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Planning a Funeral Checklist

How To Plan A Funeral Service

When you’re in the midst of grief, even just getting out of bed in the morning can be a challenge – let alone planning an entire funeral service.

Not only do most funeral services need to take place quickly, but if you’ve never planned one before, arranging the service can feel impossible.

How long does it take to plan a funeral after death? Depending on the arrangements, planning a funeral could take as little as a day or up to three weeks.

Fortunately, we’ve created a step-by-step guide that will walk you through planning a funeral in advance as well as a planning checklist to ensure your loved one has the best funeral service.

Table Of Contents

Step 1: Contact the Legal Representative of the Deceased

Before you begin contacting funeral homes or finding cemetery plots, the first step is to make sure your loved one didn’t already have a prepaid or pre-arranged funeral plan. When they’re creating their wills, many people prepay or pre-plan their funeral service so that their loved ones don’t have to.

If you’re not sure whether the deceased has a plan, you can contact their legal representative, who should have any paperwork that pertains to a prepaid plan. Or, if you know they already have a prepaid plan through a specific funeral home, you’ll want to contact the home and let them know it’s time for a service. 

For the loved ones that already have plans in place, planning the funeral is usually much easier  – it means your loved one has likely already picked out where they’ll be buried, what type of service they want, and decided on any other details that come along with arranging a funeral service. 

Step 2: Schedule an Appointment with a Funeral Director

However, if there’s no plan in place, that leaves the arrangements up to you  – and a good place to start is with a funeral director. Picking out a funeral home can be tricky, especially if there are plenty of local options, but don’t be afraid to call around and compare prices and options.

Once you have picked out a funeral home, you can go ahead and schedule an appointment with the funeral director  – which usually happens within a few days of the death. Funeral directors are a big part of planning a service, especially if you don’t have a prepaid funeral plan to already go off of. 

Your funeral director can go over choices for service types, venues and dates, and even how you want the body prepared for the service. 

Step 3: Choose a Disposition

One of the first things you’ll need to decide with a funeral director is the body disposition. Typically, there are two main body disposition options: Body burial or cremation in an urn. 

Of course, a third option, which is used much less frequently, is to donate the deceased’s body to scientific research or medical education. Other alternatives are also becoming popular, but many of these are put in place by the deceased before they pass. 

There is no “right” option between the three  – your choice will usually depend on your loved one’s wishes (if they had any), your family’s values or religious beliefs, and even your budget. A formal burial with a casket and a burial vault can be pricey while choosing to cremate the body with an urn can be a lot more affordable. Here’s a quick rundown of how the process differs between cremation and formal burials. 

Burial 

Burial tends to be the primary form of body disposition, as all major religions allow it. However, even you do decide to go with a burial, there are still different types of burials to pick from: 

  • Traditional burial: A traditional burial includes embalming the body, dressing it, visiting hours, a funeral service, transport to the cemetery, and a casket that gets entombed in a burial vault or container. 
  • Green/direct burial: An alternative to the traditional burial is a green burial, which is more environmentally friendly. With this option, the funeral home won’t use any chemicals to embalm or preserve the body, and the deceased gets buried in a simple wooden casket or shroud. Since the body doesn’t get embalmed, the burial has to happen shortly after the death, and there may only be a graveside service or a funeral service held at a later date. 

Outside of traditional and green burials, some people may opt for a private property burial or even a burial at sea  – but these alternatives are much less common, and you may not be able to go through your local funeral home for them. 

Cremation

Cremation may be less involved than a traditional burial, but there are still a few steps you’ll need to go through: 

  • Deliver the body to the crematory: you can either have the crematory pick the body up or have a funeral home bring it to them. Many funeral homes either operate their own crematories or work with local ones. 
  • Witnessing the cremation: In addition to a separate memorial service, some of the deceased’s loved ones may want to witness the actual cremation. 
  • Pick a cremation container: You’ll need to pick what type of container the deceased’s ashes will go into, whether that’s an urn or another type of container. 
  • Disposition of the ashes: Although some families may decide to put the urn or cremation container in their home, others may choose to deposit the ashes in a place that has sentimental value. Many cemeteries have columbariums, which is a dedicated section for storing urns. 

Step 4: Choose a Type of Funeral Service

Along with picking between burial or cremation, you’ll also need to decide what type of funeral service you’ll want. Even if you decide to go with cremation, many people may hold a service before the body gets cremated  – or plan a service without a casket. While the small details of a funeral service can change, there are three primary types you’ll see: 

  • Non-religious funeral service: A non-religious or humanist funeral service usually steers away from mentioning specific religions and usually takes place in a non-religious venue. 
  • Religious funeral service: A religious funeral service may take place at a church or another religious venue and may also be performed by a leader from the deceased’s chosen religion. For instance, a Catholic funeral service may happen in the church that the deceased attended and be performed by a priest. 
  • Military funeral service: If the deceased was part of the military, the family might ask for a military funeral service  – which may include the involvement of the honor guard. 

