Funeral Arrangements
September 21, 2009 9:03 AM   Subscribe

What should my wife and sister-in-law know before going to the funeral home to make arrangements for their father?

My wife and sister-in-law are exhausted from the days and nights in the palliative care unit with their father. They'd like to know a little about what to expect when they talk to the funeral director, and they'd like to know what kinds of questions they ought to be asking.

Info that may help you answer my question: He won't be cremated--there will be a casket but it will not be open. He is a WWII and Korea veteran. There will be a little bit of insurance money, but they would like to reserve as much as possible for their mother whose income will decrease by 90% when her husband passes.

They're interested in even the most obvious and practical suggestions.

I will monitor this thread pretty closely, so if you need more information, please let me know.

(I hope this is clear enough--I've been keeping the same vigil hours as my wife, so my brain is a little foggy, too.)
posted by kortez to Human Relations (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
ColdChef, I summon thee...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:07 AM on September 21, 2009

They need to ask the funeral director for death certificates. Make sure you get enough for insurance companies, creditors, safe deposit boxes...
posted by teragram at 9:23 AM on September 21, 2009

He may have burial benefits available through his veteran status--particularly if he is interred at a national cemetery.
posted by availablelight at 9:33 AM on September 21, 2009

Yeah, send ColdChef a memail.

We have a family friend that is a funeral director and my father is a pastor. You could bounce this question off your pastor/priest (if you have one). Also, the funeral director will basically have a checklist of things they will need to know. They will be good at directing the family through this process.

If you buy your coffin someplace else this will save some cash. Even if not, try to remember that the coffin is going in the ground and the deceased will not care, so don't go nuts here.

And sorry.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:36 AM on September 21, 2009

First of all, I'm so sorry that your family is going through this. I know it's very difficult. I lost my father and father-in-law both within in the last five years, so unfortunately I have a bit of experience with this.

Some basic things they might want to know:
-What's your budget? Take into account cost of casket, prayer cards, guest book, etc.
-Do you want a visitation? How many nights?
-Is there already a burial plot chosen? If not, they will need to contact the cemetery and choose one. Along with this, what type of vault (I think this varies from cemetery to cemetery whether or not a vault is my father-in-law's it was necessary, but there are several types varying in price to choose from).
-Will the funeral service take place at the funeral home or at a place of worship?
-Have all pertinent information prepared for the death certificate which the funeral home will then take care of.
-Will there be a graveside service?
-Start formulating an obituary as it's usually the family's responsibility to write it, the funeral home will then place it in the paper (as an aside, how long do they want it to run? It was really expensive in my area...a couple hundred dollars for one day).
-As a veteran, will it be a funeral with military honors or burial in a national cemetery? More info on that can be found here:

Good luck to you. Just remember that a good funeral director will walk you through all of this, so if you forget something, they'll usually be able to help you out.
posted by fresh-rn at 9:42 AM on September 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

The FTC has a great Consumer Guide to Funerals for precisely this purpose. It details the laws that protect you and what to be aware of. Sorry for you and your family's loss.
posted by zachlipton at 9:53 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would recommend watching the Bullshit episode "Death Inc" about funerals and funeral homes. It was really eye-opening.

Perhaps you can watch it for them, as it might be a bit too raw for them right now? I'd summarize but I can't remember a lot of specifics, except that they go into detail about a law regarding casket pricing which I found particularly interesting.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 10:01 AM on September 21, 2009

This post includes lots of discussion and links on not getting gouged, very helpful.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 10:33 AM on September 21, 2009

fresh-rn pretty much covers it. My advice is to go into the arrangement conference without an "adversarial" attitude. Despite what many people feel, most funeral directors are servants and counselors, not snake-oil salesmen. Choose the services which are right for you--every funeral is different.

If I can assist you in any way, please don't hesitate to contact me directly, I'll MeMail you my personal number.
posted by ColdChef at 10:38 AM on September 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's okay to have a budget, and the budget is not a reflection of your love for your father-in-law.
posted by theora55 at 11:33 AM on September 21, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'm very sorry for your family's loss. I'm a little more experienced with this than I would like to be, so I'll just add a few things to the excellent comments from fresh-rn and ColdChef:

- Often the easiest way to military honors at a funeral is through the local VFW rather than the VA. They will still do the flag-draped coffin, play taps, everything. Tell your funeral director that you want military honors (if you do) and (s)he should know how to proceed. You will, at some point, need to provide some proof of service/rank -- discharge papers, for example.

