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What if I Don’t Want a Funeral?

Q. When a family friend died last year, his family made it clear there wouldn’t be a traditional funeral service for him. At first I thought this was because of the pandemic, but now I’m not so sure. Instead, they held a celebration of his life on his next birthday, almost a year after his passing. This allowed out-of-towners plenty of time to make travel arrangements and book hotel rooms. The amount of time from the immediate grieving period to the event made it much easier to truly revel in what an incredible life he’d led — complete with a slideshow and trays of his favorite desserts.

Another friend had his ashes replanted as a tree, and my cousin had his ashes scattered in his favorite body of water, where he proposed to his wife on a cruise 50 years ago.

My wife and I thought that we wanted traditional funerals until we saw how nice these options are. Now, we are rethinking things. My parents are easygoing with whatever I want, but hers are religious and were already considering purchasing plots for us. We have not discussed this with our teenage children either. Is it common not to want a funeral, and how do we tell our families without hurting feelings?

A. You are not alone in possibly wanting to forgo a funeral. Certainly the pandemic caused many funeral services and other large gatherings to be postponed for long periods of time. However, as service costs rise, and as families and friends are increasingly spread out geographically, many people are choosing to skip the traditional funeral in favor of a memorial service at a later date or in some cases, no service at all.

When David Bowie died in January 2016, fans flocked to his New York apartment building and others sent tributes from all over the world. But, in accordance with his wishes, there was no official funeral for David Bowie. He was cremated days after his death, having left strict instructions to keep it as simple as possible.

More and more people are choosing not to have traditional funeral services. Whether it’s to avoid the high cost of caskets and body preparation, to bypass certain religious ideologies and traditions, or for other reasons, it’s completely reasonable to not want a funeral.

What About Those Who Are Left Behind?

Ultimately, having a funeral is a personal decision. It can be a meaningful event for the living, and important to the deceased, but there’s no rule that says you must have one.

If someone doesn’t want to have a funeral or memorial service, they should still take into account the feelings and grief of those left behind, and talk about it ahead of time. Talking with your family members about what you want to happen after your death can be a difficult subject to broach, but it will relieve an enormous amount of stress in the end. For more details on end-of-life conversations with family members, please read some of my other articles on the subject.

Alternative Arrangements After Death

In these modern times, more and more individuals and families are opting for alternative arrangements after death. One example is cremation. Where burial was once more common, cremation is now the more popular choice. In fact, by 2030, forecasters believe the cremation rate will be 70 percent. There are many options for what you can do with cremains, from keeping them in a personalized urn to turning them into a cremation diamond.

You might go with one of these popular funeral alternatives:

  • Scattering ashes: If you choose cremation over burial, you can ask your family and friends to simply say a few words while they scatter your ashes. Be sure to think carefully about where you want them to scatter your remains and observe local laws. If you’re a lover of the water, you can request that family and friends scatter your ashes at sunset as they stand by the ocean, by a river, by a lake — or by whatever body of water that is most meaningful to you. Perhaps you would like for them to scatter your ashes while taking a family cruise or charter a small boat to watch a peaceful sunset or paddle out themselves in a caravan of canoes and kayaks.
  • Celebration of life: Even though the word “funeral” is still used in common parlance, for decades most funerals have been called “memorial services” and described as “celebrations of life,” even when the timing and traditions followed looked exactly like the traditional funeral service. If you picture a more intimate experience than that offered by a funeral home or something more like a party a year later as your family friend did, you could request a more modern celebration of life, which may not resemble a traditional funeral service at all. This type of service may require more or less involvement by your family members and other loved ones, but either way it’s important to discuss desired details with them while you are still alive.
  • Planting a tree: One type of memorial service that has been growing in popularity is the tree-planting ceremony. If you love nature, having a tree planted in your honor could be the perfect way to memorialize your passing. If you choose to be cremated rather than buried, you could also ask for family members to add some of your ashes to a BioUrn or mix it with the dirt used to plant the tree.

There are many more alternatives to traditional funerals, in addition to the few listed above, as I have described in past blog posts. With a little creativity, you can create an alternative to traditional funeral services that matches your personality and the life you have led.

Conveying Your Wishes in Your End-of-Life Documents

If it’s already clear to you that a traditional service isn’t the kind of memorial you want, you should indicate your wishes in your estate planning documents. Remember, it’s no good making a detailed plan of what you want to happen if no one knows about it.

If you leave instructions for loved ones, it’s best to keep things relatively simple and easy to accomplish. Most importantly, make sure your family members are on board and that they have easy access to the end-of-life plans contained in your estate planning documents when they need them.

Here are a few factors to consider and include:

What to do with cremains: If you choose cremation, any of the alternatives described above can obviously have a big effect on what happens with your cremains. Be sure to include your detailed wishes in your estate planning documents. When you do your estate planning and/or incapacity planning documents with our firm, we include our proprietary 4 Needs Advance Medical Directive®, which includes an After-Death Directive™ allowing you to describe in detail your burial and/or cremation wishes.

Notifications: It is also helpful to imagine who you want to attend your memorial service. Ideally, you should make a list of invitees and their contact information, which in this modern age may simply be a list of email addresses. This can help your family members notify the people who are important to you.

Make Your Wishes Known by Getting Your Estate Planning Documents in Order

How would your loved ones know if you haven’t indicated your wishes in your Advance Medical Directive?

The After-Death Directive™ portion of your 4 Needs Advance Medical Directive® enables you to set forth your preferences with regard to burial or cremation, memorial service arrangements, disposition of remains, organ donation, and many other issues that arise after death. In addition, in your 4 Needs Advance Medical Directive®, you can appoint an agent and give that person the power to consent to medical and health care decisions on your behalf. This person can decide whether to withhold or withdraw a specific medical treatment or course of treatment when you are incapable of making or communicating an informed decision yourself. Our 4 Needs Advance Medical Directive® also contains a proprietary Long-Term Care Directive® that allows you to address dozens of important issues that arise if and when long-term care is needed, and you’re unable to communicate your wishes.

If you have not done Incapacity Planning (including our 4 Needs Advance Medical Directive® and Financial Power of Attorney), Estate Planning, or Long-Term Care Planning, or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, please contact us to schedule your appointment for our initial consultation:

Estate Planning Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Estate Planning Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Estate Planning Rockville: 301-519-8041
Estate Planning DC: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.