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Courtney Cook

Folded American flag and white flowers on top of a veterans coffin

Veterans’ Burial Benefits Checklist

By Planning Tools, Veterans No Comments

Did you know that the government provides burial benefits for eligible veterans?

Every year, many veterans miss out on receiving these burial benefits because they don’t know what’s available to them. But with a little advance planning, you can ensure that you and your family receive the burial benefits you are entitled to. To learn what burial benefits you’re eligible for, you can contact your local VA office.

Not sure where to start? Here is a checklist to assist you in planning ahead as a veteran:

To download a PDF version of this checklist, click here.

Locate a copy of your DD Form 214

The veteran’s DD Form 214 or equivalent is required to access burial benefits. This form identifies the classification of discharge. If a veteran has anything less than a general discharge, he or she may not qualify for burial benefits.

To make applying for burial benefits easier, make sure your next of kin knows where you keep your DD Form 214. If the DD Form 214 is misplaced or lost, contact Veteran Affairs or your local Veteran Service Officer to request a replacement form.

Record your wishes about military honors

Man handing a folded American flag to a loved one at a funeral

Normally, your funeral director will contact the honor guard of the veteran’s military branch if military honors are requested. In addition, one burial flag will be presented to the next of kin. Make a note of to whom the flag should be presented and which military honors you wish to receive.

Understand your benefits

While the VA will not pay for cremation or funeral costs in full, they may pay the next of kin a burial allowance. Your eligibility depends on your circumstances and whether you qualify. To make sure funeral costs are covered, you should make arrangements with a funeral home.

What’s covered at a national cemetery

A veteran buried in a national cemetery is eligible to receive, at no cost to the family, an opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, government-furnished headstone or marker, one burial flag, a Presidential Memorial Certificate, and a grave liner.

Also, burial benefits are available for spouses and dependents buried in a national cemetery. These benefits include burial with the veteran, perpetual care, and the spouse or dependent’s name and date of birth and death inscribed on the veteran’s headstone, at no cost to the family. Eligible spouses and dependents may be buried, even if they predecease the veteran.

If you are requesting burial in a national cemetery, contact the National Cemetery Administration to make burial arrangements. The funeral director or person making arrangements will send all discharge documentation to the National Cemetery Scheduling Office. For more information, visit the National Cemetery Administration website. Burials at Arlington National Cemetery are reserved for military retirees, Medal of Honor recipients, or service members who die on active duty.

What’s covered at a state cemetery

Burial benefits may also be available at your local state cemetery, including opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, grave liner, and the setting of the government-furnished headstone or marker. In addition, an eligible veteran buried in a state cemetery is still entitled to receive a government headstone or marker, one burial flag, and a Presidential Memorial Certificate, at no cost to the family.

red roses on top of an American flag

Check with your funeral director for more information about burial benefits that may be available for eligible dependents. Additionally, your funeral director can inform you about any fees associated with burial.

What’s covered at a private cemetery

Veterans buried in a private cemetery may be eligible to receive a government-furnished headstone, a marker or medallion, one burial flag, and a Presidential Memorial Certificate, at no cost to the family. Spouses and dependents buried in a private cemetery are not eligible for any VA benefits. To determine eligibility, contact your local Veteran Service Officer.

Remember that certain conditions affect burial allowance eligibility

Folded American flag and white flowers on top of a veterans coffin

For eligible veterans, the VA provides burial allowances to help offset an eligible veteran’s burial or cremation and funeral costs. However, these burial allowances typically do not cover the full cost. To receive a burial allowance, you must meet at least one of the following conditions:

  • The veteran dies due to a service-connected disability.
  • The veteran is receiving a VA pension.
  • The veteran was entitled to receive a VA pension or compensation but decided not to reduce his/her military retirement or disability pay.
  • The veteran dies while in a VA or contracted VA hospital or under VA care.
  • The veteran dies while traveling under proper authorization and at VA expense to and from a specified place for treatment or examination.
  • The veteran had an original or reopened claim pending at the time of death, and it has been determined he/she is eligible for compensation or pension from a date before their death.
  • The veteran died on or after October 9, 1996, while a patient at a VA-approved state nursing home.

Contact your VA office to determine if you are eligible for a burial allowance.

Still have questions? Check out our Veterans’ Burial Benefits FAQ for more information.

man holding a black and white cat

Can Animals Help You Grieve?

By Grief/Loss, Pets

Grieving the loss of a loved one looks different for everyone. Each person has their own unique needs and ways of coping with a loss. But did you know that interacting with animals can actually help you grieve? Whether you feel overwhelmed by stress, struggle to keep a routine going, or have a child who won’t talk about their feelings, animals can help you and your family as you move along your grief journey. Here are 5 ways that animals can provide support and care to those who are grieving.

Boost Mental Health

man holding a black and white cat

Did you know that just being around animals can improve your mental health? For most people, just being in the presence of an animal can help boost positive hormones like dopamine and decrease stress-related hormones. Interacting with animals can also reduce anxiety and help those with depression.

Even more importantly, animals provide companionship – an important need after losing a loved one. Many people struggle with loneliness after someone they love dies, but a pet can combat loneliness through their presence.

Provide Physical Benefits

woman walking her dog in a park

Animals can also provide physical benefits to those who are grieving. Pets, especially dogs, need exercise, which helps their owners stay active. Exercising is known to help with depression and sadness, which are common during times of grief.

Plus, having a pet can encourage you to take care of yourself. No matter what type of pet you have, your animal friend relies on you to feed and care for them, which can motivate you to get moving when you don’t feel like it. Even more importantly, having a pet can encourage you to take better care of yourself – whether that’s through exercise, diet, or choosing to do things you love.

Create Routines

man with iguana on his shoulder

After losing someone you love, you may feel like your world has been turned upside down. That feeling can make everyday life a struggle, but sticking to a routine can give you a sense of normalcy when everything else feels chaotic.

Animals need to be fed and cared for on a regular basis, which can help you create a structured routine. The motivation to care for a pet that’s relying on you can encourage you to keep moving and stick to your daily routine. Whether you’re feeding your pet iguana, playing with your pet rabbit, or taking your dog for a walk, a routine can help you find your new normal at a time when your world might feel hectic and stressful.

