Planning ahead for your final wishes is simple and only takes about an hour to complete. There are three basic steps to creating a healing and meaningful funeral plan that will help your family cope with your loss on one of the hardest days of their lives.
You plan for everything in life — birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, vacations, homes, retirement, and much more. Why shouldn’t you also plan for final wishes? While no one likes to think about their own demise, the fact remains that one day, your family will need to make dozens of hard decisions to arrange for your final life
What Does it Mean to Be an Organ Donor and a Whole Body Donor?
Anatomical donation typically refers to the donation of the whole body to medical or scientific research. Once donated, the body may be used for surgical training, scientific research, and anatomy lessons for medical students, promoting the advancement of medical science.
Organ donation, on the other hand, refers to the donation of organs after death that, if approved for donation, would be transplanted into another living person.
What Organs Can Be Donated After Death?
Organs such as the heart, liver, lungs, small intestines, and kidneys can be donated after death along with tissues such as corneas, skin, veins, bones, heart valves, tendons, and ligaments. Because organs are living tissue and begin to decompose quickly after loss of blood flow, donation and transplantation must happen almost immediately after death.
The American Transplant Foundation estimates that “one deceased donor can save up to eight lives through organ donation and can save and enhance more than 100 lives through the lifesaving and healing gift of tissue donation.”
UNOS, the United Network for Organ Sharing, along with other organ distributers, uses strict standards and criteria to match organs and ensure the fair distribution of organs to recipients. Organ and tissue donors are treated with the utmost respect, and an open-casket funeral is often possible after donation. No costs will be incurred by the donor’s family for organ and tissue donation, although costs may be applied for services carried out before official time of death. When being treated for medical reasons, organ donation cannot be considered until brain death has been declared by a physician. All donations are anonymous unless approval from the recipient is given.
For more about the laws and regulations surrounding organ donation, refer to the Uniform Law Commission’s summary of the Anatomical Gift Act of 2006.
Is It Possible to Be An Organ Donor And a Whole Body Donor?
It is technically possible to register as both an organ donor and a whole body donor. However, when registering for both, applicants should understand that organ donation for transplant will take first priority, meaning that if organs are selected and approved for donation, whole body donation will likely be refused for study at the majority of medical facilities or universities because of the compromised integrity of the body as a whole.
Many times, however, those registered as organ donors are often not in the position at time of death to be candidates for donation. In fact, many potential organ donors are not approved for transplant after death because of the stringent restrictions and criteria for organ donation and the timing of immediate donation after death. Cancer, heart disease, lung disease, potentially malignant tumors, and other preexisting conditions often rule out organ donation candidates. In addition, proximity to the hospital or the need to perform an autopsy (when means of death are questionable) can also prevent organ donation. Because of these restrictions, many bodies of organ donors remain uncompromised and could still be donated to science or willed to a university after death if the donor so wished.
Registering as both is technically possible, but if whole body donation is desired, it is wise to register as only a whole body donor to ensure the fulfillment of final wishes.
How Do I Donate My Body?
When considering whole body donation, the first step is to be sure to communicate your wishes to relatives and next of kin to avoid any confusion after death. Next, contact the medical facilities (often university-affiliated) where you would like to donate your body, fill out the necessary paperwork, and request information and educational materials so that you and your family members can understand the specific procedures, requirements, and restrictions of whole body donation at this specific location. To be well informed, be sure to ask questions about the facility, costs associated with donation, and the procedures of donation. Check this list by Donate Life Texas for some helpful questions to ask donation facilities.
To find a facility near you that accepts whole body donations, visit the University of Florida’s website that lists whole body donation programs in each state. You can also organize whole body donation through private organizations, such as United Tissue Network, Science Care, and others.
Then, be sure to provide the contact information of your chosen donation facility and instructions for your relatives so they can be prepared and know who to contact upon death. Finally, you will want to produce a clear, written directive and inform your primary doctor about your intentions.
What Does Whole Body Donation Cost?
