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The picture of health? So why plan a funeral?

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Pre-planning one's funeral -- which more and more baby boomers are choosing to do -- is more than just selecting a cemetery plot. Working with a funeral director, they can tailor all elements of their funeral to their tastes. (Heather J. Ciras/CNS)

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Pre-planning one's funeral -- which more and more baby boomers are choosing to do -- is more than just selecting a cemetery plot. Working with a funeral director, they can tailor all elements of their funeral to their tastes. (Heather J. Ciras/CNS)

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Pre-planning one's funeral -- which more and more baby boomers are choosing to do -- is more than just selecting a cemetery plot. Working with a funeral director, they can tailor all elements of their funeral to their tastes. Arlington National Cemetery is probably the most famous cemetery in the United States (above). (Heather J. Ciras/CNS)

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Pre-planning one's funeral -- which more and more baby boomers are choosing to do -- is more than just selecting a cemetery plot. Working with a funeral director, they can tailor all elements of their funeral to their tastes. (Heather J. Ciras/CNS)

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Pre-planning one's funeral -- which more and more baby boomers are choosing to do -- is more than just selecting a cemetery plot. Working with a funeral director, they can tailor all elements of their funeral to their tastes. (Heather J. Ciras/CNS)

When Peter Dowling dies, he wants a big party. Furthermore, the management consultant wants to be cremated and buried immediately afterward in his family plot in Stamford, Conn. He never wants to enter a funeral home. And when it comes time for his family to have that party to remember him, Dowling wants jazz music playing, specifically Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.”

“I don’t want anyone to buy flowers, a fancy casket or a fancy hearse,” said Dowling, 52.

Dowling is just one of many baby boomers who have increasingly come to believe that if you want your funeral done right, you have to do it yourself. They are people who are in their 50s and 60s who are in perfect health, but are determined not to have their final act on this Earth, no matter how far away, up to the whims and tastes of relatives.

About 35 to 40 percent of funerals are preplanned today, said Michael St. Pierre, head of the National Funeral Directors Association and a full-time funeral director in Indianapolis. That is a big jump from when St. Pierre began his career in 1965, when only 2 to 3 percent of the funerals he arranged were preplanned.

And these numbers account for just those people who have gone to a funeral home to make the arrangements. Some, like Dowling, create detailed instructions that they keep filed away with their important papers.

Baby boomers "want their funeral to be done their way,” St. Pierre said.

Michael Leming, a sociologist of thanatology, the study of death, says the rise in funeral planning is due to several factors: people's fear of death is starting to subside, people either don’t trust their kids with funeral planning or don’t want to burden them, or they want to keep control.

“I don’t think that people want to trust the way in which others will honor them," said Leming, co-author of “Dying, Death, and Bereavement.”

“They don’t want their estate to pay for a big honoring ceremony since in some way they are paying for their own party," Leming said. “People prepay and preplan to save others the burden of doing so and in order to die and be buried in the way that they have lived.”

Other demographic groups--such as single persons who are estranged from their families or same-sex and unmarried couples--also preplan their funerals because their legal next-of-kin may not know or want to carry out their wishes, said John Eric Rothsted, head of the People’s Memorial Association in Seattle, a nonprofit organization that helps people plan funerals.

Baby boomers are also at an age when they are dealing with the deaths of their parents. This makes them more apt to want to save their children the emotional hassle of planning a funeral, said Joshua Slocum, the executive director of the Funeral Consumer Alliance, a nonprofit association that monitors the funeral business. Such was the case with Dowling, who wrote instructions for his funeral after his father died in 1998.

St. Pierre, 59, has the plans for his own funeral in his files. They include being buried in his Boy Scout uniform, since he’s been a member of the organization for the last 50 years. Instead of a service at the funeral home, his will be at his church. He even has three ministers picked out in case the regular minister is not available, and a list of potential pallbearers.

Dowling said the planning was not to keep control over his final act. It’s more to help ease his family’s responsibilities after he passes.

“To me, it’s a gift,” he said. “Know that this is what I want.”

Preplanners are also learning that thinking ahead can save money.

Funerals are a big business. The U.S. funeral industry had revenues of about $12 billion in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The average traditional funeral, which includes embalming, having a viewing at a funeral home and then moving the body to the cemetery, costs about $6,500.

By federal law, funeral homes are required to provide a price list. So with the time to shop around, a person could save thousands of dollars.

For instance, in a survey of the funeral homes in Princeton, N.J., Slocum said the range of prices for a funeral can range from $2,200 to $6,500.

By preplanning, some hope to remove the stress of buying expensive goods at such an emotional time.

“Guilt has a lot to do with how people make these purchases,” said Dowling, who hopes that by planning his funeral, his wife won’t feel compelled to buy him a top-of-the-line casket.

Instead, he’s instructed his family to get the cheapest casket--a glorified cardboard box--in which to have him cremated.

However, Rothsted and Slocum warn people not to prepay for a preplanned funeral.

“You’re giving your money to someone else to hold,” Rothsted said. They recommend that the preplanner set up a “payable-on-death” account through a bank or life insurance company with the money in it.

Still, St. Pierre said, 60 to 70 percent of his clients prepay.

Hey, it’s their funeral.

E-mail: hjc2114@columbia.edu