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We often find ourselves asking what to do when someone dies at some point in our lives.  Even when a person’s death is anticipated because they’re sick or have a terminal condition, no amount of preparation fully emotionally prepares you when someone you know and love actually passes away.

The grieving process is unique to each person but taking care of the many tasks need to be handled can be the start of the healing process.

What do you do after a loved one dies?

Depending on your situation, you may be tempted to handle as many of the details surrounding a person’s death as possible.  Staying busy can be cathartic, but it can also be overwhelming.  You need to take time to mourn the loss.  Also keep in mind that involving others during this difficult time can help them process their own grief as well.

There are several things that will need to be done in the days and weeks following a death, but just getting through the first 24 hours is what you should focus on immediately.  Here are some things that will need to happen:

Contact the authorities

If a person died at home, you will need to contact the police to make sure a medical examiner can legally pronounce the death.  If the person died at home but was receiving hospice, contact the hospice agency.  If a person died at a hospital or nursing facility, those healthcare personnel will deliver the official pronouncement of death.

Consider organ donation

Check the decedent’s driver’s license of advance directive to see if he or she wanted to donate organs or tissue.  Time is of the essence for this after a person passes.

Notify friends and relatives

Begin contacting immediate family members, close friends and other relatives.  Creating a phone tree is something that can be delegated to several people if a large circle of notifications is involved.

Contact an interment provider

Unless plans were already made, you will need to decide upon a funeral home or another provider such as a cremation services, body donation organization or a direct burial service.  If possible, bring together key family members for an early conversation and find out if the deceased had any special requests.  Consider what you can afford, what is realistic and what the deceased wanted.  Help might be available from a number of sources, including a church, a union or a fraternal organization that the deceased belonged to.

If the deceased was a veteran

You may be able to get assistance with a funeral, burial plot and other details.  The military views it as a privilege to lay one of their own to rest.  Contact Veterans Affairs at 1-800-827-1000 or your local veterans’ agency to inquire.

Arrange for care of dependents

If children are involved, a legal guardian will take custody of minors.  If there is no provision for this, then a state social welfare agency may intervene.  Pets will need to be cared for as well.

Important documents

Sometimes they are easy to find.  Sometimes they are not.  You may already know where a will, living trust and advance healthcare directive are, but you will also need several other documents.

  • Social Security card
  • military discharge papers
  • organ/tissue donation authorization
  • insurance policies

At some point you will also need deeds and titles to any property, automobile title and registration papers, stock certificates, bank account information, income tax returns, and birth and marriage certificates.

Other things you will need to consider in the days ahead:

  • Get duplicate death certificates. You may need a dozen or more copies.
  • Notify local Social Security office
  • Notify life insurance companies
  • Notify the post office
  • If the person was still working, look into employment benefits
  • Stop health insurance
  • Make a list of important bills such as mortgage payments and share the list with the executor or estate administrator
  • If you are the executor, consider meeting with a probate attorney
  • Notify banks
  • Notify credit card companies
  • Cancel driver’s license
  • Cancel email and website accounts
  • Cancel memberships in organizations
  • Contact a tax preparer

Depending on your relationship with the deceased, you may need to change several of your own documents as well.  If you are a spouse, most likely you left everything to the person who just died, meaning you’ll need to change the beneficiary designation on your IRA, life insurance policies, pension plans, 401(k) plans, and other investment or retirement plans.

Claiming Life Insurance benefits

Life insurance is a critical part of relieving the financial strain a family may face after a person passes away.  To start the process, beneficiaries or an executor must file a death claim with the insurance company, including the submission of a death certificate.  Many states allow insurers 30 days to review the claim after which time they can pay, ask for additional information or deny the claim.

Policies owned by revocable or irrevocable trusts must also provide a copy of the trust document to the insurance company identifying the owner and the beneficiary.

Assuming everything is in order, insurance companies generally pay within 30 to 60 days after a valid claim has been filed.  Insurance companies are motivated to pay in a timely manner to avoid steep interest charges for delaying the payment of a claim.

Payouts are typically made as a lump sum.  However, in recent years, the insurance industry has also added an installment payment plan as well.  An annuity can give a policyholder the option to select a pre-determined guaranteed income stream that will last between five and 40 years while they are still living.

Life insurance companies have designed policies that allow policyholders to draw against the face value of the policy in the event of a terminal, chronic or critical illness. These pre-death policies allow the policyholder to be the beneficiary of their own life insurance policy.  This is known as an accelerated death benefit.

