A wonderful older woman, Ophelia, once told me how much she loves stories where people come back from supposedly being dead to witness their own funeral. Yes, Ebenezer Scrooge fits the bill, but a more cheerful tale, and probably her favorite, is that of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and their “interrupted funeral.” There is something sweet and wonderful about it: to see how you are mourned, and what people are saying. To see how you are remembered.
Ophelia knew she wouldn’t be able to, like Huck, walk back in on her own funeral, but she was excited to do the next best thing: plan her own services. A growing trend for older adults and for the terminally ill is to take a part in planning their own funerals. For many, this involves arranging the technical aspects, such as the location and means of payment. For other people, it means planning the actual ceremony or ceremonies, and for many it is both.
Planning your own funeral can be challenging, as it in many ways forces you to accept the reality of death, but it can also be beautiful. It allows you to take charge of the final moments. It’s not only about the paperwork that comes with aging, but it is also about being in control of what happens after, and how people remember the final activity involving you.
Tips For Planning Your Own Funeral
Planning your funeral, and preparing for what happens after you die, is an involved process. This is a time to talk with family and friends, and to really investigate what matters most to you. Some of the things you’ll want to consider:
Make A Decision on What You Want Done with Your Remains
This is probably the first decision that people have to make, and probably the one that everyone has thought of at some point. The default option, of course, is a standard funeral and burial, and that is one that brings peace to many people. More and more, people are choosing instead to be cremated. It’s also important here to say if you wish any of your remains to be donated, which you can arrange in advance through state organizations. Many people also choose to leave their body to science, for the advancement of medicine. The important thing here is that there is no right or wrong answer. It is a personal choice involving the one thing you actually own. There are people who abhor the thought of being in the ground, and people who shudder at the thought of being in a laboratory. It is up to you, though it is important that you convey your wishes to family members, and to legal advocates if needed.
Making Your Arrangements in Advance and Prepaying
Ophelia knew what she wanted– a simple cremation—but she also knew that she wanted a ceremony at the church she had been attending for decades. She talked to the minister well in advance, and discussed her wishes. It is very possible to arrange your funeral or wake services in advance with the religious or secular organization of your choosing. You can find a funeral home that is right for you, or find a cremation service. This also can involve finding the right cemetery or venue for a wake/memorial, depending on your preference. Planning this in advance means people aren’t scrambling to make decisions after you pass.
You can also make financial arrangements. Most funeral services let you pay in advance (though different states have slightly different rules). This way, you can help ease the sudden financial shock that comes with arranging for post-mortem services. The important thing here is to make sure that your family or loved ones know not just your plans, but what you have already arranged. Keep a record, and let them know where the paperwork is. This way you can avoid them double-paying for things.
Sending Out Messages on Social Media
This is something that of course we wouldn’t be talking about even 10 years ago, really, but sending messages to people with whom you are connected on Facebook or Twitter can be very important. These are people who aren’t terribly close, who wouldn’t receive that sad phone call after you pass, but who of course would like to know if their friend had died, and whom you’d like to tell. Luckily, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites let you prepare a message in advance to send out on the occasion of your death (through third-party services). This lets the distant friends that have become immediate parts of our lives share in the memories of your passing. As these sites get more advanced, this will become more responsive, allowing you to even send personal messages to individuals, saying goodbye.
Preparing for the Memorial Songs or Poems
Of course, planning your services, whether a religious funeral or a secular memorial (or both), isn’t complete without planning for the readings and songs. These can be words that are not just important to you, but to others in your life. It’s in the same vein as writing your autobiography toward the end of life: it’s a way to prepare how you are remembered. Many people want to choose the poems that are read, looking at classics such as Robert Burns or Emily Dickinson or Dylan Thomas. Many want contemporary readings that held their hearts, and songs that they know would hold deep meaning for the gathered assembly. Ophelia said she’d like to close with Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” which makes me sad now each time I hear it. It was a fine choice, because it was her choice.
Planning the Gathering After
There are many schools of thought on what happens after a funeral. There is usually a reception, and some people like to enjoy the quietude of memory, and some like to drive it away with a raucous celebration. Some want to have an outdoors picnic, and others just want to have family and close friends at home. There is no wrong ceremony, but if you are planning ahead—and certainly if you are prepaying—you have a say in what mood you want people to be in on your last day among them. I even knew a man who slowly built up a credit at his local pub in preparation for his funeral, and as his friends said, he threw “one heckuva last party.” This is probably the least necessary part, but many people take great comfort in knowing that they have a say in how the day meant to remember them plays out.
Unlike Tom and Huck, we won’t be able to walk in on our own funeral. Depending on your beliefs, we may be able to see them. But we all can take proactive steps to plan for what happens to our bodies after we die, to ease the burden for our loved ones, and to take charge of how we are remembered. Planning your own funeral is one final elegant and meaningful gift from you, and for you, but given to all the people you love.
At Institute on Aging, we help older adults and their loved ones live their best lives as well as plan for the end of life, and what comes next. Connect with us today to learn more about our programs.