Helping seniors, or anyone for that matter, prepare for a funeral is an emotional yet necessary responsibility. Luckily, How To Feed A Senior is welcoming back Harry Cline, creator of NewCaregiver.org and author of the upcoming book, The A-Z Home Care Handbook: Health Management How-Tos for Senior Caregivers to help prepare us for one of life’s most difficult journeys. I feel fortunate to have Harry here to shed light on a day that is so full of darkness. After laying both my parents to rest I’ve found myself wanting to share a bit about the process but lost on where to begin. I’m happy to have Harry synthesize some important tips and I’ll include some personal thoughts at the bottom.
On average, there are 2.4 million funerals held every year in the United States, and the typical cost of burying someone is between $7,000 and $10,000. But neither of those statistics take into account the emotional weight of losing a loved one, or the intricacies of the funeral-planning process. Since the average life expectancy in the US is 78.6 years, it would seem that a great number of older adults either attend funerals or bury spouses or partners. If you’re in that demographic and you haven’t been through this process, read on for some thoughts on how to prepare for a funeral and how to cope with grief and loss.
Funeral Planning Process
The shock of losing a spouse can be extraordinarily painful. People often wrestle with feelings of loss and grief, sometimes for years afterwards. (Increasingly, too, those people are women, who outlive men across the world.) Managing to get through the funeral-planning process can be intricate. Here are just some questions to ask in this process:
Who is handling the death certificate?
What arrangements need to be made?
How is payment to be tendered?
What were the last wishes of the deceased?
Which pallbearers need to be contacted?
Who will send out the funeral announcements?
Who is going to be in touch with the funeral director?
The list goes on. That’s why it’s important to start this process early, even if you’re swamped with grief. So, it’s equally important to have a number of friends and loved ones around you to help you through this time.
For many people, the day of the funeral of their spouse or partner can be surreal. You still feel like he or she is with you, you’re surrounded by people all expressing their condolences, and you’re quickly exhausted. A lot of that is inevitable. But there are some things you can do that can help the day go smoothly. These include being prepared to give a eulogy well in advance so that you’re comfortable speaking in front of a crowd, or delegating someone else to speak on your behalf. Also, figure out what to wear. This may sound trivial, but being in nice-fitting clothing will make you feel at ease around all the people who come up to share a few words with you. (On that note, it goes a long way if you wear shoes with strong supports, because you may find yourself standing for hours, and your feet and ankles will quickly tire.) Finally, anticipate all the factors you can’t control: You will have to talk to a lot of people, some of whom you may not want to see, and others might share awkward or inappropriate condolences. With all that you’re going through, it’s always okay to simply end the conversation, and to retire to another room when you feel overwhelmed.
After the funeral, think about the long-term decisions that will affect you after losing your partner or spouse. You can expect to experience a low appetite, difficulty sleeping, problems concentrating, and a hard time making decisions. During this period, try above all to take care of yourself. Exercise, eat healthy, and get the recommended amount of sleep (7-8 hours for adults 65+). Tap into your support group to stay around friends and loved ones. Consider going to a grief support group, talking to a counselor, or signing up for a retreat in a monastery or other house or worship, if it puts you at peace. Adjusting back to a sense of normalcy following the funeral will take time, but eventually, you’ll find yourself prepared for the future.
Now, what I can tell you from Harry’s questions above, is that I was the person coordinating things. My mom passed rather unexpectedly which is to say I was not prepared. The only information I knew about her wishes was that she wanted a party. And how could she not?! She was a florist and a party planner so I knew our funeral would be a celebration of her life. However, no one mentioned the exorbitant expense surrounding this day. It cost me more than $8,000 just to bury her and that did not not include flowers or memorial services.
If you take away only one thing from my experience let it be awareness regarding death as an industry. The funeral business is a business and you will spend a fortune on a casket, burial plot, services held and obituaries printed, let alone any flowers or receptions you might want to hold in your loved one’s honor. Any emotional burden weighing on you during such times will only be compounded by the financial obligation that’s nothing short of a kick when you’re down. Additionally the pace in which the burial process demands adds further sting. Burials are time sensitive and you’ll be hard pressed to find a moment to collect yourself in the chaos.
Do I sound bitter? Well, I am. Bitter because I feel cheated out of an authentic opportunity to explore the true meaning of loss. I was so inundated with demands that I practically shutdown. I went into some strange autopilot mode where there was no room for grief because there were tasks to get done. I can only describe it as shock. Not shock from the loss (although obviously that is its own emotional layer), but shock around the cultural norm of how we manage death. Nothing slows down. Everything just marches on and you’ll likely be trampled if you are not prepared to stand your ground when it comes to delivering on final wishes. I have never felt so manipulated by an “occurrence”. It’s worth mentioning that those conducting services and offering guidance were well intentioned. That’s partly what made the process so difficult. The funeral industry insiders were nice people, wholly seasoned in every step of the process but that’s what’s hard to swallow. Recognizing that my mother was no different from the gentleman awaiting service a few ours after her’s, or the young daughter being laid to rest the next day… There’s something about funerals operating in assembly line fashion that shook me awake and then tormented me with thoughts of how to be better advocates for the dead.
I learned a lot in those few weeks. I learned the hard way but hopefully you wont have to. I encourage anyone considering final wishes for themselves or a loved one to look into cremation. Not only is it considerably more affordable but it’s also free of the time sensitivity that burials demand. Cremation eliminates the clock. Burials do not. A body in waiting requires management and care and is best dealt with swiftly. That is very understandable however the freedom to plan and honor one’s life deserves the space to cultivate authentic closure and that looks different for everyone. Rushing due to time restraints can diminish what’s really at stake; a significant loss of life… I cremated my father. It was still painful. But cremation allowed for us to plan a service that felt personal and meaningful in a way that played tribute to the amazing man he was. It wasn’t fancy, but it was poignant and for that I am grateful.