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In May 2019, Beyond the Dash conducted a survey of adults living in the South region of the United States. This survey followed a similar study in the Northeast region earlier this year. We wanted to know what people think about planning their own funeral, budgeting for end of life, having a written obituary, and what they want to do before they die.
In both studies, we asked questions about five topics:
The following age categories were surveyed:
The sky's the limit when it comes to funeral cost, but most families don't often pay more than $15,000 for a funeral service, on the high end. In the United States, the average cost of a funeral is between $7,000 and $10,000. However, most funeral homes offer affordable funeral packages, including direct cremation packages which usually cost around $1,000.
We first asked respondents, "What is your funeral budget?"
When compared to the budgets of Northeastern respondents, Southerners were less likely to want a funeral costing $500 or less. Southern respondents were 6% more likely to pay $500 to $2,000, compared to their Southern counterparts. Southerners were also slightly more inclined to pay above $5,000 for funerals than those polled in the Northeast region.
End-of-life planning is a highly personal process. Budgeting for a final send-off can be more emotional than planning for any other kind of event-after all, it is the last. But budget and reality don't always align. With this in mind, we asked respondents, "If your desired funeral arrangements cost significantly more than your funeral budget, what would you do?"
In spite of initial budget and funeral preferences, 71% of respondents said they would rather reduce their budget and compromise on their final wishes, rather than pay more for their desired arrangements.
This corroborates another study by the National Funeral Directors Association which found that funeral planning is not a priority for the average American. Unfortunately, leaving arrangements to the last minute can mean paying more for services, and not giving deceased loved ones the final goodbyes that they hoped for in life. Being able to confront the difficult subject of death can actually be a measure that reduces harm caused by loss.
The kinds of services a person desires for their end-of-life arrangements will affect all aspects of their funeral, including budget, memorialization and handling immediately following death. We wanted to know what kinds of services people value, and if any correlation between age and preferences exists.
The method of remains handling is likely to influence cost more than anything. Burial in a traditional casket is typically much more expensive than cremation. There are also more eco-friendly options available for those who want to reduce the negative environmental impact of their deaths.
We asked respondents, "How would you like your remains to be handled when you die?"
The South is known for its traditional values, but when it comes to handling their remains, they are more willing to choose cremation than Northeastern respondents. While only 47.2% of Northeastern respondents chose cremation, 52% of Southerners preferred this method over all other ways of handling remains. Choosing cremation over burial may be a cost-saving measure for those who are budget-conscious.
Of the 2.5% who selected Other, a popular alternative to traditional handling of remains was to be donated to science for research. Other (more colorful) answers included "becoming a wax figurine," "being stored in a mausoleum," and "being donated to a body farm."
Another main task in funeral planning is to decide the type of ceremony to be conducted in honor of the person who has died. Budget, religion, family values and personal preference all come into play when making this kind of decision.
We wanted to know about South respondents' funeral type preferences. We asked, "What kind of funeral service do you want?"
These answers slightly differed from the results of the Northeast study. Southern respondents were more likely to want no funeral at all than in the Northeast, and less likely to want traditional services such as a graveside service or open casket viewing.
Even more interesting data emerged when these results were compared by age group. 28% of respondents aged 55 and older preferred no funeral ceremony of any kind. In fact, the older the respondent, the less likely they were to want a ceremony. Respondents in the youngest age group (18-34) were much more likely to want a full ceremony, especially celebrations of life, funerals and memorials. Open casket viewings were equally preferred across all age categories.
According to Maxwell McKenna, co-host of the Pre-Dead Boys podcast, it's no surprise that older people are more likely than their younger counterparts to want no funeral at all, while younger respondents prefer traditional funeral services for their own memorialization.
"The oft-repeated line is that Americans have eight to nine close friends. However, as you age, you're more likely to lose friends to distance or death. Families are also much more mobile, leaving increasing numbers of older people without close support systems...Younger respondents to this survey usually have much larger circles of casual friends thanks to social media, and typically have more friends who live in the same geographic area. A belief that a Celebration of Life would be well-attended, combined with an increased cultural comfort to freely discuss what an ideal memorial service would look like contributes to this. Millennials are social and a Celebration of Life is an inherently social function."
When you make your end-of-life plans known-in a legal will, by planning with a funeral director or even more informally-you ensure that the people who arrange your funeral will take your wishes into consideration. Many people don't realize they have funeral wishes until they see a funeral that does the opposite. For example, it may be obvious to you that being buried in a steel casket in the same cemetery as your grandmother is important, but no one can enact specific wishes on your behalf if they don't know what you want.
Pre-planning isn't an option for everyone. Financial constraints, difficulty thinking about death, and just not caring about being memorialized any certain way all contribute to this belief.
Do people see the practicality of planning their own funeral, or is this something most would rather not think about? We asked respondents what their sentiments were regarding planning for their own deaths. We asked, "What do you think about planning your own funeral?"
Sentiments fell into one of three overall categories:
Turns out, more than 60% of Southern respondents feel that the benefits of pre-planning outweigh the discomfort of addressing death head-on.
Of the positive responses to advance planning, respondents said:
However, many respondents who were overall positive about pre-planning still expressed anxiety about having to face death. To these people, the momentary unpleasantness of thinking about death was worth the peace of mind of pre-planning funeral arrangements.
"I think it should be done. I just haven't done it yet."
"I believe that if I plan it ahead of time, there will be less hostility and confusion when I pass."
"Great idea. I've already arranged for a medical school to pick up my body and do with it what they need to do."
"I would prefer to plan my own. I don't want it to be a sad event. More of a celebration."
