At The Death: When no prearrangment for funeral has been made.

When individuals or family members have not made funeral arrangements before the time of their death, usually family members call the funeral firm of their choice (which may not be the deceased’s) and have the body taken to the funeral home of their choice. Later (within a day or two) the family makes the arrangements in an AT-Need Arrangement conference.

Deceased human remains become “quasi-property” at the time of death. This means that the body, although belonging to the deceased person throughout life, now becomes the “quasi-property” of the legal next of kin or person designated in the deceased person’s will [Last Will and Testament] as the Executor of the Estate.

It is that person’s or persons’ responsibility to decide on the care of the deceased body:

    1) to embalm for casketing and viewing, followed by cremation;

    2) to cremate the body;

    3) to make an anatomical donation of the body (more about that later);

    4) to have a full traditional funeral with embalming, viewing, and traditional service and earth burial.

The person or persons must also decide on what the final disposition of the remains will be. With traditional embalming and viewing of the body, without cremation, this could be either earth burial or mausoleum intombment. With cremation (even if you have had embalming, viewing and a service) the cremated remains must be given a final disposition. There are many options for the disposition of these remains:

    1) Burial;

    2) Entombment;

    3) Placed in an urn on a mantle (or elsewhere) in a family member’s home;

    4) Scattered in a flower garden (one designated for that purpose);

    5) Scattered at sea (EPA requires that this be done three miles from the shoreline);

    6) Scattered on your private property (please check local laws before using this method of disposal);

    7) Placed in a niche of a columbarium;

    8) Several or all of the family members may wish to retain a portion of the deceased person’s remains. For this purpose, a number of “keepsake” urns may be purchased and the remains divided and placed in these urns for each member;

    9) It is also possible now to pay appropriate companies to “blast” your loved one’s cremated remains into space;

    10) I’ve heard of a hunter who asked his friends to load the cremated remains of his body into shot gun shells and shoot the remains around his favorite hunting grounds.

There are many other options, but please check your local and state laws before acting! Your local funeral professional will be glad to help you.

With anatomical donation, the body is donated to a medical school for studies by medical students, or for research to find a cure for a specific disease. If you decide you can avoid “funeral” costs by using this donation approach, there are some issues to consider. For instance, if you make arrangements with a medical school prior to your death, consider that if that particular medical school has no space, at the time of death, to take another cadaver? Then other arrangements must be made. If the medical school is able to accept the “gift,” after the studies or research have been completed, the remains will be cremated and returned to the legal next of kin or designated legal representative. At that time, a decision must be made on the disposition of the deceased’s cremated remains.

Decisions! Decisions! Decisions!

As I said previously, everyone involved may not be able to agree on the care to be given to the body, and they may not be able to agree on the final disposition of the remains.

An example: A retired couple is killed in an accident. Their adult children are then able to agree that they want to have a traditional service with embalming, viewing/calling hours, a funeral service, and earth burial. They may not be able to agree immediately on the location of the grave sites. Should the bodies be buried:

    1) in the city where they spent their retirement?

    2) in the city where they spent most of their adult life?

    3) in the town in which they grew up?

    4) in the home church cemetery with the wife’s parents?

    5) in the local city cemetery with the husband’s parents, back in the old home town?

If there are four adult children, you may have four different answers to the above questions.

These are basic decisions that must be made in an At-Need Arrangement… usually within a few hours. Had this couple pre-arranged, they would have had time to think through what each one wanted, talked with their children to discuss the pros and cons of each, and made their own decisions…maybe over the course of several years. Do a lot of families fight? By far, most do not, at least in front of the funeral directors. We see hurt feelings among siblings sometimes. Funeral directors see the very best in people and the very worst in people. Very few families have no disfunction. And disfunction at a time like this is understandable!

Many people are caught “off-guard” at the death of a loved one. But, even if the death is expected, various emotions are experienced by each of the family members at different times:

  • Shock and disbelief;
  • Denial;
  • Anger and rage;
  • Guilt and regrets;
  • Depression;
  • Physical illness;
  • Acceptance.

One family member may be experiencing a certain emotion at a given time and, a moment later, might well be moving to another emotion; so it is understandable that disagreements might arise on decisions to be made.

There may be as many as 100 different decisions to make when a death occurs. Some decisions depend on other decisions. The bottom line is this: To save much heartache, talk to your family members. Tell them what you want and find out what they want, for you and for them!


Susan Mitchell Cox has served as the managing funeral director of Alexander Funeral Service in Taylorsville since it’s opening in 1996. She was the first woman in a ten-count area of northwestern North Carolina to be a licensed as a funeral director and embalmer. She was recently elected as the District 10 Director for NCFDA.