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Dealing with Death
The Legal Issues
© 1999, Demian


Coping with your eventual death could be one of the hardest things your partner ever faces. The last thing he or she will need is having to handle the many details of funeral arrangements. Or even worse, a fight with your relatives over “what you would have wanted.”

You owe it to your partner to take care of as many details as possible in advance. She or he will need the time for grieving.

You may already have a Will to direct the distribution of your worldly possessions. But have you arranged for the disposition of your body? Or made clear what kind of ceremony you want, if any? If you don’t make funeral arrangements in advance — and until legal marriage is available for same-sex couples — most state laws require funeral homes to obey the wishes of the nearest blood relative of the deceased, usually starting with the parents. Since same-sex couples are “legal strangers,” partners could be prevented from the handling of any of the details, and possibly even be banned from the funeral.


Making your wishes known

To get what you want, write it into your Will. Aside from distributing your estate, your Will should specify what funeral arrangements you want — in any degree of detail. It should also name a personal representative (perhaps your partner) to carry out your wishes.

Another document that will help your partner in the event of your death is a Relationship (or Partnership) Agreement, identifying the possessions in your household that belong to each of you. This will help assure that her or his property is not improperly involved in the settlement of your estate.

Rather than relying solely on a Will to communicate your funeral instructions, you may prefer to choose a funeral home and select — even pre-pay — your desired arrangements in advance. Prepayment plans often entail price protection and installment plans. If you make plans with a funeral home, just make sure your partner and relatives know that you have done so. Also, describe the arrangement in your Will.

Expressing your wishes in advance, by whatever method, alleviates the awkwardness of others having to guess what you would have wanted. It also lessens the potential for conflict among interested parties.


A range of choices

Ernest Morgan, author of “Dealing Creatively With Death,” describes the major funeral options, from least to most expensive:

  • Immediate removal to a medical school followed by a memorial service.
  • Immediate burial by the survivors without professional help. Some religious sects do this.
  • Immediate cremation followed by a memorial service.
  • A funeral service with the body, followed by cremation or donation to a medical school.
  • A funeral service with the body, followed by earth burial.

Most funeral homes and memorial societies can handle any of these arrangements. However, funeral homes are oriented towards the more elaborate services, and are therefore more costly.

While funeral homes usually offer simple and inexpensive services, national estimates for a fairly typical funeral home service — embalming, a good quality casket, and a reasonably elaborate ceremony — hover around $3,000 or more.

Increasingly popular, memorial societies are nonprofit consumer organizations that advise their membership of available services and costs. Many have negotiated funeral services at predetermined prices. Lifetime membership fees are usually minimal, and the simple full-service funerals range from $575 to $950.

If you choose burial, count on additional cemetery costs. While the funeral home you select may also offer cemetery plots, you are free to select another cemetery. Cemetery plots can cost from $500 to $1,000 or more, including plot, opening and closing of the grave and grade liner. Mausoleum niches generally cost more. Cremation is a far less costly option, since a casket is not necessary for burial. Memorial societies can provide cremation services without a ceremony for as little as $350.


Shop around

Few other investments of this size are selected so arbitrarily. According to Morgan, the cost of an average funeral service is the third largest investment most people make.

Costs for funeral and cemetery services vary widely. So do services and facilities. So, while it may at first sound crass or feel uncomfortable, you will probably pay less and be more satisfied if you take time to visit several funeral homes long before their services are needed. Ask for a price list of services and, if you plan a burial, casket prices. Federal law requires them to supply this information.


Why have a ceremony?

Ceremonies are not for everyone, but Morgan and many psychologists agree that some kind of ceremony helps survivors to:

  • Re-establish relationships with the deceased, themselves and other survivors.
  • Affirm personal values and relieve any sense of guilt.
  • Experience emotional support from other survivors.
  • For some, to affirm religious beliefs.

The essential decisions: A checklist
  • Disposition of your body
    • If cremation, will your ashes be scattered or saved?
    • If burial, do you want a mausoleum niche or a plot in the ground?
    • If a plot, do you want to be buried with your partner? Your blood relatives?
    • How will your grave be marked?
  • Ceremonial arrangements
    • Do you want a ceremony of some kind?
    • Whether you choose cremation or burial, will your body be present?
    • Do you want to specify details of the ceremony?
    • Will memorial gifts be welcome? In what form?
  • Assignment of responsibilities
    • Who will make the decisions you don’t make in advance?
    • Who will decide if there is disagreement among your survivors?


This information is not meant as a substitute for legal advice — laws vary from state to state.

Resources for this article include an article by Thomas Cardwell in “The Philadelphia Gay News,” July 22, 1988, and “Dealing Creatively With Death” by Ernest Morgan, 10th ed., $6.50, Continental Association of Funeral and Memorial Societies, 2001 S St. N.W., #530, Washington, DC 20009, 202-745-0634.


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