Give Social Support

guinea pig standing in grass

Social support is important after the death of someone you love. But did you know that animals can provide social support, too? Animals are great to talk to, and most pet owners have built relationships with their pets. This relationship can reduce loneliness, especially for those struggling with grief.

In fact, one study about social support found that people who had pets or interacted with animals were more likely to feel supported in their grief. Because most animals are very loving and enjoy attention, they provide an unconditional, endless source of companionship for grieving people.

Help Children Process Grief

young girl hugging a cat

Coping with grief can be a struggle for children. Their brains are still developing and learning to navigate the world and their emotions. The death of someone they love can bring on emotions they are unprepared to handle. While they struggle to understand their feelings, they must also learn how to process their grief and the sudden absence of someone they knew well.

Spending time with an animal can comfort a child. But many children also love talking to animals, which can help them learn how to talk about their emotions. Many children may not feel comfortable sharing their feelings with an adult, or they may not know how to describe their emotions. Talking to an animal provides a low-pressure way for children to explore their feelings and begin to process their grief.

Different Kinds of Support Animals

Animals can support people who are grieving in different ways, depending on their level of training! Here are the different ways animals can help.

As a pet

An animal doesn’t need to be certified or specially trained to help with grief! Any pet can provide emotional support to its owner. Even pet fish can help your mental health!

As a therapy animal

brown dog with therapy dog vest

Therapy animals are typically pets that help support large groups of people. For example, dogs or other animals that visit hospital patients are therapy animals. So are grief therapy dogs that some funeral homes have. Therapy animals don’t always need to be trained or certified, but they must be well-behaved and may need to undergo obedience training.

As an emotional support animal

Just like therapy animals, emotional support animals (ESAs) don’t need to be trained or certified. But instead of helping a group of people, ESAs help a particular person with a mental or psychological disability. To obtain an ESA, a person must receive a prescription letter from a licensed mental health professional who determines that an animal would benefit them. ESAs are not service animals since they only provide mental health support and aren’t trained to perform a particular task.

As a certified service animal

A service animal is trained to perform a specific task for someone with a specific disability. For example, a seeing-eye dog is trained to guide someone who is blind or visually impaired, so it would be a service animal. Service animals must be specially trained and certified to assist someone with a disability.

While everyone has different needs, interacting with animals can greatly benefit you while you’re grieving. Whether you spend time with your own pet, interact with a therapy animal, or apply for an emotional support or service animal, consider spending time with an animal as you continue your grief journey.

1950s jukebox

11 Songs from the 1950s for a Celebration of Life

By Meaningful Funerals, Music

1950s jukebox

Did you know that you can use your loved one’s favorite music to personalize their funeral? Music plays an important role in a funeral by helping mourners express emotions they may not be able to put into words. Personalized songs and music that was special to your loved one can help create a healing and meaningful funeral for your family and friends. Many people have a deep connection with the music they grew up with, which makes songs from their childhood a great choice for their memorial service. If your loved one grew up in the 1950s or just enjoyed the swinging, melodic sounds of the decade, here are a few songs that you could play at their funeral or celebration of life.

Beyond the Sea (Bobby Darin, 1959)

Somewhere beyond the sea
Somewhere waiting for me
My lover stands on golden sands
And watches the ships that go sailin’

While “Beyond the Sea” was first written in the 1940s, the song was popularized by Bobby Darin in 1959. This classic song beautifully captures the longing for a loved one and the hope for a meeting in the future. Plus, if your loved one was part of the Navy or loved sailing and the ocean, including this song at their celebration of life would be a wonderful personal touch.

They Can’t Take That Away from Me (Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, 1956)

The way you wear your hat
The way you sip your tea
The memory of all that
No, no, they can’t take that away from me

Originally written in 1937, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” is even more beautiful when sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong in this 1956 version of the song. When we lose a loved one, our relationship with them changes to one of memory. This song perfectly highlights how our loved ones live on in our memories and encourages us to cherish the small moments we shared with our loved ones.

Always (Ella Fitzgerald, 1958)

I’ll be loving you always
With a love that’s true alwaysWhen the things you’ve plannedNeed a helping handI will understand always

“Always” was originally written in 1926, but Ella Fitzgerald’s 1958 version of the song showcases both her voice and the lyrics beautifully. A song about commitment, loyalty, and neverending love, “Always” would make a wonderful addition to a funeral or celebration of life for a spouse or significant other.

Autumn Leaves (Edith Piaf, 1951)

Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall

An elegant song full of passion, “Autumn Leaves (Les Feuilles Mortes)” was recorded by Edith Piaf in 1951. With lyrics in English and French, this song speaks of missing and longing for someone you are separated from. “Autumn Leaves” would make a lovely funeral song for a significant other.

Love Me Tender (Elvis Presley, 1956)

Love me tender
Love me true
All my dreams fulfilled
For my darlin’ I love you
And I always will

Elvis Presley is one of the most well-known singers of all time, and “Love Me Tender” is one of his most iconic songs. The passionate lyrics speak of unending love and gratitude for the impact a loved one made on your life. This song could work well either as part of a service or as background music for a slideshow of photos of your loved one.

Thinking of You (Fats Domino, 1953)

Yes, I want you to know
That I need you so
You’re on my mind
Everywhere I go

Recorded by Fats Domino in 1953, “Thinking of You” speaks about the memories that linger when we lose someone we love. When a loved one dies, anything can remind us of them. This song showcases the way we see our lost loved ones all around us, making it a great choice for a funeral or memorial service.

Unforgettable (Nat King Cole, 1952)

Unforgettable
That’s what you are
Unforgettable
Though near or far

A slow, thoughtful song, “Unforgettable” was recorded by Nat King Cole in 1952. The people we love make an impact on our lives that we cannot forget, and these beautiful lyrics highlight how our loved ones leave their mark on our lives. The perfect song to honor any loved one, “Unforgettable” would be an excellent choice for a memorial service or celebration of life.

