When my mother died, my sister, brother and I found ourselves standing in the middle of her Long Island apartment, surrounded by the stuff nobody wanted.
"How in the world are we going to divvy all this up?" we asked.
So I took a picture off the wall, because we had to start somewhere, and on the back of the frame I found a piece of masking tape with the words: "This goes to Kevin."
"This goes to John" was written on other possessions, and "This goes to Cathy" on still others.
To our great relief, everything in the apartment was labeled and the decision-making was easy.
That was good planning on my mother's part, and very thoughtful.
David Dengler of the Dengler-Roberts Funeral Homes says preplanning and prepaying your own funeral accomplish many good things: First, it relieves the family from making decisions under duress.
"People come here with two basic questions," Dengler says. "What do we do and how do we pay for it?
If the funeral has been preplanned, those questions have been answered.
Second, preplanning assures that the dearly departed has the kind of funeral he or she wants. Burial or cremation. Simple ceremony or grand gala. Music or no music. Flowers or no flowers. Big mahogany casket or plain pine box.
"Prearranged contracts are not cast in stone," Dengler says. "The survivors can still make minor changes, like calling hours for instance, but once they see that this is what the contract says, this is what Mom wanted, I can't think of a single time the family has changed a loved one's wishes on major issues."
Third, the funeral home provides a form for writing the obituary. This can become a great (and accurate) source of family history.
"Even if the obit doesn't get in the paper," says Dengler, "this is a great thing for the family to have."
And finally, there's the cost. You can preplan your funeral without prepaying, but why would you?
Funeral homes can set up a revocable trust in your name that pays for the funeral, whenever it occurs. You figure out what kind of funeral you want, the funeral home tells you what it will cost, and they set up a revocable trust in your name specifically to cover the costs of your funeral.
You can pay for it all up front, or you can pay over time. The money goes to an interest-bearing account (you'll pay taxes on the interest) and, at the appropriate time, the money will be there when it's needed.
If in a few years, you change your mind, or need the money for other expenses, you can get it back. (This is assuming you set this up before you're on Medicaid. If you're on Medicaid, the rules change; it's an irrevocable trust.)
For more information on trusts, wills and other end-of-life considerations, see Suze Orman's column at the left.
Do your family a favor. Prepare for the inevitable. A little planning and communication now can save everybody a lot of stress, time and money later, at a time of great grief.