. One conclusion: pre-paying for your funeral is a bad idea.

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Finally, for even more concrete suggestions, see Last Wishes : A Funeral Planning Manual and Survivors Guide by Malcolm James and Victoria Lynn.