Raining in My Heart (Buddy Holly, 1959)

I tell my blues they mustn’t show
But soon these tears are bound to flow
‘Cause it’s raining, raining in my heart

Released just after Buddy Holly’s death in 1959, “Raining in My Heart” was originally recorded in October 1958. While the music is more cheerful than some songs on this list, the lyrics speak about the deep sadness we feel when we lose a loved one. A sweet reminder that it’s okay to be sad, “Raining in My Heart” could make a unique addition to a funeral or celebration of life.

Because of You (Tony Bennett, 1951)

Because of you
My life is now worthwhile
And I can smile
Because of you

Originally written in 1940, “Because of You” became Tony Bennett’s first big hit in 1951. The peaceful lyrics highlight the joy, love, and happiness that our loved ones bring to our lives, making this song perfect for honoring someone who positively impacted your life. “Because of You” would work especially well in a celebration of life or a slideshow.

Just a Closer Walk With Thee (Patsy Cline, 1959)

When my feeble life is o’er
Time for me will be no more
Guide me gently, safely o’er
To Thy kingdom’s shore

While the origins of the original hymn are unclear, Patsy Cline’s version of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” was released in 1959. This traditional song speaks about growing stronger in faith and closer to Jesus daily. For a loved one who was devoted to their faith, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” could pay homage to their strong faith and dedication to God.

Peace in the Valley (Red Foley, 1951)

There’ll be no sadness
No sorrow
No trouble, I’ll see
There will be peace in the valley for me

Another traditional Christian song, “Peace in the Valley” was originally written in 1939 under the full title “There’ll Be Peace in the Valley for Me.” While the song has been sung by many singers, including Elvis Presley, this version was recorded by Red Foley in 1951. A song about hope, Heaven, and peace after death, “Peace in the Valley” would be an excellent song to include in a religious funeral or celebration of life.

Songs from other decades

Other musical options for a meaningful funeral

10 Songs from the 1940s for a Celebration of Life

By Meaningful Funerals, Music

Music plays a vital role in a funeral service or celebration of life. Songs played at a funeral can set the tone for the service, open us up to feelings we’ve been avoiding, and express emotions we can’t put into words. For this reason, renowned grief expert Dr. Alan Wolfelt says that music is one of the most important elements of a funeral.

When choosing music to play at the service, it’s important to pick songs that will be meaningful to your family and friends. Of course, if you know your loved one’s favorite songs, you can incorporate those into the funeral. But if your loved one grew up in the 1940s – or just loved the beautiful sounds of 1940s music – here are ten songs you could use to honor their memory.

I’ll Be Seeing You (Billie Holiday, 1944)

I’ll be seeing you
In all the old familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces
All day through

A classic song about missing someone you love, this version of “I’ll Be Seeing You” was recorded by Billie Holiday in 1944. Both the lyrics of this 1940s song and Billie’s beautiful voice capture the feeling of seeing your lost loved one all around you. Whether you use this song in your loved one’s celebration of life or not, listening to it can provide comfort by reminding you that your loved one lives on in your memory.

Fun fact: “I’ll Be Seeing You” was played for the Opportunity rover on Mars after it finished its final mission!

We’ll Meet Again (Vera Lynn, 1939)

We’ll meet again
Don’t know where
Don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day

While “We’ll Meet Again” was originally released in 1939, it became enormously popular in the 1940s, especially during World War II. At a time when many families lost their fathers, brothers, husbands, or sons to the war, they found comfort and hope in this beautiful song. As you and your family mourn the loss of your loved one, playing this song during the funeral or celebration of life can bring your family and friends hope for the future.

Only Forever (Bing Crosby, 1940)

Do you think I’ll remember
How you looked when you smile?
Only forever
That’s puttin’ it mild

Recorded by Bing Crosby in 1940, “Only Forever” spent 20 weeks on the Billboard charts and 9 weeks in the #1 spot. This popular song speaks of love, loyalty, and remembering a loved one forever, which makes it a wonderful choice for honoring your significant other, a parent, or a close friend. This song would also make a great background song for a slideshow of photos honoring your loved one.

Moonlight Serenade (Glenn Miller, 1939)

Released in 1939, “Moonlight Serenade” was one of the most popular songs of the 1940s. While Glenn Miller’s original tune has no words, the music is smooth, peaceful, and full of emotion. This classic swing tune evokes pleasant memories of days gone by and hope for the future, making it perfect for a funeral or memorial service.

A Sentimental Journey (Doris Day, 1944)

Gonna set my heart at eas
Gonna make a sentimental journey
To renew old memories

Performed by Les Brown and His Band of Renown, “A Sentimental Journey” was sung by Doris Day and released in 1944. Whether you’re looking for a song to play at a celebration of life or just to listen to while thinking of your loved one, this lovely tune encourages reminiscing and cherishing the memories of days gone by. It would also be a wonderful song to use for a slideshow at a memorial service.

When the Saints Go Marching In (Louis Armstrong, 1938)

Now when the saints go marching in
Yes, I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in

While the exact origins of “When the Saints Go Marching In” are unclear, the gospel song likely developed from a combination of similar songs. There are many versions of the song, but in 1938, Louis Armstrong transformed the song into the jazzy version modern listeners are most familiar with. While this song is more upbeat, it can be a lovely, personal addition to a funeral or memorial service for someone who was passionate about their faith.

Over the Rainbow (Judy Garland, 1939)

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true

“Over the Rainbow” is an instantly recognizable tune for any fan of The Wizard of Oz. Judy Garland captured audiences’ imaginations as Dorothy Gale in 1939, and her signature song took on a life of its own – in the 1940s and beyond. Filled with dreams and hope for the future, “Over the Rainbow” would be a lovely song to play at a celebration of life, especially for someone who loved The Wizard of Oz.

Till the End of Time (Perry Como, 1945)

Till the end of time
Long as stars are in the blue
Long as there’s a spring, a bird to sing
I’ll go on loving you

While several artists recorded their own versions of “Till the End of Time,” Perry Como’s version of the song was the most popular by far, staying at #1 on the Billboard charts for ten consecutive weeks. With lyrics about everlasting and unconditional love, this song would make a touching addition to a funeral or celebration of life for a lost spouse or significant other.

