Understanding Funerals: What to Expect at the End of Life

Understanding Funerals: What to Expect at the End of Life
Most people do not like thinking about funerals and death. However, they are inevitable parts of life, so knowing what to expect during these events long before they happen can be beneficial and bring peace of mind.
9 minute read

Daniela Fortino

Most people do not like thinking about funerals and death. However, they are inevitable parts of life, so knowing what to expect during these events long before they happen can be beneficial and bring peace of mind.

Understanding funerals and what they entail is helpful, whether you are actively pre-planning your own funeral, or arranging one for a family member. Below, we have compiled a list of funeral tips to help you understand the process.

Understanding what is involved in a funeral

Planning a funeral can be a difficult task because there is often a lot steps involved and numerous decisions to be made. The best way to understand them is to break them down into their component parts. Almost all funerals consist of three general segments:

  1. Body preparation: What is done with the body after death.
  2. Ceremony or celebration of life: How is the deceased memorialized.
  3. Interment: What is done with the remains.

Body preparation

In most cases, there are two options to choose from for body preparation and disposition: cremation or burial. The split between the two is 73.1/26.9 respectively in Canada  (see graph below). The cremation rate in Canada has been increasing steadily for the last 20 years. In 2000, the cremation rate was at 47.7 percent, and it grew to reach 73.1 percent as of 2020 (source: Statista).

Cremation rate in Canada 2000-2020

In this step, before any disposition services can be completed,  documentation must be completed. This task includes registering the death and obtaining a burial permit. A death certificate is also helpful with settling wills and estate, applying for death benefits, accessing or canceling government services, and more.  This process can be handled by a family member, though it is typically arranged with a funeral professional's help and is often part of a funeral package.

Burial

Burial was once the primary funeral practice, wherein the deceased is buried in the ground, at sea or in a crypt. This can be at a cemetery, a private family plot, a green burial site, or at sea. Some people may also opt for interment in a mausoleum, a crypt on cemetery grounds, over a ground burial.

Body preparation for burials varies depending on the type of service selected. In general, body preparation involves washing and dressing the body.

For burial it is then placed it in a casket. This is done by funeral providers, but a family can take more of a role during death care and handle this themselves.

Funeral providers may recommend embalming for families that choose a viewing or visitation. Embalming is the chemical preservation of the body done by licensed professionals to slow down decomposition. It can be useful for bodies that will not be immediately cremated or buried. However, it is not mandatory, and refrigeration of a body can be an alternative method (and more affordable choice) to preserve a body temporarily.

Cremation

Cremation is a funerary process in which a dead body is reduced into "cremated remains" or "ashes." The ashes–which consists of course powdered bone–can be kept in a decorative container called an urn. Many things can be done with ashes. Common choices include keeping them at home, burying, interning in a niche or columbarium in a cemetery, and scattering them. There are two main types of cremation – flame cremation and aquamation. Read more: Questions and answers about cremation here.

Flame cremation

Flame cremation exposes the body to extremely high temperatures in a cremation chamber. Organic material in the body is consumed by extreme heat in the chamber. This leaves bone matter and any non-combustible materials such as metal from surgical appliances. The remaining bone fragments are mechanically processed into particles and placed in an urn. Metal is recycled. Learn more about urns here.

Aquamation

An alternative to flame cremation is aquamation - or liquid cremation. It uses the chemical process of alkaline hydrolysis to cremate remains. In this process, a body is treated with a combination of water, alkali (a chemical called potassium hydroxide), heat, and pressure, which produces a reaction that speeds up the body's decomposition. When complete, it leaves behind bone fragments, which are reduced to a powder, and placed in an urn. A sterile liquid is a byproduct of the aquamation process, and it is disposed of into municipal wastewater. Learn more about aquamation here.

Traditional funeral vs direct cremation

Some people opt for a full traditional funeral, with embalming, a viewing or visitation, and a funeral service. After that, their remains are cremated or buried in a graveyard or mausoleum. These funerals can be elaborate and expensive.

