Wedding Planners Are Common. Where Are All the Funeral Planners?

Q. My daughter is getting married in the fall, but she isn’t much of a planner and would much rather just attend her big day and have it all planned for her. I am the same way, and to be honest, the details stress me out. To our relief, my mother, who loves to plan in advance and has exquisite taste, is working with the wedding planner on the minutest of details. They spend hours discussing everything from the flowers to the food to the favors, and my mom is loving every minute of it! The wedding is nonreligious, and the venue is outdoors overlooking a river, so we are hoping for a pretty day!

After a meeting with the wedding planner last night, my mother made a comment to me that made me think a bit. She asked if there is such a thing as a funeral planner, similar to a wedding planner, who can help preplan all of the details of your funeral in advance. Being as particular and detail-oriented as she is, my mother said she would “hire one in a heartbeat” if there was such a thing. Unfortunately, my research came up with nothing when I looked up “funeral planner.” Have you ever heard of such a thing? Thanks for your help!

A. Congratulations to your daughter on her upcoming nuptials! I recently had the exact same thought as I reflected back on the relatively recent weddings of my son and daughter. There is typically no storybook wedding without months of planning and work ahead of the big day — either done by the family or with the help of a professional wedding planner. Luckily you have your detail-oriented mother and the wedding planner to help out!

If you can’t have a memorable wedding without all of the planning, why do families have to spend so much time and energy planning a memorial service at the worst possible time, when they should be taking it easy and letting themselves grieve? Why isn’t there an entire industry of funeral planners to help the grieving family plan every aspect of a memorial service? Or if there are such funeral planners, why are they so hard to find? I set out on a quest to find out if funeral planning is a profession and, if so, how to find these professionals. Here are my findings … but first let’s look at similar fields that are not quite what I’m talking about. 

I’m Not Talking About Preplanning Your Funeral 

Most people recognize the importance of planning a funeral in advance, but most people don’t do it, leaving it to their families to plan and make all the appropriate arrangements. A recent survey by the National Funeral Directors Association found that more than 62 percent of people feel it’s important to plan what they would want for their funeral but less than 22 percent actually do it! I am a strong believer in preplanning your funeral, and it’s something we help our clients with, and encourage them to do. We help our clients preplan their funeral and memorial service with the After-Death Directive™ portion of our 4 Needs Advance Medical Directive®, and we are able to sell an irrevocable life insurance policy that can be used to pre-pay for your funeral, and it is of course an exempt asset for Medicaid planning purposes. 

When you do your own funeral preplanning, you are in control. You can decide what kind of celebration you want (if any), how much you want to spend, who you want to attend (and perhaps who you don’t want to attend), what type of music you want, what types of readings you want, who you want speaking at your service, where you want to be buried or where you want to have your ashes scattered, and so much more. 

I’m Not Talking About DIY Funeral Preplanning Websites  

There are some helpful do-it-yourself funeral preplanning websites, such as Funeralwise Wise Planning System and Everloved.  

But, these still involve preplanning, something that most people simply don’t do! 

If you are thinking about planning your funeral in advance, VeryWell Health has a helpful guide to get you thinking about the details! Today’s Critter Corner also offers some helpful tips and insights. Of course, you need to be sure to include all of the plans in your estate planning documents, which means getting your estate planning done — we can of course help you there! 

If I Preplan My Funeral, Do I Have to Prepay for It?  

Prepaying for a funeral has many benefits, including sometimes locking in prices, relieving some of the burden of family members during a time of grief and emotional stress, and helping to ensure that your personal wishes are carried out. 

But the reality is that most people don’t prepay for their funerals and do not have to prepay for your funeral in order to plan your funeral. This, again, is where the After-Death Directive™ portion of our 4 Needs Advance Medical Directive® comes into play.  

I’m Not Talking About Funeral Directors 

Yes there is an entire profession of funeral directors/morticians who work for funeral homes, and these people are licensed by the state. The funeral director curriculum teaches funeral directors to provide compassionate care for families and individuals after the loss of a loved one. But the program also focuses on the business skills required to manage or assist in the daily operations of a funeral home. And one of the main focuses of a funeral director is on being a mortician — funeral directors go to school to study how to embalm bodies, position bodies, and apply makeup to corpses. There is a national accreditation offered by the American Board of Funeral Service Education. As a part of this academic program, students typically also become certified crematory operators through the Cremation Association of North America (CANA). But these professional funeral directors almost always work for funeral homes, and part of their job is to sell their services, including using the funeral home to host the memorial service, provide service vehicles, provide flowers, etc. Here’s a great story about what it’s like to be a funeral director, and what funeral directors do.  