Ave Maria (Frank Sinatra, 1944)

“Ave Maria” was originally composed by Franz Schubert as “Ellens dritter Gesang” (“Ellen’s Third Song”) in 1825. Soon after it was released, the song became popular in the Catholic church and gained religious significance. Frank Sinatra’s version of the song was recorded in 1944, and his beautiful voice pairs wonderfully with the song. If your loved one was religious, you could incorporate this lovely song in the funeral or memorial service.

Lavender Coffin (Lionel Hampton, 1949)

Saint Peter
I’m a-comin’
Saint Peter
Yes, I’m a-comin’ today

One of the more upbeat songs on this list, “Lavender Coffin” was recorded by Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra in 1949. This swing song provides a different perspective on death and a hopeful outlook on life, Heaven, and the future. While this song is more cheerful in tone than some of the other songs, it could be a passionate addition to a celebration of life or a homegoing.

Songs from other decades

Other musical options for a meaningful funeral

mother comforting her teen daughter

How to Help a Teenager Navigate Suicide Loss

By Grief/Loss, Loss from Suicide

Losing a loved one is hard, and losing someone to suicide can be even more challenging. Suicide is often stigmatized by society, and mourners must wrestle with questions they’ll likely never know the answer to. These questions can be especially difficult for teenagers, who are already in the process of defining their own identities and understanding of the world.

Unfortunately, suicide is becoming more and more common. In 2021, almost 50,000 people died from suicide, and 1.7 million adults attempted suicide. Teenagers are especially susceptible to suicide – about 1 out of every 10 high school students has attempted suicide and around 20% of high school students have contemplated suicide. The problem continues to grow, which is why it’s so important to support your teen when they lose someone – whether a family member, a friend, or a classmate – to suicide.

Losing someone they love to suicide can shake a teenager’s beliefs and leave them confused and torn. They may act out, withdraw from you or their friends, or become depressed. Going to the funeral of the person who died can be a great place to start, but your teen needs care and support throughout the days, months, and even years to come. You may not know how to help them, especially if you are also grieving, so here are five tips for how you can support your teenager during this difficult time.

Create a safe space

mother comforting her teen daughter

The suicide of a loved one can cause mourners to feel many different emotions – sadness, guilt, anger, fear, or even relief if the person was suffering. Both you and your teenager need to know that there is no right way to feel when grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide. Let your teenager know they can talk to you about their emotions without fear of judgment.

A great way to help your teenager feel comfortable exploring their grief with you is by asking them how you can support them. Don’t assume that your teenager needs the same things you do. Your teenager may already know how you can support them while they’re grieving but may not know how to ask for it. Maybe they want to sit and talk, read and discuss a book about grief, or go out and enjoy an activity with you to take their mind off their grief. By asking them how you can help them – and then following through – you can open doors of communication and create a safe space for them to ask questions, explore their grief, and cope in a healthy way.

As you talk with your teenager, don’t avoid the topic of suicide. Suicide carries a lot of stigma, and talking about suicide openly and gently will help your teenager feel safe enough to ask you the questions that are likely already on their mind. However, do avoid talking about graphic details of the suicide or placing blame on anyone for the suicide; instead, focus on positive conversations with your teenager about how you can support each other now.

Listen

mother listening to her daughter

When your teenager does open up to you, stop and listen. Your first instinct may be to offer suggestions, fix problems, or offer encouragement, but you must first take time to listen and understand your teenager. Listen without judgment, asking questions when appropriate. Your teenager may struggle with feelings you disagree with – like blaming themselves for their loved one’s death or questioning their beliefs – but they don’t need a lecture. Instead, they need you to listen, understand, and empathize with them.

Some teenagers may withdraw or avoid the topic of death, grief, or suicide completely. You can listen to them by respecting their wishes while leaving the door for conversation open. You could ask them questions gently, check in with them, and be available when they’re ready to open up. Many teenagers want to grieve with their friends, especially if the person who died was one of their peers. You may feel left out, but as long as your teenager gets support from somewhere, respecting their choice is a good idea.

Keep your routine – but be flexible

calendar and routine

The suicide of a loved one can shake mourners to their core. Even if your teenager didn’t know the person who died by suicide very well, their world might feel like it’s crumbling around them. Sticking to their usual routine can help them find a sense of normalcy during a time of upheaval. In addition, it may be easier for teens to practice self-care when sticking to their usual routine.

But even as you try to keep your routine going, allow for flexibility. Some days, your teenager may not feel up to going to basketball practice or choir rehearsal. They may need to take a mental health day off from school or extracurricular activities. Alternatively, your teenager may want to completely change their routine – and that’s okay, too. Listen to their needs and help them develop a routine that will fit their needs as they begin their grief journey.

Include them

parents comforting teenage son

Teenagers are still exploring what grieving a loss looks like, and by including them in your own grieving process, you can show them what healthy grieving looks like. You may be tempted to bottle up your emotions and stay strong for them, but don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Your teenager will likely appreciate your openness about your emotions and feel safer expressing their own.

You can also involve your teenager by letting them come up with ideas for honoring the memory of the person who died. For example, if your teen likes to paint, draw, or write, they may want to make something special to be displayed or read at the funeral. If your teen was on a team or in a club with the person who died, they could host a special meeting for everyone to share stories and grieve together. If your teenager is interested, allow them to come up with an idea to remember the person who died and help them make it a reality.

Seek outside support

counselor helping a teenage boy

Grief, especially from suicide loss, can be difficult for teens to navigate on their own. Plus, the suicide of a fellow teenager can lead to copycat suicides. While these aren’t extremely common, suicides of close friends, deaths of people the teen identifies with, or suicides that get a lot of media attention can lead to clusters of similar suicides. If you notice that your teen is struggling with depression, suicidal thoughts, or other risk factors, you may want to consider helping your teen sign up for professional support. Even if your teenager doesn’t seem to be at risk and just needs extra support, you can talk to them about the possibility of meeting with a grief support therapist.

