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October 30, 2019 Beyond The Dash

"We Thought We Had More Time": How to Plan a Funeral For Someone Who Left No Final Wishes

Planning a thoughtful, last-minute final send-off

It's hard to know what funeral plans to make in the aftermath of a recent death — especially if the deceased gave no indication of their wishes. (Getty Images)

We always think there's more time. More time to spend time with a friend. More time to make amends with a relative. More time to wrap things up. Unfortunately, when death comes, it often comes quickly. Those who do not make their final wishes known while they are healthy enough to coherently describe them may end up taking this secret to the grave. 

Postponing the death talk

It's best to plan arrangements in advance. This can be done by drafting up a legal will, or by making detailed arrangements with the funeral home of your choice. Not only does pre-planning give you greater control over how your body and funeral are handled, it also takes the burden off of your loved ones as they put those wishes into action. 

Discussing funeral wishes is one of the many difficult tasks many people postpone. In a recent study, only 24% of respondents said they had made any funeral plans. For some, it's a morbid talk they'd rather avoid. For others, it may seem perpetually too early to make firm decisions. And still others don't see a value in planning their arrangements—after all, they'll be dead. 

This rarely seems like a problem, until you are the one left behind to plan a memorial with little to no guidance. 

Planning a funeral, without direction

Whether or not your loved one has left detailed instructions for handling their body and memorial — the funeral must go on. If you are in charge of planning a funeral for someone who left no wishes, here are some considerations:

1. Know your budget.

Funerals aren't free. Before you begin to make any plans, you should have a solid understanding of your budget, and the costs associated with the various kinds of funeral arrangements available to you. Funeral funds may come in the form of an inheritance, insurance money, or crowdfunding. If none of these sources are readily available, the funeral may have to be paid out of pocket. 

2. Burial or cremation?

The first and most pressing decision to make is what your loved one's final disposition should be. For most people, that means burial or cremation (although there are other options available in some places, such as water cremation and human composting). This choice is often dictated by budget, as a burial will be  much more expensive than a cremation. If you have no money to spare, you may have to opt for a direct cremation, which is the most affordable option. Once you make a decision about final disposition, you have time to consider the next steps. 

If money is not a factor in this decision, carefully consider your deceased loved one's values. Many people are buried for religious reasons. If this doesn't apply to your loved one, go for cremation: It's more affordable, easier to plan around and doesn't take up any cemetery space.

3. You have permission to be creative.

For most, a funeral isn't a great time to be gimmicky, make jokes or draw attention away from the deceased person. However, as the person planning the funeral, you do have some license to be tastefully creative. 

Here are some creative elements that can make a funeral more meaningful:

  • Ask guests to donate to a charity in the deceased name.

  • Include special decor or attire that the deceased person would enjoy.

  • Deliver a personalized eulogy at a memorial service.

  • Choose a special location to scatter ashes with others who are grieving.

  • Pour one out for the deceased person. 

  • Play music the deceased would have enjoyed. 

  • Serve the deceased person's favorite refreshments at the reception. 

  • Plant a tree in their honor, or create a permanent monument.

  • Write a creative obituary that tells their full life story. 

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4. Be decisive.

Your loved one left no inkling of the kind of memorial service they desired, and the task of planning has fallen to you. This is your chance to curate a final send-off that honors their life and personality.  

Even those who were directed by a dying loved one have to make tough decisions. No matter what, this is a difficult process. The person who leaves no final wishes behind, in a sense, forfeits their involvement in the funeral planning process. However, their funeral should ultimately reflect their values. So, make decisions — and stand by them! As the person in charge of this event, you should do your best to plan an adequate memorial without putting too much unnecessary pressure on yourself. 

5. Seek out advice. 

The process of funeral planning need not be on any one person's shoulders. Delegate, ask for help and get advice from others who were close with the deceased person. If you have questions about what the person who has passed would have like for their funeral, those who knew them should be able to point you in the right direction. The people you consult may even be glad to be included in the process. 

Today, many find their family members living abroad or scattered across the country. Take the time to include them in the planning process. Consider the travel time of loved ones from afar in the planning process so that everyone has the chance to attend.  

6. A funeral is a gift.

No one is ever guaranteed a kind, loving and well attended memorial. As a society, we honor life by paying tribute to those who have passed. Your loved one deserves a last hurrah that is meaningful and representative of their values. As a funeral planner, you are giving a gift to your loved one, who is now gone. 

Do your best. Make choices that honor your loved one and the people left behind to mourn. Respect your own budget, and make plans that are sensible logistically. Whatever the outcome, the funeral you have planned is your final gift to the deceased.  

Let your loved ones know what you want

Leaving wishes can be as simple as opening up to those around you about what you would like. There's no need to pay for a full funeral in advance if you are young, moving around (and therefore unlikely to know which funeral home will handle your body), or financially unable to make concrete plans.  

Even if you don't have a clear vision for your own memorial, start a conversation with your loved ones today. If tragedy strikes, those mourning should feel empowered to make difficult decisions without too much painful waffling and wondering. 

Your loved one had a remarkable life. Tell their story, and we’ll publish it online for free.

After creating an online memorial, you can also publish in print in any of over 6,000 newspapers across North America.

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