It happens to every one of us, eventually. But many people are uncomfortable talking about it. And even fewer people are prepared for it. What am I referring to?
We don’t even like to use the word. Instead of saying that someone has died, we’ll say they “passed.” Why? Perhaps from a fear of offending by being too blunt. Or perhaps because it’s hard to look directly at the reality of mortality. It’s a difficult concept that many don’t want to prepare for. And that can make a difficult time more difficult, when someone close dies and you must make the arrangements.
Here’s where I hope I can make it a bit easier for you. I’ve planned or helped plan several funerals, including my mother’s and my mother-in-law’s. As well, I helped co-ordinate many funerals when I worked at a large Toronto church. So, when my father died a couple of years ago, I figured I knew it all. As it turned out, I didn’t. Let me pass along some of what I’ve learned to keep this difficult time from being harder than it has to be.
What decisions do you have to make when planning a funeral?
There are many decisions to make when planning a funeral. Many of those will depend on your religious or cultural traditions, but you’ll have to make many similar decisions to the ones I faced. Below are some of the decisions I made, in roughly chronological order. Please note I refer to “your parent or partner,” as their funerals are the ones you’ll be most likely to plan.
1. Will you even have a funeral?
You don’t actually have to. Even if you forgo a funeral, there are still some things you must do, and some costs are still involved. Personally, I think funerals are important. They mark a major life milestone, like a birthday or a wedding. They also help you turn the page. When my father died, I didn’t feel like I could start breathing again until his funeral was over.
Do you find traditional funerals stuffy or meaningless? Then have a joy-filled celebration of life, instead. If you’re concerned about the expense, you can economize and still be respectful. And if your parent or partner had life insurance, the death benefit can cover the entire cost. Even a small policy can be sufficient “funeral insurance.
2. Which funeral home will you use?
There isn’t much time for comparison shopping when somebody dies. Why? The process must get underway almost immediately. It therefore helps to think about it ahead of time, if possible. If you don’t have anywhere in mind, you could ask relatives and friends for recommendations. Factors to consider include:
- size of the reception rooms and
- availability of parking and public transit
3. Burial or cremation?
Canadians are increasingly choosing cremation. In 2000, the cremation rate was just under 48%, according to Statista; by 2020, it was just over 73%. In 2004, cremating my mother didn’t cross our minds. But it was the clear choice for my dad in 2020.
4. Will the funeral service be in a place of worship, at a funeral home or somewhere else?
Did you know you can have it somewhere else? I didn’t. My father was a long-time church member, so a church funeral for him was an easy call. But what if you have no religious affiliation, or your faith conflicts with your siblings’ or children’s? Many people have the service right at the funeral home. But you may find even the funeral home chapel too “churchy” for you. In that case, consider holding a celebration of life somewhere more meaningful. That could be in a park, at the cottage or even in a favourite pub. (More on celebrations of life later.)
5. When will the funeral be?
A Saturday may be your first choice, so fewer people have to miss work to attend. But most churches prefer weekday funerals, and the cemetery may even have a Saturday surcharge. Traditional funerals, with the body present in a casket, take place within a few days of the death. (Some faith traditions, such as Judaism and Islam, mandate the timing.) A cremation followed by a memorial service or celebration of life is more flexible, however. You have more time to make the arrangements and for out-of-town family to arrive.
6. Will there be a visitation?
This is the reception at the funeral home before the funeral. Traditionally, people came to pay their respects. (That’s why they used to call it the “viewing.”) Since most funerals are on weekdays, an evening visitation lets people who can’t take the time off work come and pay their respects. You don’t invite people to the visitation (or the funeral, unless it’s private); you just pass the word. So, you don’t know how many people will come. The funeral home can help you estimate the numbers, based on the size of your family.
7. Who will conduct the service?
If you have the service in a place of worship, the clergyperson there will do it. With permission, you can sometimes bring in other clergy (your cousin the rabbi, for example) to take part. Some clergy, such as Roman Catholic and Anglican priests, don’t conduct funerals outside a church. And here’s something else I didn’t know: You don’t need a licensed, ordained minister for a funeral. While ordained clergy conduct many funerals at funeral homes, non-ordained professionals called “life celebrants” conduct many others. If you want a less-traditional send-off, a life celebrant may be a good choice.
8. Where will the burial be?
Generally, you’ll want to choose a location you and the family can easily visit long after the funeral. My father bought a double-deep plot when we buried my mother, so we knew he wanted to be buried there one day.
