Making plans and decisions regarding end of life care can sometimes be uncomfortable, but it is incredibly helpful to have the conversation about final wishes in advance, if possible. Having a solid plan before a death occurs can provide peace of mind that your choices or those of a loved one will be honored after death. It can also be helpful to have a conversation about whether there is life insurance or other funding available to help cover any expenses that may arise after someone passes away.
Typically the most time sensitive issues immediately following a death are choice of final disposition (most commonly burial or cremation) and preparing for unexpected expenses, such as funeral costs. Here is some information about options for treatment of remains, as well as helpful tips about life insurance coverage for funeral expenses.
Thinking about your final wishes or those of a loved one in advance can help relieve the emotional toll and stress that often occurs in the first few days following a death. While most people don’t like to think about the details of managing the care of their remains after they pass away, having a conversation with your family and friends or documenting your wishes can be a huge blessing to those people who will be responsible for handling those details. The most time-sensitive question after a death is about handling care of the remains. Here is a little information about the different options available. Your local funeral home can also provide you with details on the services they offer and help you make a decision about what is right for you.
What Is Your Preference for Final Disposition?
Final disposition refers to the treatment of a person’s remains after they die. In-ground burial and traditional cremation are the most common choices, but we’ve provided information about some other alternatives, as well.
In-ground burial is a very traditional choice for laying a person to rest. Many families appreciate the opportunity to have a symbolic location to visit when they want to visit their loved one and spend time remembering them. Remains are typically embalmed and then buried in a wood or metal casket at the cemetery of your choice, however there are different options you may want to consider.
Some cemeteries provide above ground structures for entombment, such as a mausoleum or lawn crypt. Mausoleums are structures designed to hold a casket and can be public or private depending on the location and the wishes of the family. A lawn crypt is another above ground option, however they generally only have space for one or two caskets.
Many people prefer a more sustainable option and are choosing a natural or “green” burial as an alternative to a more traditional burial. Depending on the requirements and laws in your area, natural burials do not involve embalming or any kind of chemical treatment to the remains. Some people choose to be laid to rest directly in the earth (sometimes wrapped in a cotton shroud) or may select a biodegradable casket, frequently made of bamboo, cork, teak, or another compostable material. Your local funeral home can help you determine what options are available if you would like to consider a green burial.
Burial at sea is another choice for both cremated and non-cremated remains. Sea burials are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the federal Clean Water Act and require a permit before the burial can take place. In addition, there are guidelines regarding the location, depth, and method of burial. Your local funeral home can assist you if you would like more information about burial at sea.
For people who want an economical and simple option, a direct or immediate burial may be a good choice. Direct burial does not involve many of the services you typically include with a traditional burial, such as a viewing or funeral service. Remains are usually placed in a simple container instead of a more expensive casket and are generally not embalmed prior to burial. Some families choose to hold a memorial service at a later date, although no formal services are required. Direct burial is usually the least expensive option offered by funeral homes and a good alternative for those working with a limited budget.
Cremation uses a flame-based process to reduce the body to “cremains” which are primarily composed of ashes and bone fragments. This is done in a cremation chamber and may be witnessed by family members in some cases, if preferred. Cremation containers range from simple cardboard boxes to full caskets, and remains can either be embalmed or not, depending on the wishes of the deceased and the family.
There is a common misconception that choosing cremation limits your options for other services, however you may still have a viewing, traditional funeral service, or even bury cremated remains in a burial plot as you would with casketed remains. Cremated remains may also be placed in an above ground columbarium, similar to a mausoleum for a casket. Many families choose to scatter cremated remains in a symbolic or meaningful place, either with or without an accompanying ceremony. There are a variety of scattering urn options available if that is something you would like to consider.
For those people wishing to have a keepsake or retain cremated remains, there are countless choices for full sized urns, smaller keepsake urns, memorial items, or even jewelry pieces designed to hold a portion of the remains. These items can usually be customized with engraving or personalization that makes them a treasured memento for your loved ones.
Aquamation is an alternative to a traditional flame-based cremation involving a water-based process called alkaline hydrolysis. This process breaks down organic materials using a combination of gentle water flow, temperature, and alkalinity. The family still receives remains following an aquamation. Similar to a traditional cremation, you may choose from a full array of funeral or memorial services if you choose aquamation, including a viewing. Remains can either be embalmed or not, depending on your preferences. The cost of aquamation is typically similar to that of a flame-based cremation. Your funeral home can help you with more information and details regarding aquamation options in your area.