Different types of life insurance coverage

Once you’ve made the decision to purchase life insurance, the next question you must answer is what type of life insurance will best suit your needs.  You have many choices, each with its own benefits and limitations.

Understanding the value of the policy

For any life insurance policy, the face value of the policy is the stated dollar amount beneficiaries will receive when the insured person dies.  A policy’s face value can be supplemented by additional benefits known as riders that can be added beyond the basic plan coverage.

To determine the full benefit paid out to beneficiaries in the event of the insured’s death, consult the schedule of benefits in the policy.  The face value plus the amount of any riders that are viable constitute the policy’s actual total death benefit.

Along with a person’s age, face value is one of the most important factors in determining the cost of a life insurance policy.  For example, you’ll pay a lot more for a $500,000 face value policy than you will for a $100,000 face value policy.

Reasons that could delay payment of an insurance claim

There are several reasons why the payment of an insurance claim could be delayed:

  • No beneficiary was named
  • The beneficiary is a minor
  • Beneficiaries were not updated after a major life change
  • If the insured died within the first one to two years after the policy was issued due to a contestability clause
  • Suicide clause
  • Death due to criminal activity if the beneficiary is a suspect
  • Potential fraud
  • Wrong or missing information
  • Failing to provide a certified copy of the death certificate and supporting documentation
  • The policy was included in a will or a trust
  • Only a primary beneficiary was named, and they are deceased

Is a will needed for life insurance?

A will is not necessary for you to claim life insurance benefits because life insurance policies usually pass outside probate.  Life insurance is considered a non-probate asset because the court sees it as a contract between you and the insurance company.

Your life insurance policy beneficiaries may be the same people you listed as beneficiaries in your will, or they may be different people or charities. These beneficiaries receive the proceeds from your life insurance policy so you may wish to list your life insurance policy information in your will to make it easier for your beneficiaries to find the policy.

If you list your estate as the beneficiary of your life insurance policy, the proceeds from the policy will be paid to your estate. Because they belong to your estate, they will go through probate and be distributed according to the instructions in your will.  The drawback to this is that your beneficiaries will have to wait until the estate is probated to receive their share of the proceeds, which could take months.

How do I find out if someone has a life insurance policy on me?

The answer to this is simple: You must sign an application of consent to have a life insurance policy taken out on you.  If you don’t sign it, then there’s no way someone can legally have a life insurance policy on you.

Insurance policy fraud is also rare because in many instances a medical exam and/or a phone interview is required before issuing a policy.

There is also something known as “insurable interest” that comes into play.  Insurance companies like to make sure that the person buying the policy has an insurable interest in the insured person.  This might mean a wife who relies on her husband’s income or an employer who wants to take out a policy on a key person responsible for the success of their company.  It’s rare that a policy is issued unless there is an insurable interest.

If you believe there is a chance that somebody has a life insurance policy on you, you can run a search with the Medical Information Bureau (MIB) for $75.

The difference between term life insurance and accidental death and dismemberment

They are two very different types of policies. Knowing the difference is crucial to buying the right coverage for your needs.

Term life pays out whether a death is due to an accident, illness or natural causes. The only exception is suicide.  With term insurance, you choose the amount and the length of time (typically 10 to 30 years) you want coverage.  If you die after the term ends, there is no payout.

Accidental death and dismemberment (AD&D) pays only if a death is accidental or you suffer a severe injury.  Sometimes it is offered as a rider on a life insurance policy.  Generally, for a payout to occur, you must lose one or more body parts, your sight, your hearing or your ability to speak.  The amount that you are paid corresponds to the severity of the injury.  The full payout only takes place upon death.

To collect on an AD&D policy, it must be proved that a death or injury was directly caused by the accident or occurred within a certain time frame after the accident, usually three months.  Deaths from a drug overdose, drunk driving by the insured person, war, complications from surgery, mental illness, suicide and certain other circumstances likely won’t be covered.

What happens when someone dies without life insurance

Unfortunately, dying costs money.  And when you die without the safety net of life insurance, you leave someone else footing the bill for your final expenses.

The cost for a funeral can be between $2,500 to $25,000 or more.  Even if you opt for cremation, expenses can still run $1,500 or more.

There are options when someone dies without insurance in place.  Most are less than optimal, but they are available in many cases.  Surviving relatives can consider the following:

  • Work with a funeral home on a payment plan.
  • Get a loan, either by borrowing from a close relative or putting expenses on a credit card.
  • Release the body to the county coroner’s office. The body will be turned over to the government and it will be disposed of either by burial or cremation.  If ashes aren’t retrieved, they will go into a common grave.
  • Contact Social Security. There may be some death benefits you can access if the deceased was collecting Social Security prior to passing.
  • Contact the deceased person’s church or a community non-profit.
  • Ask friends or family to donate small amounts of money in lieu of flowers or other remembrances.