Although it’s standard to have a funeral service, there are countless ways to personalize it  – some families may only opt for a small ceremony at the graveside while others want visiting hours, a funeral service, and a graveside ceremony with a traditional burial. When you meet with the funeral director, they’ll usually give you a full rundown of your options. 

Step 5: Choose Where and When the Funeral Will Take Place

Picking a date and a venue for the funeral is also a crucial step. The type of service you pick out can play a large role in what type of venue you opt for  – for instance, a religious ceremony usually takes place in a place of worship, and a military funeral service may be outside. 

If you don’t already have a venue in mind, the funeral home may have a few available options or help you narrow down your choices. 

As far as scheduling the service goes, most families hold the service within two weeks from the date of death. A green burial, where no chemicals are used to preserve the body, may need to take place even sooner than that. However, some people may cremate or bury the body privately and then hold a service at a later date. 

Step 6: Find an Officiant

While you’re scheduling the funeral, you’ll also need to find an officiant or a clergy member that can lead the services. There is a difference between the two types  – while clergy members are affiliated with religious organizations, officiants have no ties to specific religions. 

For religious services, it’s not uncommon for the family to use a clergy member that the deceased knew in real life  – such as the priest or pastor at the church they regularly attended. Choosing someone that has ties to the deceased can add more of a personal touch to the ceremony, but it’s not a requirement. 

Step 7: Pick out a Casket and Burial Vault/Container

If you’ve chosen a burial for your loved one, you’ll need to pick out a specific casket as well as a burial vault to go with it. While the casket holds the body, the burial vault or container is made of concrete and encases the casket during the burial  – this prevents the casket from accidentally sinking. 

Even if you’ve opted for cremation over burial, you’ll still need to pick out an urn or cremation container for the funeral home or crematory to transfer your loved one’s ashes into. 

Step 8: Secure a Cemetery Plot

With burials, you’ll need to secure a cemetery plot for your loved one to be buried in. Depending on the person, the deceased may already have ownership of a plot, or their family may have a group of cemetery plots they own. 

If you already have a plot prepared for the deceased, you’ll need to find proof of ownership to show the funeral home, such as a cemetery deed. If they don’t, you’ll need to purchase a burial plot and ensure that the funeral home knows exactly where the plot is at. 

Step 9: Discuss Accessories and Final Touches

For burials, the funeral director may ask how you want your loved one dressed for the ceremony and burial  – this may include dressing them in a specific outfit or with certain accessories, or even doing their makeup and hair a certain way. 

Many people allow their loved ones to get buried with wedding or engagement rings or other sentimental jewelry. 

Step 10: Choose Your Music and Readings

One way to personalize the funeral service for the deceased is by adding music or readings throughout the service. This may include some of your loved one’s favorite songs, poems, or passages  – however, you’ll need to make sure the officiant has copies of anything you want to read during the service. 

Another way to provide that personal touch is by letting family members or friends do the readings  – or just share a sentimental story about the deceased. For example, many funeral services include a eulogy, a speech talking about their life and accomplishments, given by someone close to the deceased. 

As far as music goes, some people may play a favorite song through speakers or even hire a professional musician to play live. 

Step 11: Pick a Design for the Service Booklet

If you’ve ever been to a funeral, you’re probably familiar with service booklets  – these are pamphlets that you receive on the way in, and they detail the proceedings for the service. It’s standard for most service booklets to include: 

  • Photos of the deceased
  • Any hymns/songs that will be played during the service
  • Poems or other readings during the service

Some booklets may also include information about the person’s family, or the major life accomplishments of the deceased. Along with designing the booklet, some families may also have a guest book for attendants to sign when they arrive, or attendance cards at each seat. Using a guest book or attendance cards helps let the family know who actually showed up. 

Step 12: Pick any Funeral Flowers or Decorations

Flowers are another way to customize your loved one’s service, and provide a fitting tribute for the ceremony. You may be able to arrange for flowers through the funeral home, although some loved ones may donate their own bouquets. 

If flowers don’t feel right, some families ask that their guests donate to charity rather than sending flowers. 

Step 13: Plan for the Opening and Closing the Grave

Whether you have a graveside service or not, you’ll still need to plan for the opening and closing of the grave that your loved one is getting buried in. Some funeral homes may arrange this if they have ties to the cemetery, but otherwise, you’ll need to contact the cemetery itself. Make sure they have the correct date, and if you are planning a graveside ceremony, they’ll need to know what time it is. 

While you’re planning for the graveside ceremony, some people may also reserve the cemetery chapel for committal prayers  – but it’s not a requirement for graveside services. 

Step 14: Purchase a Gravestone

While you’re working with the cemetery for the opening and closing of the grave, many people pick this time to handle any other grave-related matters they need to. For instance, most families that have a burial also want a gravestone to mark the plot as their loved one’s. 