There is no set answer to the question of cost for whole body donation because policies differ among donation facilities. Be sure to consult with your donation facility of choice to plan for costs that will not be covered by the facility. Many times, donation facilities will arrange and pay for body transportation (unless the body needs to be moved a lengthy distance), eventual cremation, and the return of cremated remains to family. The family should expect to pay for the cost of legal documentation of death and any funeral services conducted before the release of the body to the donation facility.
Under no circumstances will your family receive monetary compensation for your donation as the buying and selling of bodies is prohibited by Federal law.
Procedure of Whole Body Donation
Some donation facilities allow a certain amount of time after death for a funeral service to be performed. However, some facilities require that notification and transportation of the body occur soon after death, meaning that funeral services with the body present may not be possible.
After the death of a loved one, family members should notify the facility of the donor’s death and proceed appropriately. Often, this means coordinating with a representative of the donation clinic who will review acceptance protocol and determine, along with a health care representative from the hospital, medical facility, or hospice facility where the death occurs, whether the body can be accepted.
Whole body studies are typically completed under two years, but can also last as long as five years. Upon the completion of study, bodies are typically cremated as the means of final disposition, unless otherwise noted by the donor’s family.
Whole Body Donation Restrictions
Although universities and medical facilities are in constant need of whole body donations for study, most programs reserve the right to refuse donation. For example, organ donors are frequently refused for the reason that the body can best be studied when it is intact (for this reason, if you intend to donate your body to medical science, you may consider removing yourself from the organ donation list).
In addition, bodies may not be accepted if the body was significantly damaged in a car accident, the body is morbidly obese or emaciated, the donor has a contagious or infectious disease (HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B or C, etc.), the body has been autopsied, or for the simple reason that donations are not needed by the facility at the time. Check with your chosen university or facility to learn more about specific restrictions.
Many veterans and their families are uninformed about the burial benefits they can expect to receive at the time of death. Some veterans assume that Veterans Affairs (VA) will pay for all funeral and burial costs, while others assume that all of their cemetery costs will be covered. In fact, neither assumption is completely correct. While VA does offer many very helpful burial benefits to honorably discharged veterans, their spouses and dependents, this organization does not cover all funeral expenses.
Here’s the bottom line when it comes to veterans’ burial benefits:
Discharge papers are crucial
First and foremost, if your family cannot locate your discharge papers, they will not be able to file for any benefits.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs urges veterans to advise their families of their burial wishes and where to find their discharge papers. On their website, VA states:
You should advise your family of your wishes and where your discharge papers are kept. These papers are very important in establishing your eligibility.
At the time of need your family would contact a funeral home who will assist them with making burial arrangements at the national cemetery. You may wish to make pre-need arrangements with a funeral home.
This is because a funeral plan will help you get organized and put all your important documents in one place so that your family can actually claim the benefits that they are entitled to receive.
Your cash allowance for burial depends on how the veteran died
Members of the armed forces who die in service to their country receive the most generous burial allowance. For service-connected death, the VA Burial and Memorial Benefits Fact Sheet states: “If the Veteran died on or after September 11, 2001, the maximum service-connected burial allowance is $2,000. If the Veteran died before September 11, 2001, the maximum service-connected burial allowance is $1,500. If the Veteran is buried in a VA national cemetery, VA may reimburse some or all of the costs of transporting the deceased Veteran’s remains.”
Regarding non-service-connected death, please click here for the latest information regarding burial and plot allowances.
Effective October 1, 2011, there are higher non-service-connected death rates payable if the Veteran was hospitalized by VA at the time of his or her death. For the latest information, please click here.
Where you want to be buried matters
An honorably discharged veteran is eligible to be buried in one of Veterans Affairs’ national cemeteries (as space allows) at no cost to the family. A headstone or marker is also provided by the government, as well as a U.S. flag, a Presidential Memorial Certificate, and military honors. Spouses and dependents may also be buried in a national cemetery along with the veteran or even before if they predecease the veteran.
