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Essential Conversations: Talking to Loved Ones About Funerals and Finances

Unlock the guide to initiating Essential Conversations on planning for end-of-life wishes with loved ones. Explore practical tips for overcoming the taboo of discussing health, funeral arrangements, and finances, ensuring peace of mind for all.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of studies and statistics to prove what we already may know. People don’t like talking about death, dying, or end-of-life planning, including finances, funerals, or health care. One such study found that only 37 percent of 800,000 people had filled out paperwork making decisions about end-of-life health care. Only 36 percent of people had written down or talked to someone about funeral plans. And while 90 percent of people think end-of-life planning is important, only about 27 percent actually make a plan.

But the problem with not making a plan is that loved ones can be blindsided by the decisions and costs when a loved one dies. Many struggle to cover the funeral cost, let alone know what to do with personal possessions, pets, taxes, social media accounts, and more. 

Luckily, many people and organizations are working to make these conversations easier—conversations that are certain to make the lives of loved ones left behind a little smoother in the aftermath of a death. At Afterall, we strive to be a resource for families in all stages of the end-of-life journey.

We share tips and resources below about overcoming taboo topics when talking with your loved one about your choices for health care—or theirs—wishes for funeral arrangements and financial concerns. Health, money, and death are three things we’ve learned not to talk about, but without these conversations, the people we love will struggle after we are gone.

The Critical Talk on End-of-Life Planning We’re Not Having

Around the time she turned 60, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ellen Goodman went from being a working mom to a working daughter, caring for her mother during her final years of life. In a Tedx Boston talk, Goodman shared that toward the end of her life, her mother, who was in a long, slow decline and living with Alzheimer’s disease, “could no longer decide what she wanted for lunch, let alone what she wanted for health care.”

Goodman said when she was faced with having to make these decisions for her mother, she was blindsided.

Goodman says talking about death is the “most important conversation in America” we aren’t having, and her experience with her mother led her to found the nonprofit The Conversation Project. More to the point, she says, “It's about how we want to live at the end of our lives.”

“It’s about the care we want, and the care we don’t want to have, and who is going to decide,” she explained.

Goodman says you don’t need an app or a credit card to solve this problem. You just need to sit down and talk. “You need to sit down at the kitchen table with people you love and talk about your wishes and their wishes for end of life,” Goodman said. The Conversation Project has many tips on its website, including a “starter guide” with prompts to begin these important talks.

How To Talk About Funeral Plans with Family

Another survey by Funeralwise in 2010 found that fewer than half of the respondents had shared their funeral wishes with a loved one. While it may seem awkward or “too soon” to have these conversations, without guidance, family members are left to wonder if they made the decision a loved one would have wanted. 

Easy first questions to discuss with your loved ones could include whether you or they

  1. Would you like to be buried or cremated, or are you interested in one of the evolving methods (aquamation, human “composting” i.e., natural reduction, body donation)?
  2. Would you prefer a funeral (a service with a body or remains present) or a memorial (usually without a body or remains)?
  3. Do you know where you would like your final resting place (e.g., in a cemetery, scattered at a favorite location, in a family plot)?
  4. Do you have a budget in mind? (In price surveys of disposition, including service and viewing, cremation generally costs about $2,000 less than burial.)

Breaking the Silence: Discussing End-of-Life Finances

Talking about money can be taboo in some families and cultures. However, without knowing about the finances of your loved one, you will not have enough information to help guide them should they need more assistance, want to “spend down” for Medicaid eligibility, or need or want to downsize. If it is you who needs to share your information with younger family members or other trusted friends, know that someone will need to know about your bank accounts and passwords or where you might keep a list in the circumstance that someone will need to log on.

Ask or tell your loved one (or have a conversation in both directions):

  • Where you bank
  • Whether you have investments and through what companies
  • If you have life insurance
  • If you have a safe deposit box
  • If your bills are on autopay or not
  • If you have a trust or will and where it is

Financial planning for end-of-life today can alleviate anxiety for you and your family when the time comes. 

More Tips for Overcoming the Taboo of Death Discussions

These talks don’t have to happen simultaneously, but experts agree it is never too early in life to start having them. The AARP, along with the Conversation Project, has more sample questions and tips here. As Ellen Goodman says, “It’s always too soon until it is too late.” 

For more help starting these conversations, see our article From Bucket Lists to Goodbyes: A Guide to Talking About End-of-Life Wishes.

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