You can also explore grief support groups in your area. Grief support groups can help your teen feel less alone since they will hear about others’ experiences. However, if your teen begins attending a grief support group, check with them about their experience. Grief support groups are all different, and instead of being comforted, your teenager may feel overwhelmed by hearing everyone’s stories.

During this difficult time, it’s important for your teen to know you are there to support them. As you grieve together, help them feel safe and comfortable asking questions. Their grief and reaction to the suicide may look different than yours, and that’s okay. Accept their feelings without judgment and let them know you’re there to walk alongside them and support them, no matter what.

scrapbook on a table with scissors

How to Create a Funeral Wishes Box

By Plan Ahead

A personalized funeral can be a very healing and meaningful experience for loved ones. But how can you ensure that they have that one-of-a-kind experience? The answer is by doing a little bit of planning and preparation in advance. Personal touches such as photos, family heirlooms, mementos, readings, and music can all come together to help your family and friends celebrate the life you lived together and the legacy you leave behind.

One way you can help your loved ones is by collecting these items and ideas in one place, like a memory box. This box can be specifically designed to help your loved ones plan a healing and personal funeral experience! While you can put anything in your funeral wishes box that’s meaningful to you, here are a few ideas to help you get started.

Photos and Videostwo family photos on a shelf

Photos and videos can be used to personalize a funeral service in many ways, like in slideshows or on memory boards. But it can be hard for families to know which photos to use. Many people have hundreds of photos from their lifetime, especially now that smartphones are everywhere. Sorting through these photos to find ones to share at the funeral can be an overwhelming task for loved ones when they are grieving. Plus, your loved ones might not know which photos are most significant to you. By selecting the photos ahead of time, you take away the guesswork and make things simpler for your family.

If you have physical photos you want displayed, you can set those aside in your box. You can also add a note identifying other people in the photo by writing on the back of the photos or adding a sticky note to the back. You can do the same with any videos on VHS or DVD. For digital photos or videos, you can copy them on a USB drive to add to your funeral wishes box or put them in a specific folder on your computer. If you leave the photos on your computer, make sure to leave instructions for finding them and logging into your computer in your box, which is something you should do for all of your digital assets.

Scrapbooksscrapbook on a table with scissors

Scrapbooks can make a wonderful addition to a funeral. Not only are they beautiful and personal, but they also share memories that you hold dear. If you’ve made scrapbooks in the past, including those in your funeral wishes box can provide a way for your family to highlight special moments in your life. But even if you don’t have a scrapbook already made, you can create one! If you have small items or keepsakes you want to treasure, you don’t have to make a whole scrapbook – you can just make a page or two. You could also use scrapbook pages to leave notes about specific photos or share the story behind a specific item, like a ticket stub, a pressed flower, or event programs.

Meaningful Mementos

items from hobbies, violin, frame, paint brushes, mask, camera, feather pen

Another great way to personalize a service is by incorporating items that are meaningful to you. These could be family heirlooms, like your favorite piece of jewelry, your antique pocket watch, or a quilt your great-grandmother made. You could also set aside souvenirs from trips you took or events you attended.

Other mementos you might want to include are items from your hobbies. What do you love doing? Think about ways you can incorporate your passions and interests. For example, if you like to make things, you could pick out a scarf you made or a chair you built. If you play a sport, you could set aside an old jersey or uniform to be displayed. If you want an item displayed that you’re still using, you can include a note in your box that mentions where the item is typically stored.

Favorite Songs

stack of records on a wooden table

Music plays a significant role in a funeral, setting the mood and tone for the entire service. Music expresses feelings and words that we may not be able to say ourselves and gives us an outlet to release and experience our emotions. Contrary to popular belief, the music at a funeral service doesn’t have to be sad songs or hymns. A favorite song you love to listen to, sing along with, or dance to can still emotionally impact your loved ones.

If you own digital versions of the songs you want to include in your box, you may be able to burn them onto a CD or upload them to a USB drive. You could also create a playlist on your favorite music service and include instructions about finding the songs in your funeral wishes box. Another option is to create a printed or handwritten list of your chosen songs.

Passages for Readings

open book in a library next to stacks of books

Readings are also an important part of a funeral service. Readings can honor or celebrate your life, help both readers and listeners grieve, or move mourners into a time of contemplation. The passages read can be anything, like a Bible verse, a poem, an excerpt from a book, or a meaningful quote. Think about written passages that mean a lot to you, changed your life, or reflect the way you try to live. Once you’ve decided on a few quotes, you can write them down, make a note of where they came from and who you’d like to read them, and add them to your box.

What to Do With Your Box

After you create your box, what do you do with it? First, make sure your loved ones know about your box and where to find it. It wouldn’t do much good to put your box together if your family doesn’t know about it when they’re planning the funeral! If you want, you can also share the contents with your loved ones as you put the box together, and if you’ve preplanned with a funeral home, you could even let them know about your box.

Second, continue to add to and update your box. If you start a new hobby or go on a fun trip, you may want to include mementos from those. Maybe you take pictures with a grandchild at their graduation or with your child at their wedding. You can always add more items to your box or remove items that have lost meaning to you.

By putting together your funeral wishes box, you’ll provide an easier way for your family to personalize your funeral. With all of the items prepared, your loved ones can display your photos and scrapbooks, create a slideshow with your favorite photos, videos, and songs, read the passages you selected, and decorate the location with mementos from your hobbies and interests. These personal touches will make the service even more meaningful for your loved ones and help them begin their grief journey on the right foot.

6 Items You Shouldn’t Include in Your Will

By Estate Planning

No matter what age you are, creating a will is a great way to prepare for the future. A legal will is a document that lays out your wishes for your estate. Without a will, your family may not know your wishes after your death, and your estate will be distributed according to your state’s probate laws, which may or may not fit with your wishes.

Depending on the size of your estate and your wishes, your will may be simple or very complex. But how do you know what you should and shouldn’t include in your will? Speaking with your attorney is a great way to learn about your state’s regulations, but here are 7 items you should avoid putting in your will.

