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Your Complete Guide to Planning a Funeral: Services, Costs & Reception

Learn how to plan a funeral, reception, and costs.A funeral is any kind of final arrangement (burial or cremation) made by a family after the death of a loved one. The average cost of a funeral is almost $9,000 according to the National Funeral Directors Association depending on the location of the service, the funeral home, and the items used. Funeral planning is for anyone who wishes to take the stress and uncertainty off of their loved ones by making arrangements in advance.

If you’ve ever witnessed the tragedy of a family struggling to pay for a loved one’s funeral, you understand why so many people make their own funeral arrangements. In fact, many people consider the act of planning their funeral as a part of estate planning. If you’re wondering whether or not you should plan your funeral, we’ve put together the following guide that will answer all the question you may have.

Click here to learn the best way to save on funeral costs.


Steps to Planning a Funeral

If you want to ease the stress of funeral planning for your loved ones, we’ve put together a guide that will steer you through the process.

Your first step is to think about what type of event you want.

Planning a Funeral or Memorial Service

How your friends and family say goodbye to you is determined by the type of event you choose. You can plan for a formal affair with a long list of speakers, a more casual event with only your closest friends and family present, or anything in between.

Here are some of your choices.

Funeral - A funeral typically takes place in a church, the funeral home, or sometimes someone’s home. The body of the deceased is usually present in a casket, either open or closed, so that those gathered can say goodbye. Because the body is present during a funeral, the service must take place in a timely manner.

If you plan to have your body cremated, you can still have a funeral. Many people plan a funeral before the cremation, so friends and family can view the body. We’ll talk more about cremation ceremonies in a minute.

During a funeral, an officiant will typically preside over the ceremony and friends and family may eulogize the deceased. Music is also typically part of the service and can feature live or recorded music, as well as special songs that mean something to you and your loved ones.

The setting is usually adorned with flowers and can even include pictures of the deceased. After the eulogy, many funerals include an open mic time. This allows those gathered to tell stories of the deceased and talk about their personality. It’s a great way for loved ones to come together and remember the person they love.

If you’re doing your own funeral planning, you can pre-select all of the variables so nothing’s left up for debate: the songs you want played at the service, the types of flowers you prefer to have at your funeral, the people you would like to speak at your funeral, and even the pallbearers who will carry your casket. You can also decide what type of final disposition you’d like (burial or cremation).

Graveside Service - A graveside service is very similar to a traditional funeral, except the service happens at the grave before the burial. You can choose to plan a funeral service first with all your friends and family, and then a more intimate affair at the graveside with only your closest loved ones. Or you can simply plan a graveside service.

With this type of service, a person of your choosing will eulogize you. It’s not uncommon for people to ask friends and family to speak at a graveside service. Some people include flowers at a graveside service, and many times, people lay flowers on the casket before it’s lowered into the ground as a final goodbye.

You can personalize your graveside service any way you choose. You can pick the music, the colors of the flowers, the cemetery you’re buried in, and add in any personal details you choose.

Memorial Service - A memorial service is similar to a funeral with one difference: The body is not present. These types of services take place at a funeral home, a church, a community center, or someone’s home. Just like a traditional funeral, a memorial service can include flowers, music, a eulogy, and speeches given by people close to the deceased.

If you choose to have your body cremated, your loved ones will often hold a memorial service since there is no public viewing.

Memorial services also tend to be more casual than a full-blown funeral. In fact, when planning your memorial service, you should make it as personal as possible so that it truly represents you and your life.

Family in Church

Pre-Planning the Funeral Arrangements and Reception

In addition to planning the funeral, graveside service, or memorial service, you will also need to decide whether you want to include services before and after the ceremony.

Here are some of the options you have for your final arrangement.

Wake or Viewing - A wake or viewing is held before the funeral or memorial service as a time for close friends and family to gather together to say goodbye to the deceased.

Wakes or viewings can be short services that allow everyone to see the body and say their goodbyes, or they can be longer events where people say their goodbyes and then comfort each other. Traditional viewings are typically reserved for the family and are very private.

Visitation - A visitation also happens before a funeral or memorial, but the body is typically not present during this event. Because funerals are such large gatherings, people use visitations to express their sympathy and support for the family. It’s a time for the family to speak to those who want to remember the deceased without the time constraints of a funeral. Traditional visitations are typically held so that the general public/funeral attendees can pay their respects.

Elements of the Service - The event you plan should be a reflection of who you are. Be sure to specify your wants so that people remember you as you want them to. When planning a funeral, you need to think about the specifics. There are some elements to every service that you will need to plan for so that your friends or family don’t have to make these decisions during such an emotional time.

A typical funeral service will last roughly 2 hours and may include the following elements:

  • Visitation with family before service
  • Formal service with/without religious sermon
  • Eulogies by friends and families
  • Closing ceremony
  • Guest reception with/without refreshments

Some of the details you’ll need to think about are a musical prelude, welcoming words spoken as an introduction, the reading of your obituary, and the eulogy or tribute about you. You can also plan who will speak at the open mic, which songs you want the guests to hear, whether or not you want a slideshow or video tribute of your life, and whether you want an open or closed casket. Finally, someone will need to issue an invitation to the graveside service unless it’s exclusively for the family.