If a private cemetery is used, burial benefits remain the same, other than the burial space: the headstone or marker, a U.S. flag, a Presidential Memorial Certificate, and military honors are provided at no cost to the family. The burial space in a private cemetery is at the family’s expense. Certain costs may also apply to setting the headstone or marker in place. No benefits are available to spouses or dependents buried in a private cemetery.
Please note that eligibility for benefits must be established on an individual basis and certain requirements or qualifications may apply.
Many veterans and their families don’t realize that they are responsible for funeral expenses that are not covered by the VA, including a casket or urn, services of the funeral director, embalming, cremation, flowers, obituaries, police escort, and more. The VA makes it clear that these and other services provided by the funeral home or crematory are not covered by the government, other than the burial allowance for certain qualifying individuals referred to above.
While veterans’ benefits can be a complicated issue to understand, especially during a time of grief, you can usually find a funeral home in your area that is very knowledgeable about veterans’ burial benefits, military honors, and the claim process. You can also select a knowledgeable funeral home in advance and make prearranged funeral plans to further assist your family if you are a veteran.
When a veteran dies, the surviving spouse may receive a Veterans Administration allowance as partial reimbursement for an eligible veteran’s burial/cremation and funeral costs.
The benefit is higher if the death was service-related, offering up to $2,000. If the veteran is buried in a VA National Cemetery, a portion or all of the cost of moving the deceased may be reimbursed.
For non-service-related death, the Veterans Administration may provide a limited amount of compensation for burial and funeral expenses and/or transfer of the body, depending on eligibility. Please contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office to find out if you are eligible for any benefits.
Besides a possible burial and plot allowance, all honorably discharged veterans are eligible for the following benefits:
Headstones and Markers
A deceased veteran, discharged under any condition except dishonorable, is entitled to a standard government headstone or marker. Upon request, at no cost, the VA will furnish the headstone or marker for the gravesite.
Flat markers are available in granite, marble, and bronze. Upright headstones are available in granite and marble. The style must be consistent with existing monuments or markers at the burial site.
United States Flag
The VA will provide a United States flag, at no cost, to drape over the casket or urn of a deceased veteran. Only one flag is provided per veteran. In general, the next of kin receives the flag; however, the VA will furnish the flag to a friend upon request.
VA Benefits For Surviving Spouse
One of the most difficult tasks for a survivor after the death of the veteran is the completion of numerous claims forms for VA survivor benefits. To help facilitate the process of claiming a veteran’s burial benefits, below is a list of documents you will need to bring with you to the VA office:
- Proof of veteran’s military service (Form DD214)
- Service serial number or Social Security number
- Veteran’s birth certificate (to determine a parent’s benefits)
- Veteran’s death certificate
- Marriage license (if applicable) or divorce decree
- Children’s birth certificates (if applicable)
- Government life insurance policy
Please call the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or visit their website at www.vba.va.gov, for more information regarding veterans’ benefits, including who is eligible and what forms need to be completed.
To download a PDF version of this checklist, click here.
As a veteran, you can ensure that you and your family receive the burial benefits you are entitled to with a little advance planning. Below is a checklist to assist you in planning ahead as a veteran:
- Locate a copy of your DD Form 214.
-The veteran’s DD Form 214 or equivalent is required to access veterans’ 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. Make sure your next of kin knows where you keep your DD Form 214.
- Request a DD Form 214 or equivalent form from the VA if you do not have a copy.
-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.
-Normally, your funeral director will contact the honor guard of the veteran’s military branch if military honors are requested. One burial flag will be presented to the next of kin. Make a note of to whom the flag should be presented.
- Plan for your eligible dependents.
-You may request burial sites for eligible spouses and dependents, even if they predecease you as a veteran. Please note, gravesites cannot be reserved in advance. If you are requesting burial in a national cemetery, contact the National Cemetery Administration to make burial arrangements at the time of need. The funeral director, next of kin or person making arrangements will fax all discharge documentation to the National Cemetery Scheduling Office at 1-866-900-6417 and follow up by calling 1-800-535-1117. For more information, visit the National Cemetery Administration website at www.cem.va.gov. Burials at Arlington National Cemetery are reserved for military retirees, Medal of Honor recipients or service members who die on active duty.
