David A. Hill is a free-lance writer. He lives and works in Mill Valley, California
"I want to talk with you about my funeral," my mother said. With these unlikely words, she began one of the most intimate conversations we have ever had. We sat back and spoke matter-of-factly about the funeral she had just arranged for herself.
"The idea has been in the back of my mind for years—ever since your grandmother died," she said. "Arranging her funeral was very difficult for me. There were so many details, and your uncle and I couldn't agree on how to handle them.
"Then a close friend died. She had wanted a simple funeral, but her husband went out and spent a fortune. That did it. I went to the funeral home and planned everything for myself. I even arranged to donate my corneas to an eye bank. Now I feel relieved—and a little proud."
Mother took me through the details of her plan. She showed me how to apply for the lump-sum final Social Security payment, where to find her personal papers. I barely heard her. The realization that she had arranged her own funeral to spare me the burden was stunning.
As time passed, my wife and I found ourselves increasingly struck by the sanity of the idea. What had seemed initially to be unthinkable became the intelligent, realistic thing to do. For one thing, Mother's action stimulated my wife and me to face our own mortality. Neither of us had known how the other wanted to be buried; neither of us had had a will. We do now. We've even spoken with a memorial society about funeral arrangements. We realized that we can give to each other the same gift that Mother gave to me.
Perhaps, one day, planning your funeral will strike you as a sensible thing to do. If so, information that my wife and I have gathered may be of help.
The first consideration is the service. While the familiar ''funeral" is still dominant, many now choose the alternative memorial service. Here the remains are not present, and the focus of the service is on the life of the deceased and on the survivors. While a memorial service is often held in church, synagogue, or funeral home, it is also frequentlv set in a place of particular meaning to the deceased—at home, at sea, and, in one case I know of, on a golf course.
The second consideration is burial. There are two alternatives: interment underground in a grave, or entombment aboveground in a mausoleum. Or should I say three alternatives? Six percent of the deceased in the United States are now cremated, and the number is climbing steadily. Cremated remains may be put in an urn and housed in a columbarium (a mausoleum for this purpose); they may be interred in a grave; or—except in Alaska, Washington and Indiana, where the law prohibits it—they may be scattered.
There are four kinds of cemeteries: private, church, municipal, and national. A funeral director or clergyman can tell you what is available in your area. If you served honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces, you and your spouse are eligible for burial in any of the fifty-six national cemeteries that have space available, except Arlington (in Virginia). There is no charge for burial in a national cemetery; there is also no way to reserve space in advance.
You may want to consider an altruistic alternative to cremation or burial—the bequest of your body or parts of it to a medical school, or to various organ and tissue banks. Your physician, funeral director, or memorial society can help you arrange such gifts.