Time-sensitive wishes

red clock falling through the air

After someone dies, it can take weeks or even months before the will is read. Because it can take a while before the contents of your will are known, you shouldn’t include time-sensitive details in your will, especially about your end-of-life care. For example, medical decisions, like Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders or organ donations, should be on file with your physician or included in a healthcare power of attorney, not your will.

You should also avoid including your wishes for funeral arrangements in your will. Most funerals typically happen within a week of the death. By the time your will is read, your funeral will likely have already occurred. Instead of discussing your funeral wishes in your will, you can create an advance funeral plan with your local funeral service provider. Let your family know that you have a plan in place with that funeral home. Your funeral service provider will ensure that everything is taken care of just how you want.

Assets with named beneficiaries

When you set up life insurance, a retirement account, a living trust, and other accounts, you may name a beneficiary. The beneficiaries named on these accounts supersede your legal will. If you originally named your son as the beneficiary of your life insurance, you won’t be able to give it to your daughter through your will. If your wishes about who should receive the proceeds from a specific account have changed, you should update your beneficiaries directly in the account, not in your will.

Joint property and accounts

Two people shaking hands

Jointly-owned bank accounts and properties have specific laws and regulations about what happens when one of the owners dies. Some joint accounts or jointly-owned properties allow you to pass the property to the heir of your choice in your will. But if your joint account or property is labeled “with rights of survivorship,” your share in the property will go to the other owner or owners at your death. Property or accounts with rights of survivorship should not be included in your will. If you’re unsure what type your jointly-owned account or property is, please check with your attorney or bank.

Specific accounts

Front of a bank building

When writing your will, it’s best to avoid naming wishes for specific accounts, like your checking or savings account. This is because your situation may change over time. You may close out accounts or open new ones, or the amount in your accounts may change drastically. If you name a specific account in your will, you’ll need to update your will every time your account changes. Instead, you can bestow a specific amount of money or a percentage of your estate on your chosen beneficiary.

Illegal or unethical conditions

In most cases, you can provide specific conditions that must be fulfilled before your beneficiaries receive their inheritance. For example, you can provide a specific inheritance to your granddaughter for when she graduates college. However, there are limits to what you can ask of your beneficiaries. For example, you can’t include instructions requiring someone to marry a specific person, get divorced, or change their religion. You also can’t make someone do something illegal to receive their inheritance, like using property to grow illegal substances or committing a crime.

Reasons for bequest

Person holding a handwritten letter

While it’s not illegal to include the reasons for bequests in your will, providing reasons for each gift can add unnecessary length to your will. If you want your beneficiaries to know why you’re giving them a specific piece of property, that’s great! Instead of adding that to your will, you can include separate letters with details. A separate letter can also give you the space to share the history behind a specific item, like a quilt your great-grandmother made or your great-uncle’s pocket watch.

Before creating your will, please consult a licensed attorney to ensure you follow your state’s regulations. As you document your wishes in your will, try to keep it as clear and concise as possible. If your wishes are clear and uncluttered, it will be easier for your executor to carry them out. And as life changes, don’t forget to regularly update your will.

DISCLAIMER: Individual circumstances and state laws vary. Only undertake estate planning with the help and assistance of an attorney licensed in your state.

graves with bright red and pink flowers

Cemetery Etiquette: 6 Tips for Visiting a Cemetery

By Cemeteries, Grief/Loss, Memorial

Visiting your loved one’s grave can be an important part of your grief journey – it can help you process your loss and reflect on memories of your loved one. But visiting a cemetery can be intimidating, especially if you’re unfamiliar with cemetery etiquette. Whether you’re going to the cemetery by yourself or with others, it’s important to be considerate of those around you. By following the 6 tips below, you can show respect to other mourners, the groundskeepers, and those buried in the cemetery.

Drive with care

person driving a car

When driving through a cemetery, drive slower and more cautiously than you typically would. To avoid accidentally driving over a grave or monument, stay on the roadways and off the grass, even when parking, if there’s enough room for another car to pass. Also, follow the cemetery’s posted speed limit – if there are no signs, driving 10 mph or slower is recommended.

Remember that people walking in the cemetery may be grieving and not paying attention to their surroundings. Be cautious and watch for people crossing your path. If you’re listening to music in your car, keep the volume low while driving through the cemetery.

Respect graves and monuments

headstone for a mother with pink flowers on it

Out of respect for both the deceased in the cemetery and their loved ones, avoid touching monuments or stepping on graves. Depending on how old the cemetery you’re visiting is, some of the monuments may be decades or even centuries old and could be fragile and crumbling. While walking through some cemeteries, it can be difficult to tell where it’s okay to step. Try to follow the path made by the headstones, and don’t step over or on headstones or monuments.

Additionally, you should never remove anything left by another person at a grave. Flowers, coins, and decorations all have special meaning to the person who placed the items, and removing these personal items can cause more grief for a loved one. Coins may seem out of place, but they often have specific meanings, especially when placed on a veteran’s grave, so leave them where they are.

Be considerate of other mourners

Person standing in front of a grave

People visiting a cemetery are likely visiting a deceased loved one and may be overwhelmed with emotion, praying, or spending time in contemplation. To respect their needs, keep your speaking volume low and avoid talking on the phone or playing loud music. Keep your phone on vibrate or silent to keep distractions at a minimum.

Many people who are visiting a loved one’s grave don’t wish to speak with others. If you are nearby or passing them, it’s okay to smile or nod at them, but don’t try to start a conversation unless they seem like they want or need someone to talk to. Likewise, if a funeral or graveside service is going on while you visit, steer clear and leave them plenty of room. It’s also inappropriate to take photos of someone else’s funeral or of someone who is visiting a grave.

Keep an eye on children and pets

Parent holding a child's hand in a cemetery

Bringing your child to a loved one’s grave can benefit them by helping them come to terms with the death and learning about their own emotions and grief. But before you bring your child to a cemetery, speak to them about how to behave. They’ll need to be relatively quiet and respectful of others, and they shouldn’t run around the cemetery. Ensure your child knows the rules and can follow them before bringing them with you.