- Understand your benefits and what is covered at a national cemetery.
-A veteran buried in a national cemetery is eligible to receive 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 at no cost to the family. Burial benefits available for spouses and dependents buried in a national cemetery 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.
- Understand your benefits and what is 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. An eligible veteran buried in a state cemetery is still entitled to receive a government headstone or marker, one burial flag, and Presidential Memorial Certificate, at no cost to the family. Check with your funeral director for burial benefits that may be available for eligible dependents at your local state cemetery and any fees associated with burial.
- Understand your benefits and what is covered if you are buried at a private cemetery.
-Veterans buried in a private cemetery may be eligible to receive a government-furnished headstone, marker or medallion, one burial flag, and Presidential Memorial Certificate, at no cost to the family. Spouses and dependents buried in a private cemetery are not eligible for any VA benefits. Contact your local Veteran Service Officer to determine eligibility.
- Understand that the VA will not pay for cremation or funeral costs in full.
– The VA may pay the next of kin a burial allowance, depending on the circumstances and eligibility of the veteran. The VA recommends making arrangements with a funeral home to ensure that funeral costs will be covered.
- Understand that certain conditions affect burial allowance eligibility:
VA burial allowances are paid to offset an eligible veteran’s burial/cremation and funeral costs. Burial allowances are paid if at least one of the following conditions are met:
- 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 the purpose of 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 prior to 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 eligibility for a burial allowance.
A meaningful funeral can be beneficial in helping surviving family members process their emotions about a loss. According to an article in Psychology Today by Russell Friedman, grief expert, author, and executive director of The Grief Recovery Institute, a funeral carries a two-fold purpose: “One is to remember that person the way we knew them in life; and two, is to say ‘goodbye’ to their physical presence that no longer will be part of our lives.”
There are a few reasons why people may choose to skip the funeral or memorial service.
- The person who died planned it that way ahead of time
- Family members disagree about whether or not to hold a service
- The person was not religious and there is lack of clarity about their wishes
While the wishes of the person who died are very, very important, it is also important to carefully consider the needs of the family.
Author and grief expert, Alan D. Wolfelt, often quotes the saying, “When words are inadequate, have a ritual.”
In the vast majority of cases, a family will benefit from acknowledging the loss of someone they love through some form of ritual. This could be a public ritual, as in a funeral or memorial service, or a private ritual. Either way, carefully consider what will work best for you and your family.
Having a public funeral is, in a way, a rite of passage from one stage of life (parent, wife, or son, for example) to another (bereaved parent, widow, bereaved son). The funeral offers a period of transition in which family and friends mark an important occasion together with those they love.
If there are disagreements between family members about the type of service to be held or if the person who died was not religious, find ways to incorporate a public ceremony that reflects the life that has been lived and honors the things that the person loved and valued most while also allowing loved ones to say goodbye.
According to the latest national statistics from the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), the average cost of a funeral increased by 3% from 2014 to 2017. This price includes the basic services of a funeral director and staff, transfer to the funeral home, embalming and other preparations of the body for a viewing, use of facilities for a service, hearse, utility vehicle, basic memorial printed package, a metal casket, and a burial vault. This cost does not include a cemetery plot ($1,000 and up), the opening and closing of the grave ($500 and up), a grave marker or headstone, and third-party charges such as obituaries, flowers, police escort, and honorariums for speakers and musicians, not to mention food and reception space for a gathering after the ceremony.
In the end, the cost of even a basic funeral today can easily add up to well over $10,000. So, you may be wondering…is there any way to save money on a funeral?
One of the most effective ways to save money on a funeral is by planning ahead and becoming familiar with your options ahead of time. If you are dealing with a death in the family right now, you can still apply these same principles to help you manage the costs of funeral expenses.
