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How to plan a funeral or memorial service

Many people don't have a window of time to prepare for a death before it happens. For those that do, it can sometimes be an opportunity to discuss their wishes and fears with their family. It may also offer a chance to minimize discomfort through medical care, hospice, palliative, or other care. Some families also use the time to try and find important documents or coordinate the logistics of financial or legal matters with other family members. 
Then comes the difficult, but often necessary, step of planning a funeral or memorial service. 

How to plan a funeral or memorial service

Understanding and honoring a loved one’s wishes is often a top priority. It can offer some comfort to follow through on wishes and celebrate their life in a meaningful way. 
You and your family may have a series of decisions to make like if you want to have a viewing, where that should be, and choosing cremation or burial. You may prefer to have the viewing and funeral at home, or it may be easier to have it at a funeral home. 
Finding advance health care directives 
Advance care directives are sometimes used to instruct survivors about funeral plans or wishes, and to appoint an agent. Some states use specific forms, and these forms are also known as letters of instruction (LOIs).1 
Consider looking in these places for advance health care directives as you’re planning the funeral or memorial: 
  • Computer 
  • Tax returns 
  • Files and safe deposit box 
  • An attorney—if used 
Decide who’s in charge 
If your loved one did have written plans or wishes, they may have named someone to take the lead on planning. Many states have statutes requiring survivors to follow the written wishes of their loved one to the best of their abilities.2 
However, in the absence of written wishes, your state may have statutes about who has the legal right to decide what should happen. Usually, a spouse is considered the closest, with the next of kin being the next closest relatives, in most cases would be children, parents, and siblings.3
Make arrangements 
Hospitals, nursing homes, or hospice care centers may allow some time for you to make arrangements. In the case of nursing homes or hospice care, plans may have been made in advance. 
Your loved one may have already made some plans. If there’s an advance health care directive, there may be instructions about what they wanted.4 
Choosing a funeral service option 
US states have different funeral laws, consider familiarizing yourself with your state laws, including the different funeral options: home funerals, traditional service, and direct burial or cremation (with or without a ceremony).5 
Burial or cremation are the two main options for body disposal in the US. Your loved one could have also chosen to donate their body to medical or educational research.6 
Funeral homes can help with traditional services including preparing the body, providing a space for a viewing and service, coordinating with clergy, and arranging cremation or burial.7 They can also help with the paperwork. Home funerals are legal in every state but require planning. Some states require a funeral director to provide transportation and to file the death certificate.5 
Pay for the funeral 
Funerals can be very expensive. It’s important to be clear about what’s necessary and how to best honor your loved one’s wishes. Although it may seem like an added stress, it’s often suggested that you shop around for funeral services. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a guide on Shopping for funeral services
Funeral costs vary based on location and services requested. Additionally, with average funeral costs ranging from $7,000-$10,000, other factors to consider are the hearse, funeral home service fee, casket or urn, headstone, or burial plot.8
You can use the estate money to pay for funeral costs, but not immediately. If you or someone else pays for your loved one’s funeral, a claim can be submitted to the estate. Though state laws vary, funeral expenses are considered priority creditor claims, which means the expenses may be paid by the estate before other creditors.9 
In some cases, family and friends may pay out of pocket for funeral costs or there may be burial assistance available through the state. 

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More to explore

1. Mark P. Cussen, “Letter of Instruction: Don't Leave Life Without One,” Investopedia, February 20, 2021, 2. "Who has the legal right to make decisions about your funeral?," Funeral Consumers Alliance, February 27, 2023, 3. Troy Segal, "What (and Who) Is Next of Kin, and Why Does It Matter?" Investopedia, June 5, 2023, 4. “Creating an advance directive: a step-by-step guide,” Death with Dignity, April 5, 2022, 5. “US State Requirements for Home Funerals,” National Home Funeral Alliance, 2022, 6. “Life File: Options for Body Disposition,” Death with Dignity, January 13, 2022, 7. Thomas Hootman, J.D., "Funeral Planning Guide FAQ," FindLaw, May 26, 2023, 8. Connor Emmert, “How Much Does a Funeral Cost?,” NerdWallet, February 7, 2023, 9. Bents Dulcio, “Who is Responsible for Debt After Death of a Relative?,”, May 24, 2023,

This information is general in nature and provided for educational purposes only.

Fidelity does not provide legal or tax advice. The information herein is general in nature and should not be considered legal or tax advice. Consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific situation.