Depending on where they’re getting buried, you may be able to purchase a headstone from the cemetery itself  – or even the funeral home that you did the service through. 

Step 15: Make Sure You Have Endowment Care

Whether you plan to visit the deceased’s headstone on a regular basis or not, you’ll want to secure endowment care from the cemetery. This care ensures that the headstone and the gravesite gets regular upkeep from the cemetery  – which may include landscaping or even regular maintenance for the headstone. 

Some cemeteries may automatically include this service in the price of the burial plot, but others do not. 

Step 16: Organize the Funeral Procession

After the funeral service, the funeral home will transport the casket to the cemetery in a hearse. Family members or close friends often follow behind the hearse in limousines or town cars  – depending on the size of the service, all the guests may be able to fit in town cars, but some may drive their own vehicles as well. 

You can work with the funeral home to decide the line-up of the funeral procession as well as any specific route that you want to take to the cemetery. Some families may want to plan out a special route that drives by the home of the deceased, or other places that may have been sentimental to their life. 

If you’re worried about planning the route, funeral directors usually have extensive knowledge in planning routes  – they can ensure that your procession doesn’t get caught up in rush-hour traffic, school times, or bus routes. 

Step 17: Plan a Wake or Funeral Reception

While it’s not a requirement, many families may also want a funeral reception or a wake after the initial ceremony or funeral service. Receptions can take place anywhere the family chooses  – it could be the home of the deceased, a reception hall in a public venue, or even your loved one’s favorite bar or restaurant. 

Funeral receptions aren’t usually formal services, and they may include refreshments or food for the guests that attended the funeral. If you’re planning to have the reception at a public venue, you’ll need to reserve the space for the time and date of your wake. 

Smaller guest lists may be able to fit in bars or restaurants  – but you still may want to check with the owner to make sure they’ll have space to fit the size of your party. 

Regardless of where you have it, it’s usually a good idea to book the reception nearby the service  – guests may be unlikely to drive an hour or more to attend a wake. 

As far as food and drinks go, public restaurants and bars make this easy, but if you’re going with a reception hall, you’ll need to organize the food yourself. If the reception is held close enough to your service, you may even be able to have a potluck-style reception with guests bringing food. 

However, if the reception isn’t in the same building or close enough to the service, you may want to provide catered food, and ensure that it’s set up in time for the reception to start. 

Receptions and wakes can last quite a bit longer than the funeral service, but depending on where you have it, you may need to arrange for a cleanup crew to handle leftovers or any mess left behind. 

Step 18: Write an Obituary

Before the funeral service is actually held, many families arrange for an obituary to get published in the local newspaper as well as social media. These are short biographies that celebrate the life of the deceased, and they may include the time and place of when the funeral is being held. 

While most families write the obituary themselves, the funeral home that you’re working with may handle the arrangements for publishing it in the paper or on social media. 

After the service, you can also include a short “Thank You” message in the paper that expresses gratitude for guests who showed up during the service or reception.

Planning a Funeral Checklist

Planning a funeral has more than a few steps to follow, and if you’re worried about forgetting one or two small details, here’s a handy checklist you may want to refer to: 

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    • Contact the legal representative of the deceased to find out if they had a prepaid funeral plan
    • Get a legal pronouncement of the death from calling 999, a hospice nurse, or an attending doctor 
    • Contact the legal representative of the deceased to find out if they had a prepaid funeral plan
    • Choose a funeral home, and plan for the transportation of the body to the funeral home
    • Schedule an appointment with a funeral director to discuss the details of the funeral arrangements
    • Decide what type of body disposition you want: burial, cremation, or an alternative
    • Choose the type of funeral service that you’d like to have, including what type of burial or cremation services you want
    • Choose a time and location for your loved one’s funeral service to take place 
    • Write an obituary for your loved one, and publish it in the paper as well as social media 
    • Pick out the type of casket or urn you’d like as well as a burial vault if it’s necessary
    • Find a member of the clergy or an officiant for the funeral proceedings
    • Secure a burial plot for the deceased 
    • Make arrangements for the headstone as well as regular endowment care for the site
    • If you choose a burial, pick out an outfit or any accessories you’d like the deceased to wear for the funeral service or to be buried in 
    • Choose passages to be read during the service and music to play
    • Design the service booklet and pick out any photos you’d like to use for the service 
    • Purchase a guest book for guests to sign at the service or use attendance cards
    • If you want a memorial board for your loved one, pick out a few photos or sentimental items to put on display for guests
    • Pick out flowers you’d like to use for the service (if any) 
    • Arrange for the cemetery to open the grave and close it at the time of your service
    • Organize the funeral procession, including the route that you want the funeral home to take on the way to the cemetery
    • Plan a funeral reception or wake after the initial service

Final Thoughts

Not only are funerals full of tiny details you don’t want to overlook, but since they often have to happen in a short time frame, it’s all too easy to forget something. However, by following the checklist above and working with a funeral director, you should have all the bases covered with planning a funeral.