Funeral Arrangements: Ideas Anyone?

Jennifer R. Luitjens, Esq.

Jarrett Law Office, South Burlington, VT

A family member is celebrating an 80th birthday this year.  While she reminisces about years passed and relishes reasonable health and physical mobility, she knows the reality of death.  However, she doesn’t seem to fear that moment, but rather suffers some anxiety about the uncertain events to follow, namely, the funeral arrangements.  While the family’s attorney has counseled her about the various legal planning options and her clergy has shared with her the general process, she has proposed another, perhaps less orthodox, method for creating her plan.  With 3 daughters and 1 son, this octogenarian would like to solicit funeral ideas from her children.  

Because she is having difficulty reconciling her wishes, her perceived budget, and the intentions of her children, she has proposed a sort of funeral “audition.”  After several ideas have been presented to her, she hopes to be able to finally decide what to do and then properly plan for the “winning” option.   It remains to be seen whether her children will accommodate this unusual request, but it still should raise awareness to an issue that is common to all of us.

The discussion of funeral arrangements and burial preferences is a personal one that varies significantly across faiths, cultures, and generations, just to name a few.  However, if it remains too “personal,” an individual’s wishes will be unknown and never come to fruition.   Moreover, the surviving family members will not only endure the pain of their loss, but also the stress of making these decisions without any previous guidance.  There are several ways in which to convey these funeral and burial wishes, whether general or more specific.

The most common and arguably least distressing option is to include a provision in an Advance Directive.  Our Vermont statutes permit an agent under an Advance Directive to make funeral arrangements, either pursuant to specific instructions in the document or consistent with a pre-need funeral contract.  [See Title 18 of the Vermont Statutes, Section 9712]  If no instructions are made, then the agent can make the arrangements “in accordance with the principal’s wishes expressed orally” or pursuant to “the principal’s values or religious or moral beliefs.”  [18 V.S.A. §9712(a)]

Instructions can include directions for cremation or burial and may be as specific as music selection for the service.  If an individual is not ready to make such selections or has no specific preferences, it is possible and still helpful to simply name an agent who has the legal authority to make such post-death decisions.

Practically speaking, absent a valid legal document or pre-need funeral contract, the family will make all arrangements for burial and funeral/memorial.  However, sometimes family disagree (remember Ted Williams?) and sometimes family members wish they had some direction.  In those instances, it will serve everyone better to have made some advance planning.

Jennifer R. Luitjens is Certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation, a non-profit organization accredited by the ABA.  She lives in Jericho and practices in South Burlington with the Jarrett Law Office. This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute comprehensive or specific legal advice.  The author stresses the need to engage appropriate legal and financial professionals when devising your individual estate plan.