Over 33% of respondents did not like the idea of pre-planning funeral arrangements. Of the negative responses to advance planning, respondents said:
"Maybe good for some, but not for me."
"Frightening. Overwhelming. A psychological and egotistical impasse."
"It's too terrible to think about."
"I want my family to do what they need to do for their own personal needs and closure." "I am very young, so it has never crossed my mind. I feel like it would be weird to begin planning right now, but I also know I'm not guaranteed tomorrow."
Nearly 6% were undecided on the topic of pre-planning funeral arrangements at the time of the survey.
Of those that gave a neutral response to pre-planning, respondents said:
"I don't care, it's going to happen anyway."
The older the respondent, the more likely they were to feel positively about pre-planning funeral arrangements. The converse was true as well: The younger the respondent, the more likely they were to feel negatively about pre-planning arrangements.
This data aligns with the findings of the Northeast study as well. Southerners matched the Northeast in their 60% approval rating of advance planning. However, they were less likely to express neutral sentiments, and more likely to reject the idea of funeral planning in advance.
60% of people think pre-planning is overall a good thing to do, but does this sentiment actually lead them to make concrete plans?
When funeral directors discuss pre-planning for funeral arrangements, they typically mean creating a detailed plan that address everything from casket selection to memorial music to remains handling and more. It also usually involves pre-paying for these arrangements. However, a legal will or other death plan document with instructions for end-of-life care can also amount to funeral pre-planning, provided surviving loved ones are willing to enact the deceased person's wishes.
We asked, "Do you have a legal and up-to-date will prepared?"
At the time of the survey:
Older respondents were more likely to have a legal will already prepared. Conversely, younger respondents were less likely to have a legal will prepared:
Creating a legal will is an important step to protecting your end-of-life care, beneficiaries, assets and legacy. But this isn't the only way to ensure your funeral preferences are heeded once you are gone. An informal document describing, left with a trusted funeral director, can ensure your wishes will be honored. Even verbal discussion of your wishes is a way of ensuring your end-of-life values are known.
We asked respondents, "Do you have any funeral plans prearranged with your chosen funeral home, to be enacted in the event of your death?"
60% of respondents believe pre-planning is a good way to responsibly prepare for life's inevitable end. However, less than 35% have a legal will in place, and less than 18% have any funeral plans in place.
Maxwell McKenna says the disparity between desire to pre-plan and actual plans made comes, in part, from lack of information:
"Planning for your own funeral is an intimidating process! Since death is still hush-hush in Western culture, there aren't a lot of readily available resources for people (especially young people) interested in funeral planning. Couple this lack of self-guided resources with the belief that planning a will and memorial service requires expensive legal documentation, and you see that a significant amount of people possess the desire but lack the map. The legal steps required to create airtight advance planning directives probably intimidate a majority of these people, and there simply isn't a large amount of friendly, caring guides to help streamline the process."
The way we consume news and advertising continues to change due to evolving technology, and changes in the news industry. Placing a loved one's obituary in the local newspaper as an announcement of their passing is a fairly recent tradition. What happens to obituaries as news moves more and more in the digital space?
We asked respondents, "When you die, do you plan on having an obituary?"
When it comes to obituaries, Southern respondents were over 20% less likely to want an obituary than their Northeastern neighbors.
While Southerners aged 18-54 were fairly equal in their desire to have an obituary, respondents over 55 were starkly against this type of memorialization. In fact, elderly respondents were approximately three times less likely to want an obituary in their honor than younger respondents. This tendency significantly differed from the obituary preferences of Northeastern residents. In the Northeast, older respondents were slightly more likely to want an obituary than younger respondents.
This was the most clear regional difference between these two surveys conducted this year.
Over 51% of Southerners, and 72% of Northeasterners, want an obituary when they die. People wishing to publish a life story have more options today than ever, including:
We asked respondents, "What is the best place to publish an obituary?"
An obituary published in print in a newspaper generally costs more than an online publication. Print obits can cost between $200 and $600, or more. Online newspapers or digital obituary providers usually charge less, even sometimes providing free options (for instance, digital obituaries on Beyond the Dash are free).
We asked respondents, "How much would you expect an obituary to cost?"
With nearly half of all respondents expect to pay less than $50 for their obituaries, (and the same number desiring a print obituary), expectation doesn't match up with cost in terms of obituary pricing.
What do you want to do before you 'kick the bucket'? Creating a bucket list is a way of identifying the things that are important in life.
We asked respondents, "What are the top 3 things on your Bucket List. That is, what would you like to personally accomplish before you die?"
Answers generally fell into 1 of 13 categories:
These were the top 5 bucket list travel destinations of Southern respondents:
For some, a bucket list is a way of keeping track of priorities. For others, a bucket list is useless, or even counterproductive, in terms of completing life goals.
"I don't particularly believe [bucket lists] are [useful], unless they are created in a social context. I think, all too often, bucket lists are created privately and end up as "wish lists." If one only has vaguely-defined desire to "see the world" before dying, it's tough to turn that into an actionable series of goals. However, if a bucket list is created and shared with family members, loved ones, and peers, plans and steps can be developed to actualize some of the bucket list goals."
- Maxwell McKenna, Pre-Dead Boys
Most areas of focus in this study offered similar insights to the study conducted earlier this year in the Northeastern region of the United States. However, the differences speak to the cultural and personal preferences of people, as well as shifting trends in the death care industry.
Beyond the Dash is conducting funeral planning studies in each of the four US census regions in 2019. Stay tuned for our next report in the Midwest region in Fall of 2019.
If you are in the funeral industry and would like to be involved in one of our upcoming survey research reports, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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