When a loved one passes away, a flood of emotions overwhelms the mind, stirring feelings of loss, grief, guilt and fear. In the middle of the emotional turmoil, the closest family members may be called upon to plan the funeral and burial. The amount of critical decisions that need to be made can paralyze many individuals. Having a step-by-step list, providing guidance for the decisions to be made, can lessen the burden, ease the pain and reduce the stress during this difficult time.

Here are some items that need to be considered. This Essential, titled “Essentials: Planning a Funeral,” should be used together with the Checklist titled “Planning a Funeral.” Information from the Checklist should be kept close by.

Is there a record of the wishes of the deceased?

Sometimes the deceased will have recorded the wishes for the funeral ceremony, burial arrangements, or cemetery location. It is possible that the deceased made arrangements with a funeral home, selected a casket or purchased a cemetery plot. A last will or testament may have been prepared and has been locked away for safe keeping. The deceased may have retained the services of a lawyer who will know additional pieces of information. A family member may have been designated as a power of attorney.

Regarding the ceremony, the deceased may have expressed a desire to have a pointedly religious or non-religious flavor to the program. If the deceased served in the military, there may be special remembrances in which the military will participate.

The following information will be needed for the death certificate:

Someone will need to gather the following pieces of information regarding the deceased: date of birth, place of birth, social security number, occupation and type of business, military service, highest level of education, father’s name (first, middle, last) and mother’s name (first, middle, maiden, last) and the location of the final resting place.

Will the final state of the body be buried, entombed or cremated?

The final resting state of the body will dictate several decisions that should be made. Traditionally the body has been buried at a cemetery. The name and number of the chosen funeral director and cemetery should be kept at hand. The funeral director can inform regarding special requirements for the casket that local or state governments may have imposed.

If the body is to be entombed, the mausoleum should be chosen and the contact information kept nearby. Decisions about the tomb can be made by close family members.

Cremation has become a more accepted practice, even among more traditional and conservative religions. If cremation is chosen, decisions need to be made about the remains. Some individuals have requested that the remains be scattered. Make sure that such practice is approved by local governments.

If the remains will be kept, what type of urn or casing will be used? Will the remains be given to some family members or will they be placed in a mausoleum? If they are to be given, purchase approved urns for each individual to receive a portion of the ashes.

The following people need to be notified regarding the death:

Many people need to be notified about the death. Talking to family and friends may be something that the spouse or children want to do, but it may be too emotional at the time. A close friend or removed family member may be a better selection for making the calls. Be sure that the spouse, ex-spouse, children, parents, siblings, and extended family are notified. Calls should also be made to close friends, business associates and organizations that played a significant role in the life of the deceased.

The following decisions need to be made prior to the visitation:

There are some very practical decisions that need to be made regarding the visitation. The visitations are usually held at the funeral home. Sometimes if a religious ceremony is planned, the visitation and funeral will both be at the house of worship. At this point, decisions need to be made about the amount of time that visitation will be allowed. Years ago it was a custom to have visitation on two separate evenings plus before the funeral. Today it is more common to have visitation the night before the funeral, with an hour or two of visitation before the funeral service. Thought should be given to the strength and stamina of the close family because visitation can be both a physically and emotionally taxing time.

A couple of other practical matters should be decided prior to the visitation. What clothing the deceased will wear in the casket is often a very personal choice of the closest surviving relative or spouse. Some families will purchase a new set of clothes just for the funeral. If transportation is necessary for out-of-town guests or those who do not drive, plans should be made to have someone pick up and drive these family members from hotels or homes to the funeral home and final resting place.

Finally, decisions should be made regarding the use and display of flowers. While some religions strongly suggest against the use of flowers, many funerals are accompanied by several flower displays. If flowers are to be used, who will make sure they are arranged properly? Who will take care of the flowers afterwards? Will some of the flowers need to be taken to the home of close relatives? If no flowers are to be used, has an organization or charity been designated for donations?

The following decisions need to be made about the ceremony:

Several decisions need to be made about the ceremony. A selection of six people who can serve as pallbearers should be made. Remember that this is an important, visible role in the ceremony. The people chosen should be physically capable of handling the weight of the coffin. They should also be emotionally strong enough to handle the stress and attention surrounding this task.
One of the most important parts of the ceremony is the delivering of the eulogy(s). Again, this is a very visible role in the service. The person does not have to be a polished speaker, but should be one that can handle the emotion of the moment. The person should also be able to organize their thoughts about the deceased, offer positive stories that will encourage, and be skilled enough to deliver the speech to the people in the room.

Appropriate poems, Scripture verses, or quotations need to be selected. These could include favorites of the deceased or words that would carry meaning to the close family. Choice of the individuals who will deliver the words should also be made.

Music is another meaningful tool to include in the ceremony. Music plays a vital role in the history of many families. Select music that was important to the deceased, or favorites of the close family. Many funeral homes have recordings of favorite songs. If a live presentation of the song is preferred, choose who will deliver the song and how the song will be accompanied.

After the ceremony and remarks at the final resting place, many families will come together for a meal. Will this be a part of the plans? If so, several questions must be answered and planning must take place. Will the meal be limited to close family and out-of-town guests or open to anyone attending? Who will prepare the meal? When and where will it be held?