- Ask for more copies of the death certificate than you think you'll need. But don't panic -- you can get more later if you find you underestimated.

- Our most recent funeral director was able to help with EVERYTHING, including writing the obituary. He basically asked for details, and wrote it out longhand, read it to us, and had his assistant type up a draft while we worked through other business. We did a couple of drafts like that. YMMV. Also, local/county papers are less expensive for obit placement than the big city papers, and usually more likely to be seen by the people in the community who would say "oh, I knew him... I want to go pay my respects."

- Our funeral director also helped us track down long-lost insurance policies, where the only clue we had was a policy number and a long-defunct company name. This saved us a great deal of administrative hassle. The "angle" here is that these policies can be used to pay for the funeral, but his help was not explicitly limited to those policies that we were signing over to him. Yes, you can sign life insurance policies over to them to pay for the cost of the funeral. If a policy exceeds the cost of the funeral, the remainder goes back to the original beneficiary. Maybe if they were stereotypical "snake oil salesmen" we wouldn't have gone this route, but we had a very good experience and no reservations about them at all.

- As you consider your budget, factor in honoraria for pastor, musicians, etc. (if applicable). Usually somewhere between $50-$125 per person, and the funeral director can advise as to what is appropriate.

- If you have never done this before, I will tell you that visitations are incredibly draining. One session, for no more than 4 hours, is plenty. Seriously.

These were some of the biggies that I've learned. I'll post more if I think of them. And I promise, there really are good funeral directors out there. Best of luck to you.
posted by somanyamys at 11:36 AM on September 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Often the easiest way to military honors at a funeral is through the local VFW rather than the VA. They will still do the flag-draped coffin, play taps, everything. Tell your funeral director that you want military honors (if you do) and (s)he should know how to proceed. You will, at some point, need to provide some proof of service/rank -- discharge papers, for example.

This is good advice. The exact form you will need is called a DD214. It's the military discharge paper. If you cannot locate it, it's not required, (you may be able to use other separation papers) but if you can put your hands on it, it streamlines the process. Also, don't hesitate to request a military team if you'd like one. The soldiers who provide it get a full-day's pay for their service and they consider it an honor. And there is no charge to the family. Also, if you've not yet chosen a cemetery, a veteran may be eligible for burial in a national cemetery. This is good if you're on a budget, because the military will pick up the cost of the gravespace, a vault, a headstone, and the opening and closing of the grave, and often a spouse can be buried in the same plot. It's quite a substantial savings once you add it up.

If you have never done this before, I will tell you that visitations are incredibly draining. One session, for no more than 4 hours, is plenty. Seriously.

posted by ColdChef at 11:54 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Of course, I don't know how long your FIL was in palliative care, or his activity level prior to it.

That said, if he was an officer of any clubs or voluntary organizations in his community, the other officers will soon want any records, checkbooks, and the like turned over to them. From experience, I know that this will be particularly stressful if you do not know where the materials are.

My condolences to your family, and the very best of luck to all of you.
posted by jgirl at 12:19 PM on September 21, 2009

I'm sorry for your loss.

Consider buying your casket online or at a discount store. A casket is the second or third most expensive thing that many people will ever buy (for most Americans, house, car, and casket are the top three biggest lifetime purchases, in that order), and it's made at a time when you're distraught and emotional, so it's easy to get ripped off. Don't feel guilty or craven about comparison shopping and haggling to get the best deal. I've heard that Costco has good deals on caskets.
posted by decathecting at 12:42 PM on September 21, 2009

My condolences.

I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that funeral homes are businesses and the person they will be meeting with is a salesperson.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:44 PM on September 21, 2009

I want to thank you all so much. Your input is incredibly helpful right now. Almost as soon as I hit post, my wife called to say that she and the rest of the family had been summoned to the hospital. Her father passed a few hours ago. We're back at her folks' house now, and this thread is incredibly therapeutic. There is something reasuringly concrete about all of these answers. So, on behalf of my wife's family, thank you very much Metafilter.
posted by kortez at 12:52 PM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I went through this with my family earlier this year.

- don't worry about crying, you will literally be sitting there crying in between joking and having rational discussions about pricing and choices. They have kleenex.
- listen to what the funeral home representative tells you, they have good suggestions and most are not there to upsell you, they are there to make sure that the funeral goes as you hope it will. In my experience, they were more like counselors than salespeople. Tell them your budget ahead of time.
- have some idea of what you want in an obituary notice (we wrote ours with the funeral home rep in the first meeting).
- take some time off now and then, please! Especially if this has been a long, drawn-out death.