If you don’t have a plot or a preference, the funeral home will suggest a location. But it’s up to you to make the arrangements with the cemetery you choose. That means:
- contacting the cemetery
- going there to choose a burial site and a marker, and
- paying them.
- If you expect a life insurance death benefit, the cemetery – and the funeral home – will usually wait for payment. Again, it helps to have thought about this ahead of time.
Some other considerations: How easy will it be for family members to visit? What are the rules regarding flowers and headstones? For example, some cemeteries allow only flat markers, for ease of grass-cutting.
9. Who will give the eulogy(ies)?
You don’t have to have a eulogy, which is a word that means “praise.” But if you want to communicate a real sense of the person who has died, some personal remarks from a close friend or relative can be very appropriate. Not everyone attending the funeral will have known your parent or partner. Your colleagues from work may attend to show their support for example.
I have written and delivered several eulogies; here are some guidelines I use and recommend. Keep it brief, keep it personal and keep it respectful. This is not the time to spill family secrets or air grievances. And don’t have too many speakers; several people may volunteer, but you get to choose who speaks. My sister and I gave the main eulogy for my father, and each grandchild spoke briefly.
10. Do you need flowers?
Instead of flowers, many funeral notices today request donations to specific charities. People donated in my father’s memory, but I was equally happy to have flowers. We divided them afterwards among the closest family members, and they brightened our homes for several days.
11. Who chooses the music and readings for a funeral?
You do, in consultation with the ordained or lay celebrant and the music director. If you’re not familiar with the sacred texts, they will suggest appropriate passages. Most churches require religious music during the service. You may have a bit more leeway before and after. Not expecting a big turnout? Then you might want to avoid congregational singing, as a sparse crowd can sound sad and thin. You can play more secular music in a funeral home or alternative location.
12. What about photos?
When my mother died, we created photo displays on foam-core boards. Now, you’re more likely to see a looping video slide show. Either way, it’s a fair bit of work. You have to choose the photos and mount them. Or collect digital photos, scan older ones and save them on a thumb-drive. (And make sure the church or funeral home can show them before you do all that work.) If you don’t have time, give the job to a helpful friend or relative.
13. Where will the reception be?
Funerals are commonly either in the morning with lunch following, or in the afternoon with light refreshments afterwards. We fed our guests a catered lunch in the church hall. Alternatively, you can serve lunch in a reception room at the funeral home or at a restaurant. You could even have the reception in your own home, if you have enough help and space. Playing host may be the last thing you want to do. Wherever you have it, go with what will be most comfortable for you.
14. Where will you go afterward?
Even the warmest, most beautiful church or funeral home is pretty impersonal. You may want to gather with your immediate family afterward, to decompress in more informal surroundings. About a dozen of my nearest and dearest came back to my house after my father’s funeral. We raised a glass in my father’s memory, reminisced and laughed at family jokes.
What you need to know about cremation
Are you thinking about cremation? First, make sure your religion permits it. (Islam and Judaism don’t.) Having planned first a traditional burial and then two cremations, I found there are some important differences. Here are a few:
- You need to physically identify the person and sign off before the funeral director takes them to the crematorium. Emotionally, the finality of this moment makes this really, really hard.
- You still have to buy a casket (called a “cremation container”), but it can be much less elaborate and expensive than a regular casket.
- The funeral director may suggest embalming and makeup, but if cremation is happening quickly, it’s an unnecessary cost. Even without embalming, they will still tidy up the person and comb their hair.
- You still need to bring an outfit to dress the person in.
- If you want to bury the person with a watch, ring or other small personal item, you have to sign a statement to that effect. The crematorium staff will put it in the urn afterwards. We buried my father with his Kiwanis pin.
- The average person’s ashes weigh four to six pounds, according to the Cremation Association of North America. They are much heavier by volume than wood ashes.
So, what do you do with the ashes? This depends on your religious traditions, if you have any. For example, the Roman Catholic Church permits cremation, but stipulates burying ashes, rather than scattering or keeping them.
- You can bury the urn in the ground in a cemetery, as we did with my father. You can place it in a niche in a special structure called a columbarium. Or, you can scatter the ashes in a special section of the cemetery reserved for that purpose.
- You can scatter them somewhere significant, like a well-loved cottage – but get permission from the landowner first. In Ontario, you can scatter ashes on Crown land or water, including provincial parks and conservation areas, without permission. If scattering, you buy a special, lightweight cylinder for the ashes. You can also buy a miniature urn to keep a small portion.