Terramation is relatively new and is still gaining approval across the United States. The process involves transforming human remains into live-giving soil through composting as the organic material naturally breaks down. Terramation generally takes about 60 days and the family receives fertile soil that can be used for planting and returned to the earth. This is a wonderful choice for those seeking a more environmentally conscious option to reduce their carbon footprint after death.
What Is Your Preference for Funeral or Memorial Services?
Another important question is regarding the type of funeral or memorial service your or your loved one would like. Services are very customizable and can be personalized to a variety of preferences, religious, or cultural customs. The funeral home you choose to work with should be experienced with a wide range of families and be able to help create a special and memorable service to truly honor you or the person who has passed. Here are some questions you may want to consider:
Where Do You Want to Be Laid to Rest?
Choosing where to be laid to rest or where to lay a loved one to rest is an important decision. You may already have a family plot or cemetery selected where you can be close to loved ones. Perhaps you’ve decided to be cremated and wish to have your remains scattered in a meaningful location. Whatever your preference, be sure to document or share those wishes with your family and friends. If you do not have a preference or a pre-selected site, your funeral home can help make that decision and provide you with options to consider.
Is There Life Insurance to Cover Funeral Expenses?
If the deceased had life insurance in place prior to their death, that policy may have a death benefit that can be paid out when they pass. However, these benefits are generally intended to cover lost income and pay any debts or final expenses of the deceased and may not be designed to cover funeral expenses. Make sure to check whether there are any burial insurance or pre-paid funeral expenses policies after someone dies, as those plans are intended to cover costs associated with a funeral.
With most traditional life insurance plans without a burial insurance option, families may need to pre-pay any funeral and burial expenses to the funeral home and then seek reimbursement from the life insurance afterward. These payouts can take time as the life insurance company will likely need to review the death certificate and may choose to investigate the claim. This process may take weeks or months to complete if there are any complications arising from the situation.
Because many people are unprepared to pay funeral expenses out of pocket, most funeral homes allow a beneficiary to assign a life insurance benefit to the funeral home for reimbursement once the proceeds are distributed. There are some important questions when determining if a life insurance policy may be an option for helping cover funeral expenses:
Is There a Life Insurance Policy?
The most important question regarding life insurance after a death is whether there is actually a policy in place. Ideally, the existence and location of a policy has been communicated or documented in advance so that family members or friends know where to locate the information. If a policy cannot be located in the deceased’s files or paperwork, it can be helpful to look through bank and credit card statements to see if any payments have been made to life insurance companies. You may also search for any policies by using this online search tool.
You may also want to check with the deceased’s employer if they were still working at the time of their death and possibly had an employer sponsored life insurance policy. This is also a good time to ask if there are any other potential death benefits available to help cover funeral or burial expenses.
One other important question is whether the life insurance policy is current, both with the premiums being paid and any updated beneficiary information. The insurance company should be able to provide you with this information if you contact them and help you with the next steps for submitting a claim, provided you are a beneficiary or have other authority to do so.
Who Is The Beneficiary?
Most people will know in advance if they have been listed as a beneficiary on a life insurance policy, however this is not always the case. If you know there is a policy but do not have a copy of it, you can contact the life insurance company to get more information about beneficiaries. Insurance companies will occasionally contact beneficiaries about a policy if they receive notice of the death and have not already been contacted by the beneficiary or beneficiaries.
It is common for a power of attorney (POA) to be in place when a person dies when they are at the end of life or the death was expected. This document allows a representative to make certain financial and business decisions (and sometimes medical decisions) for the person granting that power, including buying a life insurance policy and changing beneficiary designation. If you have a POA for the deceased, you should check that document or with the applicable legal representative to answer any questions you may have about its scope and authority. A standard POA automatically terminates upon the death of the grantor, so keep that in mind when handling any post-death arrangements. If you have a healthcare POA, that generally allows for the person to make final disposition choices in the event of death.
If there is a will that names an executor of the estate, that person should have the authority to make any decisions regarding the deceased’s estate and finances after death. Check with the appropriate document (if there is one) or reach out to the attorney who created the will for help and clarification, if necessary.