I'm so sorry for your loss.
posted by biscotti at 2:44 PM on September 21, 2009

The bereaved family will not have to think of the questions to ask, the funeral directors know what details have to be sorted out. They stay in business by doing things tactfully and efficiently, as they need repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals. Depending on the time scale involved, there may be decisions that do not have to be made immediately, or that can be changed if they have second thoughts.

Cost control comes in two ways -- shopping around for which funeral directors to use, and being clear and firm about your budget to the ones you choose. These both sound like a burden that you can lift off the shoulders of the exhausted daughters.
posted by Idcoytco at 3:39 PM on September 21, 2009

Often the easiest way to military honors at a funeral is through the local VFW rather than the VA.

Or the American Legion. Your mother-in-law will know if he was a member of either organization, or of both.

Cost control comes in two ways -- shopping around for which funeral directors to use, and being clear and firm about your budget to the ones you choose. These both sound like a burden that you can lift off the shoulders of the exhausted daughters.

Seconding this.

Another thing that in-laws can do to help is to be part of gathering information for the obituary. Also, if you live in an area where the funeral directors are the ones who submit the obituaries to the newspapers, be sure to look over what he or she has written and insist on any changes that you want to make. My brother (a newspaper editor) and I (a writer and editor) neglected to do this when our aunt died, and the obituary was crap--apparently, the funeral director took the obituary we had carefully written and used it to fill out a template. We were not happy.

Sorry for your loss.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:54 PM on September 21, 2009

A quick update: My mother-in-law, sister-in-law and wife met at the funeral home yesterday afternoon to make arrangements. This was after a very hard morning as the reality of his death set in, made more difficult by a difficult pastor in the first meeting of the day.

But because we sat up the night before and went over this thread and a few other links (see below), they were prepared. They were told that there was a flat rate of $6,500 for the basic services. My sister-in-law asked for an itemized price list, and the director walked them through it, making a bunch of suggestions of things they could do without. For example, there was a $650 charge for taking the death certificate to the notary and then downtown to Vital Records, (or something like this--my wife is unclear on the details), and he explained how to do this on their own. In the end, the funeral home ended up doing this free of charge. When they went into the showroom to look at caskets, they looked around, and then asked for the catalog, where my mother-in-law found a nice one for $800.

In the end, the best advice seems to be this: Don't go into the meeting with an adversarial attitude, but go with enough information that you can overcome the emotional fog and make smart decisions. The combination of the two made for a VERY pleasant meeting. The grand total will be just a little over what my mother-in-law budgeted, and that includes fees that the cemetery will get for digging and backfilling the grave. And, I think it was the highlight of my wife's day. She has nothing but good things to say about the funeral director, who jumped on board immediately and helped them get pretty close to the pretty small budget.

We were not able to find the DD214. Thank you, ColdChef, for pointing out that it wasn't absolutely necessary to have this if we had other documents. Not only did we avoid a meltdown when we couldn't find it, but some young gentlemen from Ft. Bragg will arrive at my mother-in-law/sister-in-law's home at 10:00 on Friday to discuss what will happen at the interment, and will be with my mother-in-law for the remainder of the day. (Though he didn't talk about it much, my father-in-law took his service very seriously. He jumped 91 times during his career. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He deserves full honors.) They will even be presenting the flag to my nephew, who loves flags and was very close to his grandfather--they lived under the same roof, and he's been taking it pretty hard. The funeral home made this happen.

Anyway, thanks to you all for helping out in a difficult situation. We really are very grateful. If you're interested in knowing more about who you helped, the link to Perry's obituary is here. (And although he would let it slide, I won't: the online obit leaves out the fact that after WWII, Perry went to college and then started law school only to be called back up, much to his surprise, to serve in Korea. And that he remained in the Army reserves as a legal officer until he retired in 1979 with the rank of Colonel.)

(Other helpful links are: Death of a Spouse, Funeral Consumer's Alliance: FAQ, Funeral Help Program, the FTC's Consumer's Guide to Funerals that zachlipton mentioned, and the Department of Veteran's Affairs Burial and Memorials page that fresh-rn mentioned.)
posted by kortez at 9:23 PM on September 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

That wasn't nearly as quick as I intended.
posted by kortez at 9:23 PM on September 23, 2009

kortez, thanks for following up, and for posting the obituary. I'm so glad that the experience went smoothly for your family, and that we were able to help (in a tiny way) you honor such a fine man.
posted by somanyamys at 6:34 PM on September 24, 2009

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