Religious Components - If you want to include religious components at your funeral, you should discuss them with your priest, pastor, or whoever will perform the ceremony. For instance, you can pre-select your hymns, scripture readings, benediction, prayers, and even what type of sermon you’d like. Most funeral services include some sort of religious component – whether traditional or contemporary – to give grieving friends and family hope as they experience life without the deceased.

Receptions: Types, Location, and Décor - Having a reception after the funeral is the perfect way for friends and family to get together and share special memories about the deceased. And you can plan the reception any way you want.

For instance, you can make it a formal affair at a restaurant, or plan a more casual get-together at someone’s house. You can plan it at a church, community center, or even a banquet hall. You can also request that loved ones have a barbecue, a potluck dinner, or a gathering at your favorite spot in the local park. Keep in mind that if you plan your reception to take place at a restaurant or have it catered, you should pay for the food and drinks.

The options for the location of your reception are endless. However you plan your reception, make sure that it gives room for those you love to grieve and comfort each other. You can choose to move the flowers and photographs from the funeral home to the reception venue, or you can keep it simple and let the conversation be the highlight of the event. You should plan for soft music at the reception, so it doesn’t interfere with conversation. You can also plan for open mic time, a video slideshow of your life, or other activities for the guests.


Final Disposition Options

You have a few choices when it comes to the final disposition of the body. It may be a good idea to speak with your family as you plan the funeral to determine whether or not they are comfortable with your wishes. For instance, if you wish for cremation, your loved ones may not feel comfortable with that choice. Having an open conversation well in advance can help alleviate potential issues.

Here are a few of your options.

Burial - Burials are the most common types of final dispositions. When you choose a burial, the body will lie in a casket, and the attendants will lower it into the ground. Your burial plan can specify the sentimental or symbolic items to be buried with the body, as well as what clothing the deceased should wear.

Cremation - As the costs of funerals continue to rise, more and more people are choosing cremation. And even if you do choose cremation, you can still plan for a memorial service and a reception. Direct cremations cost as little as $1,000 in some areas, which could leave you more money to plan for the events that will bring your family together.

Green Burial - Green burials are popular with people who are concerned about the impact their final arrangements will have on the environment. In these types of burials, the funeral home doesn’t use embalming fluid, and the casket must be biodegradable. The cemeteries used for green burials don’t allow vaults. Some of these cemeteries allow burials in cardboard boxes, blankets, shrouds, or homemade caskets. Not all funeral homes and cemeteries support green burials, so be sure and check with your funeral home in advance.

Alternatives - Depending on the laws in your city or state, you can get permission for burial on private property, and you can hold your funeral there. When you’re planning your estate and want to pass on as much cash to your beneficiaries as possible, a home burial might be a good solution.

You can also donate your body to science. This can be a very fulfilling option that helps further the collective medical knowledge about a specific disease process or about aging in the human body in general.


Woman paying bills

Research Funeral Homes & Memorial Service Packages & Options

Your next step in the process is to research local funeral homes. There are several important questions to ask when choosing a funeral home, but one of the most important is what memorial service packages and other options they offer. Because most funeral homes operate independently, you will find a wide variety of services and prices.

Federal law states that funeral homes are required to give you a price list for all of their services when you ask. Start by narrowing down the list of funeral homes, and then contact each one for a price list. Once you have eliminated the candidates out of your price range, schedule an appointment with each home left on your list to get a feel for it.

You should feel comfortable with the funeral home and the people who run it. This is the place where your friends and family will gather to celebrate your life, and these are the people your loved ones will need to work with directly.

As you visit each of the homes when deciding on your funeral arrangements, make a note of the pros and cons of each one. Here are a few to consider.

Established, in business for years. Has stringent rules on service with no flexibility.
Offer a pre-payment plan for funeral expenses. Does not have experience with funeral pre-planning.
Will work directly with insurance company payouts. Requires that insurance companies send entire payout to them instead of only their fees.
Close to your friends and family. Does not permit you to cancel the arrangement if you change your mind.
Has a wide variety of services to choose from. You may have no recourse if the funeral home goes out of business.
Allows you some flexibility in planning your funeral or memorial service. May not offer the most economical choice upfront.

Research Funeral Planning Services

If the thought of planning your own funeral is too much to bear, consider hiring a funeral planning service. These services will take care of every detail for you so that you don’t have to make all of the hard decisions when making your funeral arrangements. For instance, they will help find the right funeral home and burial plot. They will also help with floral designs, music selection, and all the details that go into planning a wake or memorial service.

To find the right funeral planning service, start by asking a trusted religious leader because they’ve likely serviced many funerals in their time. Next, you can ask your local flower shop, cemetery, or funeral home as they may have some suggestions as well.

The price will often be the main concern, but you should also select someone who understands your wishes and is committed to helping you plan the funeral you want.