Many people assume that a life insurance payout provides a big cushion for surviving relatives following a person’s death, but the flip side of that is that life insurance often acts to insulate the considerable costs and loss of wages after a person dies instead.

Final expense life insurance is an affordable option

There are a couple of more limited and inexpensive ways you can protect your family from financial burdens after you pass away.

Final expense insurance is a form of life insurance that is used to pay only for funeral services and merchandise after a person dies.  It does not require a medical exam and in some cases, acceptance is guaranteed after a brief health questionnaire is answered.  Some polices require that you pay premiums for two years before coverage kicks in.  It is generally issued for a much smaller amount than life insurance, such as for $5,000 or $10,000, so the premiums are extremely affordable.

Costs covered by this insurance include funeral service, cemetery plot and headstone, casket, funeral procession and other miscellaneous costs.  Some policies also provide expanded coverage for medical bills directly related to end of life as well.

Depending on the life insurance company, a final expense policy may have added features such as child riders, accidental death and dismemberment, or support benefits for surviving loved ones. Not all policies are the same, so make sure you review the policy’s benefits carefully.

Unlike term policies, final expense insurance is whole life insurance and won’t expire if you pay your premiums.

The importance of starting early and planning ahead

When you’re young, life comes at you fast.  There’s a lot to know and a lot of lessons you’ll need to learn along the way.  Information overload can be staggering and sorting out what’s important vs. what’s not can be difficult to say the least.

As hard as it may be, if you’re smart while you’re juggling the immediate challenges in your life, you’ll also take time to think and plan for the long term.  Setting plans in motion now to protect you and your family can make all the difference in the world 10, 20, or 40 years down the road.

Financial planning in general is critical, but many young people don’t always include life insurance as part of that planning process.  But the right policy at the right price should be a priority for a number of reasons.

If you have just gotten married or you’re starting a family, life insurance can be used to replace income lost if you pass away.  Your family is going to depend on you for many years to come and providing for their security is one of the most foundational things you can do for them.

Also consider that student debt topped $1.3 trillion in 2017, with more than two-thirds of all students graduating with some level of debt.  There are currently more than 44 million student loan borrowers in the United States.  If you die before that debt is retired, your estate could still be on the hook for paying that debt.  If your parents co-signed for the loan, they would be liable.  Just because you are single, it does not mean you have no responsibilities.  Death at any age impacts a lot of people around you.

While money is probably going to be tight starting out, also consider that life insurance becomes more expensive as you age.  And in some cases, if you buy life insurance when you’re young and healthy, you may be able to buy additional insurance in the future even if your health changes.

Life insurance can also protect the viability of your business if you pass away.  From a succession planning perspective, life insurance can be used to fund purchase or sale arrangements, or it can provide an inheritance to your heirs who won’t receive a share of the family business when you hand over the reins.

You might also think about key person insurance which is often purchased to replace income needed by the business due to the untimely death of one of the primary revenue generators. Life insurance can also be offered as part of your overall benefits package to attract and retain talented employees.

Cremation has become a more popular alternative to traditional burials in recent years with as many as 50 percent of all final dispositions of remains now being cremated.  Cremation has become an increasingly favored alternative to traditional burial because it is more economical, flexible, simple and uses less of the earth’s natural resources.

If you’re considering cremation for a loved one or eventually for yourself, here are some things you should know about the process.

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What is Cremation?

Some people assume that creation is an actual funeral service or an action that completes the final disposition of a person’s remains.  That is not the case.  Cremation is simply the process of preparing human remains for final disposition by reducing the body to ashes and bone fragments using high heat and flame.

The process takes two to four hours in a sealed cremation chamber and then the remaining fragments are broken up even further to create a granular whitish grey texture (ashes).  The average adult’s cremated remains will weigh between four to six pounds.

Most religions allow cremation except Orthodox Jewish, Islamic, Eastern Orthodox and some fundamentalist Christian faiths.  The Catholic Church allows cremations as long as it is not chosen for reasons that are in conflict with Christian teachings.

What is the Process for Cremation?

 A casket is not required for cremation, but most states require that there is some kind of container that is either made of wood or cardboard that is cremated with the body.  Embalming is not required before cremation, but some people choose to have a body embalmed if they are going to have a funeral service before the body is cremated.

