You may not wish to stop for death, but as Emily Dickinson once so eloquently put it, it will kindly stop for you.
Yes, our demise is one of the few certainties in life. And yet so many of us do our very best to avoid all thoughts of death, dying or funerals.
This was Valerie Vetter’s experience some years ago when she lost both her parents. “When my parents died, I was very unprepared for it,” she says, recalling a visit to a funeral director which completely passed her by.
“I couldn’t take in what he was telling me; I found it just too hard,” she says.
So why don’t we take some time ahead of the eventuality – either on our own behalf or for our nearest and dearest – to do a bit of research and planning?
Well, as Vetter says, “we’re all in denial”.
But if you want move past the denial and accept the inevitable, what do you need to know?
Preparing for a funeral
It may seem a bit macabre, but planning your own funeral can take away the stress from those you leave behind at having to organise such a large a event at what may be a sad and difficult time. It can also ensure that your “last hurrah” is conducted in a manner you would like.
According to Peter Maguire, business manager at Massey Bros Funeral Directors, more and more people are now considering this option. Not only that, but people are thinking about it at a younger age too.
“There was a time when someone thought about their funeral when they were in poor health or advancing in years. Today, we are seeing people in their 40s pre-plan their funeral as part of their wider financial planning, particularly if they have a family,” he says.
If you’re loath to start thinking about it, Vetter suggests that to get the ball rolling in a soft way, think about what songs you’d like played at your funeral.
Her website, aftering.com, is also a good resource for people looking for more information on funerals.
“I wanted to do something that would be of help, that makes the process a little easier, and makes people feel a little more in control,” she says.
Can I pre-pay?
Another way of mitigating stress at such a difficult time, is to put financial arrangements in place either for your own funeral or that of a close relative.
Many funeral operators now offer a number of plans.
Quinn's Funerals in Co Louth, for example, has plans ranging from €2,500 to €5,500. All exclude the cost of burial plots and headstones, while the most expensive option includes costs associated with religious services as well as a "superior quality" coffin. The funeral director also charges a €195 administration fee for pre-planning.
For those who want to pay in advance for their funeral, many Irish funeral directors arrange it through UK company Golden Charter, which specialises in pre-paid funerals and holds money for such events in a trust.
Maguire says these new financial arrangements make it easier to pre-plan.
"Traditional funeral plans required you to pay for your funeral up-front and in full," he says, adding that Massey Bros now offers an insurance-based plan which allows you to pay for your funeral from the proceeds of an insurance policy funded through payment of a monthly premium.
“Pre-planning has become more affordable and more accessible,” he says.
For the family left behind, negotiating the cost of a funeral can be a step too far at such a sad and vulnerable time.
“It’s the worst time to be having such large financial decisions,” says Vetter.
And yet a family probably has no choice but to go ahead and make these decisions. A typical funeral will cost from about €2,000 and the sky really can be the limit when it comes to selecting a top-of-the-range coffin or headstone, or footing the bill at a memorial event.
Another problem is that, at such a grave and momentous occasion as a funeral, no-one wants to be perceived as being cheap.
“People will spend more than the person who died would want,” says Vetter, “you want to show how much you love the person.”
The main costs include the funeral director's professional fee for arranging the funeral; preparation of the remains; a coffin; transport – hearse and other cars; third-party costs, such as celebrant, other church related costs, grave/grave opening, cremation, funeral notices in newspapers, singers for the ceremony (if the family wishes), printing of Mass/service booklets (again, if the family wishes) and flowers.
One surprise people often get when they are billed by the funeral director is the inclusion of so-called “disbursements”, which can include many of the above.
Maguire recommends you get all costs fully itemised and agreed on before the funeral, as is the practice at Massey Bros, to ensure there are no surprises after the event.
Burial v cremation
One of the biggest issues facing many people is whether or not to have their body buried or cremated. Leaving the decision in the hands of the family you leave behind can cause undue stress, says Vetter.
With six options now to get cremated around the island of Ireland, cremation is growing in popularity, accounting for about 13 per cent of funerals.
However, contrary to popular belief, cremation may not always be the cheapest option, particularly if you already have a family plot.
For example, typical fees for interment range from about €400 to €1,100 depending on where in the country you are. The adult cremation fee in Mount Jerome, Harold’s Cross, Dublin, is €400, with up to a further €215 for an urn.