Prices for funeral services and merchandise vary greatly even within the same general vicinity. Every funeral home is required by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Funeral Rule to present you with a full price list upon request that is yours to keep. They must also give you price information over the phone upon request. Do a little investigating before deciding on your funeral home of choice to find the right fit for you. Be careful to compare apples to apples.
Some funeral homes offer package pricing, and it is important to understand what is included in that package and what is not. Also consider the quality of the facilities and the staff. The adage, “You get what you pay for,” is very true when it comes to choosing a funeral provider. Sometimes it may be worth it to you to spend a little more at a funeral home where you feel more comfortable with the staff or the facilities.
Learn About Veterans’ Burial Benefits
If you or your spouse is a veteran, you may be eligible for a free burial space at a state or national cemetery, burial vault or grave liner, opening and closing of the grave, and a government-furnished headstone, which can save you thousands of dollars in burial costs. Go to www.cem.va.gov or talk to a veterans’ benefits specialist or a funeral prearrangement specialist who is knowledgeable about veterans’ burial benefits to learn more. You can also check out our article on veterans’ burial benefits here.
Choose a Lower-Cost Option
There are a few options that offer savings to your bottom line. Cremation can spare you the cost of a casket, full burial space, opening and closing of the grave, and a vault. However, you may still opt for a lower-cost cremation niche or burial in a cremation garden so that loved ones have a permanent memorial to visit after the death. Another option that can offer some savings is a green burial. Green burial options are not only easier on the environment; they can also be easier on your wallet. Generally, green burial involves a biodegradable casket made of wood, bamboo, or wicker, and no burial vault or embalming. Some private cemeteries require a burial vault to maintain an even landscape. Be sure to ask your funeral director about the requirements of the cemeteries in your area.
Do It Yourself
There may be certain aspects of the funeral arrangements that you can do yourself. Or, you could engage your social network to help you with. For example, you may ask family members to bring potluck dishes to save on the cost of a caterer. If you want a tribute video, you may know someone who is good with video editing who can assist you. Or, you may choose to use an online video maker such as www.animoto.com or www.smilebox.com, which take your family photos and put them to music with animation. For personalized memorial printing, you might check out www.tinyprints.com or www.memorialcardcompany.com. While you may want to do a couple of things yourself, be sure to check with your funeral director to see if the funeral home staff can alleviate any or all of these burdens for you. Remember, your time is valuable too.
Where Cutting Corners May Not Pay Off
Many families think that opting for a cremation with no type of service is their best option for saving money. It’s true that a basic cremation is probably the least expensive option for disposition. But you might also want to weigh the emotional cost of not having a funeral or memorial service. Grief expert, Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt with the Center for Loss and Life Transition, shares in this article the six needs of a bereaved person and how the funeral helps to meet those needs.
The funeral is a rite of passage, just like a graduation ceremony or a wedding ceremony. It is a defining moment in the life of the bereaved. Skipping the funeral or memorial ceremony for a loved one can leave the bereaved feeling isolated and frustrated by unexpressed grief. If you are leaning toward cremation, be sure to allow an opportunity for the bereaved to gather together. The experience will be a meaningful time of reflection and mutual support.
To save money on funeral expenses, the best thing you can do is plan ahead. If you are dealing with a death right now, this advice comes a little too late, but it bears keeping in mind for the future. Once you’ve chosen your preferred funeral provider, ask to speak with a funeral prearrangement specialist. Most funeral homes offer free advance funeral planning services to their communities. Take advantage of this opportunity to understand your options and take care funeral costs in advance.
When you plan ahead, it is much easier to stick to a budget and choose only the options that you know you want. Planning ahead also prevents your family from paying for options that you do not want! For everyone involved, it helps to make decisions with a cool, calm, and collected head rather than in a time of grief. In addition, many funeral homes offer a price guarantee when you pay for services in advance. So, if you are young and in good health, this arrangement can potentially save your family 30% to 40% or more on funeral costs just by locking in the present-day price. You can read more about payment options for advance funeral plans here.