Average Funeral Costs

The rising costs of funerals is another reason many people are planning their own funerals. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, an average funeral costs about $9,135. If you decide on cremation with a funeral, it will cost about $6,000. But on top of these basic expenses, you will need to plan for the burial plot cost and casket price (or the urn cost if you choose cremation), a headstone, and flowers for the funeral or memorial service. That brings the total to about $10,000 for many funerals and memorial services.

Payment Options

If your goal is to pay for your funeral so your loved ones don’t have to, you have a few options. Here are some of them, along with their pros and cons.

Saving for Your Funeral – You can save for your funeral by putting away money every month until you’ve saved enough. But as easy as this option sounds, there are some things to consider.

If you save enough and pay cash for your funeral, you won’t have to deal with monthly payments. It can be difficult to stay focused enough to put away cash each month for an event that seems so far away.
You will have peace of mind that your funeral is taken care of. Prices could go up, and your loved ones may have to chip in for your arrangements.
If you have self discipline you can save enough to pay for your funeral and any other incidentals that come with it. It’s easy to tap into the money you’ve set aside for other emergencies that come up.


Using Life Insurance- Having an insurance plan is a great way to ensure that your beneficiaries have enough money to pay for your funeral arrangements. Whether it’s term life insurance or whole life insurance, they can use the cash payout for your funeral.

A lump sum cash payout will take the burden off of your friends and family and allow them time to grieve. Some funeral homes will insist on receiving the entire payout and then issuing a check for the remaining balance to your beneficiaries.
The payout could be large enough to ensure your beneficiaries have enough to pay for the funeral and have some leftover. Term life insurance expires, so if your policy lapses, your funeral will not be covered.


You can also pre-pay your funeral costs. Doing this takes the burden off of your loved ones because all of the details — as well as the finances — are taken care of. You have two choices when it comes to pre-paying your funeral expenses, pre-need plans and final expense policies.


Pre-Need Plans – You will work directly with a funeral home when purchasing a pre-paid funeral plan. To establish it, you should sit down with the funeral home of your choice and make the arrangements for your funeral. Then, the funeral home will give you the cost, and you can either pay it in one lump sum or make payments on it.

You can plan the funeral you want. The funeral home could go out of business before you die.
You get to choose your plot, headstone, casket, and funeral services. If you die in another city or state, the funeral home may not honor your contract.


Final Expense Policies – You can purchase a type of whole life insurance policy that is specifically designed to pay for your funeral expenses. The policies range from $10,000 to $25,000, and your beneficiaries can use any funeral home they choose. That means your beneficiaries can choose any funeral home and use the cash payout to pay for it. And if your funeral doesn’t use the entire amount, they can use the remaining funds to pay for your last expenses, including medical bills, final utility payments, or anything else that is outstanding.

You can take the burden off of your loved ones and pay for your funeral expenses now. If your policy is not paid up to date, you may lose coverage.
The policy will cover your burial expenses for any funeral home. The funeral home you choose may be more expensive than the face amount of your policy.
Low face policies are easier to qualify for and more economic. The policies are usually low face policies which may not be enough if income replacement is needed.
If any money is leftover, your beneficiaries can use it to pay for other expenses such as medical bills or utility payments. The policy may be too small and not cover all funeral expenses.
With certain policies, your loved ones will get family support services to help in finding the best funeral home. There may not be family support services available.



Planning Your Own Funeral Arrangements? Make Your Wishes Known!

One of the most important things you can do when planning your funeral is to make sure your loved ones understand your wishes. Many people mistakenly believe that adding funeral information to their will is the best thing to do, but that can lead to trouble.

That’s because most people don’t get around to looking at a will until after the funeral. And if you’ve prepaid your funeral or have a final expense policy, it will be too late.

Instead, talk to your friends and family and let them know about your wishes for your funeral arrangements. Make sure they understand your plans and know where to look for the paperwork they will need to carry out your wishes.

Utilize Funeral Planning Checklists to Help Plan in Advance

Funeral planning checklists are a great tool for planning a funeral. You can use them to take the emotions out of the decisions you will have to make and just concentrate on planning the funeral you want.

For instance, use this funeral pre-planning checklist to help save money when making your own funeral arrangements. And this checklist will ensure you don’t miss any important tasks.

Additional Tips & Considerations

Making all of the decisions and arrangements for your funeral can be exhausting and emotional. To help relieve some of the burdens, think about the following:

  • Ask a friend or family member to help you plan the funeral
  • Be sure to consider your family’s wishes alongside your own

Your Rights as a Consumer

As a consumer, you have certain rights when it comes to pre-planning your funeral. For instance, you have a right to call a funeral home and ask about pricing. And if you go to the funeral home, you can ask for a copy of their general pricing information. You can keep this price list for your records.

If you make your own funeral arrangements and pre-pay for the services, you are entitled to a Statement of Funeral Goods and Services Selected. This funeral planning document will outline all of the services you selected for your final arrangements and show how much you paid for them. Be sure to give a copy of this document to your loved ones so they will know what to expect when the time comes.