- You can keep them at home. Some urns are quite beautiful.
What are the alternatives to a traditional funeral?
What if you don’t want a church funeral or even a service at a funeral home? A customized celebration of life might be the solution.
Did you know there are certified Life Celebrants? They plan and conduct highly personalized life celebrations, ranging from family gatherings to pub nights – even awards shows. Many celebrations feature a candle-lighting ceremony.
Their services generally don’t include the cost of food, drinks or the venue itself. They do include an in-depth meeting to begin planning a gathering true to the person who has died. They will create, write and host the ceremony, provide full support at the event and post an online obituary. Their fees range from $1,850 to $6,000, depending on the level of additional hands-on help they provide. You might consider a Life Celebrant if you:
- want something outside a church, but not at a funeral home.
- are looking for something more reflective of who your loved one was.
At a celebration of life, you could show videos or slides. You might reminisce about amazing accomplishments, tell funny stories and invite guests to share their own memories. It can be positively therapeutic to both laugh and cry over a few snacks with friends.
What do you have to do when someone dies?
Planning the funeral is just one of many immediate, necessary tasks when your parent or partner dies. It’s already a difficult situation, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Here’s a list of other things you need to do when someone dies:
1. Find the will
The funeral home asked me for a copy of the first and last pages of my father’s will. That was to prove that I, as co-executor, was authorized to make the arrangements.
2. Spread the word about the death and the timing of the funeral
If you’re not up to it, that’s another job to give a helpful friend. Social media makes it a little easier to share these announcements.
3. Keep track of everyone to thank
You don’t have to do this, but it’s good form to send written thank-you notes. They go to everyone who made a memorial donation, sent flowers or food, or attended the visitation or funeral. You’re no longer expected to thank in writing everyone who sent you a sympathy card, though. The funeral home will give you the enclosure cards for flowers they get or donations made through them. But you may get flowers at the church and at home, too. Record all the names and addresses. The funeral home will provide a supply of thank-you cards; you may need more, as I did.
4. Locate the life insurance policy and file a claim (if you’re the beneficiary)
You’ll need a Proof of Death certificate for this and other administrative tasks. The funeral home will give you several copies. If you need help filing a claim with Sun Life, please visit our support page.
5. Tell the government
That means notifying the Canada Pension Plan right away, so they stop making benefit payments. You also must apply separately for the CPP death benefit, and notify the Canada Revenue Agency. As well, we cancelled my father’s social insurance card, driver’s licence, health card and passport. That’s so criminals couldn’t use the numbers for identity fraud. You’ll also need to notify the bank.
Advice on planning a funeral
It’s a lot to take on, so let me leave you with a few thoughts that I hope will help you through this difficult time:
1. Plan ahead
Talk to your parents about their wishes. Talk to your partner, your siblings, your adult children. Make some decisions ahead of time. My husband and I have discussed buying a plot near my parents’ and grandparents’ graves, for example. Whatever decisions you can make early, will help your family and loved ones down the road.
2. Don’t expect perfection
Accidents happen and things don’t always go as planned. But this is probably the most supportive crowd you’ll ever see. Here’s my story: I mislaid my notes for my father’s eulogy right before the service. I hadn’t memorized it, and I was panicking. Fortunately, I could read it off my phone. It worked pretty well, but I had to focus on keeping the text from sliding around on the screen. That’s probably why I got through it without breaking down. But don’t worry about getting emotional; it happens. Consider bringing someone up with you for support. If you find you can’t continue, they can finish for you. And don’t forget the tissues!
3. Be kind
To others, and to yourself. A funeral is a prime catalyst for all kinds of hard feelings among family members. Emotions are dangerously close to the surface. You might be exhausted from sleepless nights at the hospital, too. It won’t take much for even the closest of relatives to say things that may be hurtful. To help prevent a rift that might take years to heal, cut your family some slack. Don’t be afraid to just say, “Thanks for your input.” And try to get enough sleep.
There is no grief like the grief you feel when someone you love dies. But I can promise you this: You will get through it. Not over it, but through it. Lean on your friends. Lean on your faith. When someone offers help, take it. And look after yourself.
This article is meant to provide general information only. Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada does not provide legal, accounting, taxation, or other professional advice. Please seek advice from a qualified professional, including a thorough examination of your specific legal, accounting and tax situation.