Some cemeteries allow owners to bring their pets, while others only allow service dogs. If your cemetery does allow pets, keep them on a leash at all times. You should also be respectful of other mourners. Not everyone likes animals, and an excitable dog may not be a welcome visitor for some people. Even more importantly, make sure you clean up after your pet. You don’t want to leave an unwelcome surprise for someone visiting their loved one!

Clean up after yourself

Person picking up an empty water bottle

No one wants to visit their loved one in the cemetery and find trash on the grave. Out of respect for other visitors and the groundskeepers, don’t litter and pick up any trash you see. If your cemetery doesn’t have a trash can, you can take the trash back with you – and next time you visit, bring a bag to put trash in.

It’s also a good idea to avoid leaving highly breakable items. Glass or ceramic vases and jars are beautiful, but bad weather or nighttime critters may knock over the items. Leaving food at a grave can also attract ants, bugs, and critters, so many cemeteries recommend that you not leave food at a grave.

Learn the cemetery’s specific rules

graves with bright red and pink flowers

As mentioned above, different cemeteries have their own rules, so learn your cemetery’s regulations before you go. One way to determine the cemetery’s rules is to check their website or call the office. If you can’t find any information online, many cemeteries also have a sign near the entrance with their rules. Most cemeteries are also only open at certain times, so please respect your cemetery’s hours.

Visiting a cemetery can be intimidating at first, but spending time at your loved one’s grave can help you in your grief journey. During your visit, remember that everyone grieves differently. You may find it helpful to speak out loud to your loved one, pray, cry, or simply stay silent and ponder. As long as you are respectful of both the deceased around you and other mourners, do what will help you in your grief journey.

woman holding child's shoes after losing a child

The 6 Needs of Mourning for Grieving Parents

By Grief/Loss

Losing a child is one of the most heartbreaking experiences any parent will ever face. It feels wrong and unnatural for a child to die before a parent, and you may be questioning yourself, wondering if you could have done more to protect your child. You may feel like life will never be normal again. Or that maybe it shouldn’t be.

As you try to process losing your child, keep in mind that grief is different for everyone and follows no timeline. You may be experiencing intense emotions, such as anger, guilt, doubt, fear, depression, extreme pain, and deep sadness. As a mother or father, you may have very different feelings from those around you. Losing a child can strain your relationships with your spouse, other children, or extended family members as you all try to process the loss in your own way.

As you begin your grief journey, remember that the goal is not to “move on” or “move forward” but to move toward healing, peace, and reconciliation with the loss. Renowned grief expert Dr. Alan Wolfelt says that those mourning the death of a loved one have six needs that must be met as they grieve. While it takes time to begin healing, meeting these needs can help you process your loss in a healthy way.

grave with peach flower on top

Acknowledge the reality of the death

According to Dr. Wolfelt, the first need of mourners is acknowledging the reality of the death or, in his words, “gently confronting the reality that someone you care about will never physically come back into your life again.” The death of a child or a teenager is often sudden and completely unexpected. When hearing of the loss, parents, siblings, friends, and other family members may respond with shock and denial. Even if your child had a prolonged or terminal illness, you might struggle to wrap your mind around the fact that they are really gone.

To help yourself begin to heal, you can take small actions to come to terms with the new reality. Viewing your child’s body before burial or cremation can be helpful. Using the past tense when telling their story can also help. It may be painful at first, especially if you wake up thinking that losing your child was just a nightmare. The mind needs time to adjust to new realities, so be gentle and patient with yourself throughout this process.

woman holding child's shoes after losing a child

Move toward the pain of loss

The next need of mourners is to move toward the pain of the loss. As Dr. Wolfelt says, “It is in confronting our pain that we learn to reconcile ourselves to it.” When faced with strong negative emotions, many of us try to block the pain to protect ourselves. When grieving the loss of a child, you aren’t just grieving their death – you’re also grieving the loss of all the hopes and dreams you had for them. We may try to avoid the pain of the loss through numbing activities that temporarily bring relief. But this only stalls the healing process. As Dr. Wolfelt often points out, there is no way around grief. The only way to the other side is through it.

Instead, focus on grieving in a healthy way. Slow down and let yourself feel. Try going on walks or runs or writing in a grief journal. Visit your child’s grave, talk to them out loud, or speak with a friend or family member that you trust. Let yourself cry, scream, and vent your emotions in a way that helps you. It may feel unnatural to you at first, especially if you tend to bury your emotions. Remember that it’s okay and healthy to fully feel your emotions and set them free, as long as you aren’t hurting yourself or anyone else. By facing your grief and emotions head-on, you can begin to understand them and continue healing.

Honor your child’s memory

After moving toward the pain of the loss, the next need of mourning is to transition from a physical relationship with the person who died to a relationship of memory. Whether your child was with you for minutes or years, they made an impact on your life, and they live on in your memories of them. Dr. Wolfelt says that “remembering the past makes hoping for the future possible.” By holding your memories of your child close and sharing them with others, you will continue to keep their memory alive.

There are many ways you can honor your child’s memory. For example, you can share stories about them with your friends and family, journal your memories, or write a letter to your child. Doing creative projects, like making a memory box or a scrapbook, can also help you process your grief. These physical memorial projects are a great option to do as a family, with your spouse or your other children. You may find it painful at first to think about your child, but learning to treasure the moments you were able to spend with them will bring them even closer to your heart and allow you to find hope for the future.

Develop a new sense of identity

The fourth need of mourners is to develop a new sense of identity. As Dr. Wolfelt explains, “We all have mirrors in our life that remind us of who we are. But after a death, we experience identity diffusion, a sort of confusion about who we are and the purpose that we serve in the greater scheme of things.” Your relationships with your closest friends and family members are a part of your identity, and your child made up an even bigger part of who you are. Your brain is likely struggling to understand life without your child, and you may feel like a part of yourself died with them.