Alternatively, you can opt for simplicity with a direct cremation. It involves the transportation of a body to a crematory. The body is held in refrigeration until after paperwork is complete. Then the body is cremated, and the ashes are returned to the family in an urn. After that, a celebration of life or memorial service can be planned at a future date.

Direct cremation eliminates more expensive services such as embalming, visitation, viewing, wake, and casket purchase. After this process, friends and family can choose to hold any memorial or funeral services at any time.

Read more: 10 things to know about direct cremation

Funeral ceremony or celebration of life

There are many options for funerary ceremonies and celebrations. Some common funeral choices can include:

  • Full funeral service
  • Religious or secular service
  • Home funeral
  • Memorial service or celebration of life
  • Graveside or committal service
  • Viewing, visitation, or wake
  • Ash scattering

Each service has different things to consider. For example, a home funeral may have more of a time constraint, especially when forgoing embalming or other preservation practices. Whereas a memorial or celebration of life can be held weeks, months, or years down the line. Nonetheless, some general things to keep in mind when having a ceremony or celebration include:

  • Body or ashes transportation
  • COVID gathering restrictions or other public health measures
  • Local scattering and burial rules and regulations
  • Religious protocols
  • Wishes of the deceased and their family
  • Dress code
  • Venue, food, decoration, music, etc.

Interment

Interment refers to where the casketed body or urn that contains ashes will be placed after funeral celebrations. For burials, common options include burial in the ground or placement in a sealed crypt in a mausoleum.

A mausoleum is a building often made from stone, designed to house the remains of one or several individuals above ground. There are many different types of mausoleums. For example, public mausoleums typically hold many bodies and are open to the public for visitation. In contrast, private mausoleums are often on private property and are restricted for family use.

Ashes and urns can also be buried in the ground or interred in a niche or columbarium. A columbarium is a structure used to store and often display urns containing cremated remains. These often have areas called a niche. This shallow recess, usually within a wall, holds the urns and other keepsakes that memorialize the deceased.

Another common option for the final handling of ashes is to keep urns in a home, or they can be scattered. In Canada, ashes can be scattered on private property with permission from the landowner. They can also be scattered on Crown land in Canada if the space is unoccupied. This includes provincial parks and conservation reserves. Crown land under bodies of water, such as lakes, rivers, or the ocean, is included in this rule.

Scattering rules may vary in different provinces and municipalities, so you should contact the local or regional municipality beforehand to check.

Some cemeteries will also allow you to scatter the remains on the property. When interment takes place at a cemetery, burial, scattering, or interment rights must be purchased beforehand.

Sustainable funerals

Many people make changes to their lives to help minimize a negative impact on the environment. This can also be done in death by choosing more sustainable funeral options.

A simple way to do this is by choosing cremation. In general, cremation requires fewer resources than burial, with no upkeep of a gravesite, and it leaves less of a physical and environmental footprint. Environmental impact can be further reduced by choosing aquamation as a final disposition. Aquamation has no direct emissions of harmful greenhouse gasses or mercury, no burning of fossil fuels, and uses less energy than flame-based cremation.

If you prefer a burial, then a green burial is another way to reduce environmental impact. Green burials do not use embalming fluids or toxic chemicals, and bodies are buried in biodegradable caskets (e.g., wicker) or wrapped in a shroud made from biodegradable materials. This type of burial allows the body to decompose naturally and incorporate back into the earth. The grave plots can be reused over time.

Use of a biodegradable urn or casket is an additional way to add a sustainable element to funeral plans. The containers are made from materials such as paper, clay, plant material, bark, wood, sand, and other materials that will naturally decompose over time.

Pre-planning a funeral: Pros and cons

Getting a jump start on planning funeral arrangements is always a good idea. However, this does not mean that every aspect of the funeral must be arranged and paid for in advance. For some, pre-planning can mean initiating a conversation with family about their wishes and documenting them. Others may simply choose to put their affairs and estate in order. Many people also fully plan and prepay for their funeral as it brings peace of mind and takes the burden off family.  In Ontario, the pre-planning contract is with either a service provider or insurance company.

