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Ellen is an funeral professional with years experience working for one of America's top funeral and undertaking firms. Drawing on her experiences, Ellen has prepared answers to several of the most frequently asked undertaking questions.

When a loved one passes, who is in charge?

The answer is the Deceased. Most deaths are a result of age or chronic illness. Because of this, generally the deceased has time to express what his/her final wishes are.

If the deceased has not expressed their wishes through a written document such as a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, or a Last Will and Testament, where the deceased has designated an agent to fulfill their wishes, then the chain of command is as follows: Legal Spouse/Partner; Surviving Adult Child/Children; Surviving Parent; Surviving Adult Sibling; Ex-Spouse and Parent of Minor Child. Otherwise it would be the agent designate or the next closest blood relatives.

Most important, if you don't want there to be any confusion or arguments about your final wishes, put it in writing.

Who do you call when a death has occurred?

When someone dies, that person must be declared legally dead and a death certificate must be filled out by a physician. In most cases the physician or other medical official is the only one who can legally pronounce death. However, if someone is terminally ill and in hospice care, the hospice nurse can also sign the death certificate.

If someone dies in a hospital, the funeral home can be contacted directly and the body will be taken temporarily to the hospital morgue to await transport. The family is responsible for making all the necessary arrangements with the funeral home regarding the transport of the body to the chosen funeral home.

If someone dies in a nursing home the process is the same, unless there is no one available at the nursing home to pronounce death in which case the body must first be taken to the hospital before being taken to the funeral home.

If someone dies at home, the police must be called first and then, if the cause of death does not need further review, the body may be taken directly to the funeral home. If the death is unexpected, the body must first be taken to the morgue for an autopsy.

If a death occurs in a public place, the police are called and then the body is taken to the hospital before being released to the funeral home.

What documents do I need to begin the burial process?

This question is very important and if prepared for it can save you much needed time to spend on arranging the service and preparing for the gathering of family and friends. Your funeral director will tell you that the final disposition of your loved one (the burial or cremation) can not be completed without first filing the Death Certificate and Burial/Cremation permit. Your funeral director will need to complete these documents as accurately as possible and if you are not prepared with the necessary information, then most of your initial meeting will be spent retrieving this information.

Having the following documents will save you time and give you peace of mind that the information you are supplying is accurate and you should bring them with you to the first meeting:
Deceased's Birth certificate; Deceased's Marriage certificate; Deceased's Military discharge papers; Deceased's Funeral pre-arrangements documents; Deceased Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care

How many death certificates are needed?

The general rule is to get one death certificate for every bank account, insurance policy, brokerage account and property deed. Every account and asset that will need to be closed or transferred will need a certificate. Please note that credit card companies generally do not need an original certificate when closing out those accounts.

To save money, you can take an original certificate to the bank, insurance co, or brokerage co, have an officer or manager make a copy of the original certificate and notarized the copy. The original certificate is then returned to you for used again.

Before making the decision of how many to purchase, familiarize yourself with the number of assets you'll need to close or transfer.

Lastly, always get 3 to 5 extra copies after you come up with the initial number. It can take weeks and sometimes months to get additional certificates after the initial filing has been done.

What are the benefits of prearranging my own funeral?

I cannot begin to tell you how prearranging your own funeral saves much time and stress for your loved ones. Just this week I learned about an acquaintance who's husband decided just hours before his death (he was ill with cancer) he wanted to be cremated. Being Jewish, his wife who is a convert to the Jewish faith, said that he needed to tell his family about his decision. He did so by phone with his mother. Unfortunately, by not prearranging this in writing (signed and witnessed) put undue stress on the wife. His family did not accept this last minuet decision.

The whole idea about prearranging your own funeral arrangements is that you make sure that your wishes are fulfilled to your specification and that you family is relieved from making decisions that they might not be 100% sure of.

What should be done about a difficult mourner?

There are some difficult mourners and most times the family is well aware of who they are and that they just might show up. The funeral director is there to take as much stress away from you as possible. Do not hesitate to tell your funeral director of your concerns. Through years of experience, the funeral director is expert in dealing with all types of difficult persons and they should be able to isolate and deal with the difficult mourner, taking that burden away from you.

Why choose burial over cremation?

Burial is still traditional while cremation is becoming more popular since it is more economical. The cost of a burial is on an average 3 times the cost of cremation for many of the following reasons:

With cremation there is minimal need to physically handle the body (embalming, dressing and cosmetics for viewing).

The cremation casket or container can be an inexpensive minimal combustible casket or cardboard box, where as a burial requires a more substantial casket consisting of at least particle board. Even the new trend in "Green" caskets are quite costly.

It is not required to store or scatter the cremated remains in a cemetery. The least expensive decision for cremated remains would be to take them home for disposition at a later date. Where as, with a casketed remains, you have only one choice and that is burial, either in the ground or entombment in a crypt or a mausoleum. In addition to the mortuary costs stated above, there are the cemetery costs such as: the purchase of cemetery property; opening and closing the crypt or the grave; purchase of a grave vault or liner (required in most states unless a metal casket is purchased), and lastly, purchase of the grave stone or marker.

Please note, that in some religions, cremation is not accepted.

Should children attend the funeral?

In my experience children are quite resilient and when prepared properly by their parents about the death, they are most of the time better behaved then some of the adults. Funerals or memorials are a time for families to gather to remember a loved one and children benefit from the gathering of the family. Don't underestimate your children. It's OK to talk about death - it's a part of all our lives.

What is the tipping etiquette for service providers?

The tip or gratuity for the clergyman who performs a funeral service is called the honorarium. The amount of the honorarium ranges from $50 to $200, depending on their involvement in planning and the ministers relation to the family. If you are not sure how much to give, then ask for some help from the funeral director. He will know what is customary. You do not tip a funeral director.

In general, the following is a guide line: Funeral organist, musician or soloist receive between $50 to $75 per person; Flower deliveries are $2 to $5 for normal deliveries and $5 to $10 for large ones; Limo driver receive 15% of the total fare, however, make sure the tip is not included already in the bill; food servers receive 15% to 20% of the total bill.

Is embalming necessary?

No, not necessarily. Unless you have chosen to delay the visitation or funeral service with an open casket for a number of days, it is not necessary nor is it required. Embalming is to preserve the body long enough to enhance or maintain appearance for the visitation or service.

If the remains are being transported across state lines or out of the country, embalming is absolutely necessary. In addition, if the deceased is being transported by plane most airlines do require it as well.

Please feel free to submit a question.
You will receive a response within 48 hours.