But what if the family does not want to use a funeral director? Let’s face it … some people are simply creeped out by funeral homes and funeral directors (I’m not, and I have amazing friends and clients who are wonderful funeral directors and wonderful human beings — kind and caring professionals — but I know the reality that some people are simply creeped out by this entire industry and would rather never deal with it). What if the family wants to have a simple cremation and then days, weeks, or months later, have a nice memorial service? Who’s going to plan it? This is where the services of a funeral planner (not a funeral director) are needed. A funeral planner would come in to help a grieving family, after the death of a loved one, plan an appropriate memorial service when their loved one did not preplan. However, funeral planners can certainly also help an individual preplan their own funeral!      

Not Talking About Thanatologists 

Yeah — I’d never heard of this either until reading the above story about what it’s like to be a funeral director. There’s a master’s degree in something called thanatology, which is the study of death from multiple perspectives. Apparently thanatology programs are a big thing in Wisconsin, because the two main master’s degree programs that advertise are both based out of Wisconsin — Marian University and Edgewood College. According to these college websites, thanatology is the study of dying, death, loss, and grief, and is both an academic and applied discipline. Thanatologists work in churches, funeral homes, hospices, hospitals, and nonprofit organizations. Sadly for my research, nowhere did I see that thanatologists work as funeral planners!  

I’m Not Talking About Funeral Celebrants 

Most funeral celebrants are members of the clergy, but there are professional funeral celebrants who are not religiously affiliated. One example of a funeral celebrant is Pamela McDonald, a registered nurse from Scotland who now resides in Australia. Pamela was a nurse for over 40 years, specializing in elder care and palliative care. Her career as an RN equipped her with an understanding of the emotional, physical, cultural, and spiritual needs of the patients and their families. Pamela is still a practicing nurse to this day, but in addition to her nursing career, she ventured into the field of funeral celebrancy over eight years ago and completed training to become a funeral celebrant (she also does weddings, but that’s another story; you need to be licensed to be a wedding celebrant, but no license is needed to preside at a memorial service). Being a funeral celebrant simply means that she is the one that stands up and conducts the memorial service (instead of a member of the clergy), which has nothing to do with planning the service, but in her case she also helps plan the memorial service. So I suppose she could be called a funeral planner, though planning a funeral and being the celebrant have nothing necessarily to do with each other.  

According to Pamela, “(d)rawing from my experience as a Registered Nurse and Funeral Celebrant, I possess valuable insights into the importance of planning and having conversations about end-of-life wishes in advance. By sharing this knowledge, I aim to encourage individuals to engage in these discussions, breaking the taboo surrounding the topic and emphasizing the significance of preparing for their final farewell.” 

Pamela’s process involves one-on-one consultations with individuals to discuss their funeral preferences, ensuring their wishes are understood. She then creates a customized funeral or memorial service that reflects their unique life and values. This includes selecting readings, music, rituals, religious inclusions, and any other elements they would want to be incorporated. Pamela also offers compassionate support to clients and their families, providing guidance, understanding, and reassurance during the decision-making process.  

Simon Booker is also a celebrant who was recently written about in The Guardian. His process is similar to Pamela’s, but he was trained and accredited by Humanists UK. Humanist ceremonies are nonreligious and generally non-spiritual; you can read more about them here. Although I don’t know him, Nick is a humanist celebrant in the Washington, DC, area.  

Do Funeral Planners Exist in the United States? 

If they do, I can’t find them. If you are reading this and the thought of being a funeral planner appeals to you, I suggest you create a website and start advertising, because there is clearly a need for this type of profession! Funeral planners should operate just like wedding planners and other types of event planners. They should work with your family, after your death, to design a meaningful memorial service that meets your goals and objectives.  

Conveying Your Wishes in Your End-of-Life Documents 

If you preplan the kind of memorial service 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. 

As already mentioned, here at the Farr Law Firm, we offer our proprietary After-Death Directive™ and 4 Needs Advance Medical Directive® which 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 or any of your loved ones have not done Incapacity Planning, Long-Term Care Planning, or Estate Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past several years), now is a good time to plan and get prepared!  

And if you want to become a funeral planner, we can help you form an LLC and prepare your operating agreement and help set up your business. Maybe you can be the start of a whole new profession! Or if you know of anyone who actually is already in this profession, please let us know so we can list them as a resource on our website! 

Northern Virginia Elder Law Attorney: 703-691-1888             
Fredericksburg, VA Elder Law Attorney: 540-479-1435             
Rockville, MD Elder Law Attorney: 301-519-8041             
Annapolis, MD Elder Law Attorney: 410-216-0703   

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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.