If you prepay with a funeral service provider, you can have the money held "in trust" by a bank, trust company, or independent trustee. If the money is placed in a trust for services and supplies, the service provider is required by law to hold it in safe investments.

If you buy a policy from an insurance company to fund a contract, you need to sign an insurance contract and a prepaid contract with your service provider. This process helps ensure the money is used for supplies and services.

Pre-planning can also consist of appointing a health care proxy. This is an individual appointed to make health and medical decisions for a person when they cannot make them for themselves. Health care proxies are legally required to follow wishes outlined in legal documents (e.g., advance directive). However, if records do not exist, the proxy will decide based on what they know about the wishes of the person they represent.

Advantages of pre-planning and prepaying

Here are the advantages of pre-planning a funeral:

  • Gives you control over end-of-life decisions
  • Can help relieve some of the burden put on grieving friends and family
  • Ensures your wishes and the wishes of your family are considered.
  • Ensures there is adequate money put aside for desired services.
  • Minimizes confusion when handling assets and estate
  • Can help minimize arguments over health decisions
  • Helps family prepare for the loss
  • Minimizes responsibilities put on family (so they can put more focus on grieving and accepting the death)
  • In Ontario, your money is protected by the Prepaid Funeral Services Compensation Fund and under Ontario's Insurance Act

Disadvantages to pre-planning or prepaying

Here are some perceived disadvantages of pre-planning a funeral:

  • New funeral options may not be included in a plan down the line (e.g., aquamation, which only became available recently and promession which is in development.)
  • A lot can change from when you enter a prepay arrangement to when you die.
  • You may change your mind in future.
  • You may lose money when cancelling a contract (e.g., administrative fees).
  • Family may disagree with certain decisions.

Overall, pre-planning is a great way to have autonomy over funeral choices; however, a funeral is often as important to a family as it is to you. Therefore, it is a good idea to consider their wishes and input when making these decisions.

Determine funeral cost

Funerals can be fairly expensive. Some can cost as little as a few thousand dollars, while others cost more than $20,000. Funeral costs depend largely on what final arrangements are selected. Burials are more costly than cremation.

Burial costs

Burial costs range from $4,000 to $12,000. The price tag can be variable depending on body preparation (e.g., embalming), interment choice, funeral services, and more. For example, interment in a mausoleum will cost more. Additionally, caskets are priced anywhere from $900 to over $20,000.

Cremation costs

Cremation costs depend on several factors. However, a cremation funeral typically ranges anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000. The cost is variable and depends on if flame cremation or aquamation is performed. The cost of aquamation is slightly more expensive than flame cremation. The price for aquamation typically costs in the $3000 range. Flame cremation can range from $800 to over $3000 depending on if you want details handled for you or not.

Funeral home pricing

In general, expect higher funeral fees for funeral home packages, including ceremonies, visitation, casket purchase or rental, and more. The best way to determine the cost of a funeral is to choose the services you would like and then discuss these services with family, funeral providers, cemeteries, etc.

Direct cremation pricing

If you choose a direct cremation package, like those offered by Eirene, you can expect all inclusive fees in the $2500 to $3000 range.

Compare funeral packages, options, and prices

In most cities, there are several funeral providers offering services. Prices can vary greatly depending on which one you choose. Additionally, services offered can also vary. For example, even if you opt for family-led death care, services such as cremation and transportation need to be considered. Therefore, it is good to shop around when making funeral arrangements.

In Ontario, funeral providers are required to be transparent about their services and prices, which can help you easily understand the packages and pricing. However, you should make sure to pick packages that include only the services you want and ask questions when unsure about something.

Don't settle for the local funeral home. Consider a more modern and economical provider like Eirene.

Initiate research and conversation

Once you have an idea of what is involved with funeral planning, you can start researching and discussing arrangements. Of course, many of us want to avoid these difficult decisions and conversations; however, death cannot often be planned. Therefore, you may want to start thinking about it as soon rather than later.

Get help

If you'd like to ask questions, contact us at Eirene. We are available 24/7 via email or phone. Click here to contact us.