A funeral or memorial service can be the first step to recognizing your new identity. While you wrestle with your change in identity, don’t be afraid to seek the support of family and friends who know you best. Losing a child can also strain your other relationships, especially with your spouse or other children. Life can become even more difficult if you, your spouse, or your children avoid talking to each other or close yourselves off. Instead, take time to sit down as a family and talk regularly. By opening up lines of communication, you and your family can work through your new identities together and learn how to continue life in your new identities.

woman standing in a field on a mountain

Search for meaning in the loss

As you grieve, you’ll also need to search for meaning in the loss. After your child’s death, you may ask yourself many questions – especially “Why?” You might feel like you’ll never understand. As Dr. Wolfelt says, “The death reminds you of your lack of control. It can leave you feeling powerless. At times, overwhelming sadness and loneliness may be your constant companions.” The death of someone we love makes us confront mortality – our loved ones’ mortality and our own.

It’s completely normal to ask these questions, but remember that death is a mystery, and some questions will be left unanswered. That’s okay! Exploring deep questions, even without finding answers, can help you examine your own life and consider whether you are where you want to be. Take this time to ask yourself what you can do to live a meaningful life. You can use this experience and your questions as an opportunity to make positive changes to become the person you want to be. While you may not find all the answers you’re looking for, asking these questions can help you find meaning in your continued living and discover hope for the future.

woman being comforted by a family member

Receive ongoing support

The final need for mourners is ongoing support. Grief comes and goes in waves – you’ll likely struggle more on some days than others. That’s why finding ongoing support from your family and friends is important. As Dr. Wolfelt says, “Drawing on the experiences and encouragement of friends, fellow mourners, or professional counselors is not a weakness but a healthy human need.” As you work through your grief journey, don’t be afraid to reach out to a grief or family therapist or join a grief support group. It can be hard to reach out for help, but taking this step can give you the support you need on the hardest days.

Special days, like your child’s birthday, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or holidays, can be especially difficult. Plan ahead for those days, and don’t be afraid to let your friends and family know if you need extra care on a certain day.

Losing a child is heartbreaking, and it will take time for you and your family to heal. As you begin your grief journey, be patient and gentle with yourself, and allow yourself time to heal and grieve so that you can find healing, reconciliation, and hope.

cemetery with bright sunrise behind

Why Should You Visit Your Loved One’s Grave at Easter?

By Grief/Loss, Seasonal

Easter is typically a joyful time, but if you’ve recently lost a loved one, you may find it difficult to find the hope that Easter usually represents. Your grief may feel at odds with the celebration of new beginnings, but you can still honor your loved one’s memory while celebrating Easter. One way to do that is by visiting your loved one’s grave.

While visiting a cemetery at Easter may seem like a somber activity, it can help you in your grief journey. Easter is a time of reflection, and spending time at your loved one’s grave can help you find meaning in your loss and hope for the future.

Here are a few reasons you should consider visiting your loved one’s grave at Easter:

bouquet of Easter flowers

Bring Seasonal Flowers

Easter is often celebrated with beautiful flowers, like lilies, tulips, and daffodils. Because Easter happens at the beginning of spring, it’s one of the first occasions when there are more flowers in season and available. Bringing a bouquet of spring or Easter flowers to your loved one’s grave can make your visit more personal and make it feel like they’re a part of the day with you.

Many families decorate their loved one’s grave at Easter using flowers or other Easter decorations, like stuffed rabbits, pastel butterflies, or angel wings. These displays can be a way for families to incorporate their loved one into their Easter celebration. If you wish to leave flowers or decorate your loved one’s grave, please check your cemetery’s rules about graveside decorations.

Small plant sprouting

Meditate on New Beginnings

When we think of Easter, we often think of new beginnings. For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a symbol of hope and new life. For many others, Easter is a time to reflect on the new beginnings that spring brings. When you visit your loved one’s grave, you’re able to meditate and reflect without distractions, which gives you time to slow down and think deeply.

Visiting your loved one’s grave at Easter after a long, dreary winter can also remind you of hope. If you visited the cemetery during the winter, the air was likely cold, the grass dead, and the mood somber. But at Easter, the grass has turned green and flowers are blooming. The landscape will be beautiful again after the darkness of winter, which will help your visit feel more joyful and remind you that hope is just around the corner.

yellow spring flower by headstone

Reflect on Your Loved One’s Legacy

Have you ever watched a movie where a character visits a loved one’s grave to have a moment of reflection and talk to them? Believe it or not, talking to your loved one at their grave can help you in your grief journey. Speaking out loud to your loved one can help you better process and understand the emotions you’re feeling. Plus, with the warmer spring weather at Easter time, you’ll be able to linger longer than you could in the previous months. While you can talk to your loved one any time, their grave serves as a physical reminder of them, which can help you feel more connected to them.

As you speak with your loved one, reflect on the positive memories you have with them. Your loved one left behind a legacy. By remembering what they taught you and the impact they made on your life, you can find gratitude for the time you were able to spend with them. After all, that’s what Easter is all about – being grateful for the blessings we’ve received. When we lose a loved one, it’s easy for us to wish they were with us and mourn the moments we won’t be able to share with them, but it’s just as important to treasure the beautiful times we did spend with them.

grave at Easter with bright sunrise behind

Contemplate Life and Death

Easter is the perfect time for contemplation – especially about life and death. When we visit the grave of a loved one, we are reminded of our own mortality. It’s a wonderful reminder that life is short and that the time we have is precious. Visiting your loved one’s grave can help you consider what’s most important to you by reminding you of what was most important in your relationship with your loved one.

For Christians, Easter is a celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection and a reminder of the hope of salvation and life after death. Visiting a loved one’s grave can be a reminder that you will be reunited with your loved one again someday. No matter what you believe, though, Easter and the coming of spring can be a great opportunity to contemplate your beliefs about life and death and consider what makes your life meaningful.

 

As you celebrate the hope, joy, and new life of Easter, taking time to think of your lost loved one can help you on your grief journey. If you’ve never visited your loved one’s grave before, visiting on a holiday like Easter can be a great place to start. By taking time to reflect at your loved one’s grave at Easter and incorporating them into your traditions, you can begin to find peace and new hope for the future.

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