If you don’t have a plot with space available however, the costs of buying one can make cremation a cheaper option.
In the Dún Laoghaire Rathdown area in Dublin, for example, two cemeteries are in use, with plots in Shanganagh costing €2,900, and €16,000 in Deansgrange, where space is more limited.
Interment costs €900 in both graveyards, or €400 for ashes. But these aren’t the only costs.
Preparing the ground for a headstone can cost over €600, while sealing and covering the grave are also expensive, at about €400 and €238 respectively.
Additional costs, such as religious ceremonies and headstones/memorial plaques, extra charges for bank holidays and so on, may apply in both instances.
Dublin-based Maguire has noticed an increase in the number of people opting for cremation.
“Last year 40 per cent of the funerals we arranged were cremations. People are more aware of cremation as an option,” he says, adding that one factor is that there is a limit to the number of burials that can take place in any one grave.
“We are seeing more and more families opt for cremation and burial of ashes in a family plot so that they avoid having to purchase a new grave.”
One cost that may vary is the price of the coffin. When a body is cremated the coffin is destroyed with it, which may make some people opt for a simpler casket.
Another option is to rent a coffin. This type of coffin will have a simpler inner casket which will be burned with the body, while the outer, more ornate coffin, will be returned to the funeral director after cremation.
Coffins typically cost between €500 and €3,500, but don’t think that if you opt for an environmentally friendly wicker casket you’ll save money. Legacy Online, for example, offers a wicker coffin for €950, compared with a simpler wooden style for €400.
Body to science?
Having a funeral is not the only way to mark your demise. Donating your body to science is another option.
You can apply to a college such as Trinity College Dublin or University College Galway to be accepted onto their donor programme – but note that your application must be witnessed and signed by your next-of-kin.
Donating your body to science does not preclude a burial or cremation; at TCD, for example, bodies are usually held for three years, with interments or cremations typically taking place in July.
Bodies can be buried in a communal plot at Glasnevin Cemetery, or cremated, and the college bears the cost of this. Arrangements can also be made for the body to be laid to rest in a family plot.
Until the end of 2013, a bereavement grant of €850, which wasn’t means tested, was available to help with the costs of a funeral. This is no longer available. There may still be assistance for welfare recipients.
If you are concerned about funeral charges, you could consider taking out an insurance policy which should help defray the costs.
CUsafe, for example, which offers insurance to credit union members, has funeral insurance of between €5,000 and €10,000, for those aged up to 75, with either single or dual life cover available.
Someone aged 45 looking to insure a single life, for example, could expect to pay €10.10 a month for cover of €5,000, or €12.02 for cover of €10,000. A 65-year-old will pay €17.23 and €31.94 respectively, for similar cover.
Trends in dying: Death cafes to doulas
The traditional wake may be as popular as ever but new trends are emerging. Live streaming of funerals has popped up in response to the departure of so many people from Irish shores in recent years. While, at first, it may seem an intrusion on those grieving to be filmed at such a sensitive time, it can help people unable to make the event itself.
Death cafes started in London three years ago and have since spread across Europe, North America and Australasia: and have now come to Ireland.
At a death cafe people gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death, and they have already taken place around the country.
Limerick will get its own death cafe on April 21st in coffee shop Hook & Ladder, which will allow attendees “to explore their own feelings, beliefs and hopes for what the end of life can be in a social but safe and structured way”.
While not really known in Ireland just yet, death doulas aim to play a similar role to those assisting in giving birth, helping people who want to die on their own terms, possibly at home.
Another move is away from the traditional religious funeral to a secular alternative. Peter Maguire (right), business manager at Massey Bros Funeral Directors, says that while the majority of funerals they arrange are religious, there is a move towards secular funerals.
While a civil funeral can, in theory, take place anywhere, as aftering.com's Valerie Vetter notes, it can be difficult to find a venue which will also take a body.
Humanist funerals, for example, can be held in a number of venues, such as a crematorium, at the graveside, in a funeral parlour, at a hotel, community hall, in gardens, woodland, a marquee or private home.
Maguire says most families tend to hold them either at a funeral home or crematorium. “The process of arranging a civil funeral is really no different to arranging a religious funeral in that it is all about creating a fitting tribute for a family’s loved one,” he says.