If there has been a traditional funeral service, the body is typically cremated in the clothing worn at the funeral.  Otherwise, a body is cremated in whatever clothing they were wearing when they passed away.  This may be a hospital gown, pajamas or just a sheet, whichever the family prefers.

Although a funeral home is involved most of the time, cremation is generally contracted out to a third-party provider at an offsite location.

After the body is transported to the crematory, jewelry is removed, and if the person had a pacemaker or other medical device, it is removed as well since this represents an explosion hazard.  The container is placed in a cremation chamber and the temperature is raised to between 1,400 and 1800 degrees resulting in all organic matter being consumed by the heat or by evaporation.

The remaining material is known as cremains which are carefully removed from the chamber.  A magnet is also used to collect any metal that was in the body such as metal joints, or bridgework.  Gold or silver teeth are vaporized during the cremation.  After the cremains are further pulverized, they are placed in a temporary container or in an urn provided by the family.

There are strict rules regarding operating policies and procedures to make sure that remains are clearly identified and there are no mix-ups when it comes to delivering cremains after the fact.

In addition, it is not only illegal to cremate more than one person at a time, it is also physically impossible, because most cremation chambers are only large enough to accommodate a single body at a time.

How Soon After Death Should Cremation be Done?

There are several steps that are part of the cremation process:

  • After a person passes away, their body is stored in a climate-controlled environment until a death certificate is processed. This takes about 48 to 72 hours in most states.
  • A burial transit permit will need to be issued in the county where the death took place so that the body can be transported to either the funeral home for services or directly to the crematory.
  • A medical examiner will need to approve the cremation which can take another two to three days depending on the laws of the state where the cremation is to take place.
  • The next of kin will also need to give written permission for the cremation unless the deceased gave cremation authorization prior to passing away.
  • After that, the cremation is generally completed in another three days.
  • Overall, the entire process will take between 10 and 15 days in most cases.

Where Should I go for Cremation Services?

In some states, only a licensed funeral director can make arrangements for a cremation.  Depending on the laws of your state, you may be able to work directly with a crematory or you may be required to work with a funeral home.  Some crematories will only work with a funeral home.

By law, all funeral homes and cremation businesses must quote their prices either over the phone or by providing you with a copy of their General Price List if you visit them in person.  You should either seek a referral from a trusted source or call several funeral homes or crematories to get pricing, see what services are provided and how they can assist you with all aspects of a cremation.  In some markets, the local Funeral Consumers Alliance will publish a price survey making it easy to compare pricing at a glance.

It should also be noted that no casket is required for a cremation, but most crematories require that a body be placed in a rigid and combustible container.  As a result, federal regulations require that funeral homes must provide these containers at a reasonable cost.

If you want to hold a service before you have your loved one cremated, funeral homes will also rent a nice casket that families can use for visitation or services.  Be aware that just renting a casket can cost as much as $800 for a single use, so if you’re trying to keep services within a reasonable budget, you may want to consider other alternatives.

Can the Family Watch the Cremation?

Generally, family members may be present when the body is placed into a cremation chamber.  Policies do vary from one crematory to another so it’s best to ask what those policies are when you are shopping around for a provider.

Can Cremation be Done After Embalming?

Yes, but in many cases, embalming may not even be required if a body is to be cremated.

Generally, people have a body embalmed when there is going to be a public viewing of the body or if the body is going to be transported a long distance, or if there will be a long time before the body is actually cremated.

Check with your local funeral director to find out the specific rules for your state before deciding on embalming or not.

Many people choose direct cremation, which is the most affordable cremation option.  Direct cremation takes place shortly after a person dies, without embalming or a viewing.

What Can I Do with the Cremated Remains?

Options vary from state to state, but there are many things a family can do with remains after a cremation has taken place. Cremains are sterile and pose no health hazard, so there are not a lot of heavy-handed regulations regarding their final disposition. Here are some possibilities to consider:

  • You can scatter remains on land just about anywhere as long as you are discreet. Many people request scattering over places that have been special to them in their lives, and for the most part, scattering on land is legal in most jurisdictions.  If you want to scatter cremains on private property, the appropriate thing to do is to get permission from the owner beforehand.
  • Scattering at sea is also a popular option. Many people rent boats to hold a private service on the water.  Federal regulations require that cremains be scattered at least three miles out from shore, but the Environmental Protection Agency does not enforce this rule.  Scattering at sea is also popular for military personnel, retirees and their dependents.  The Navy or the Coast Guard will perform this service free of charge.  However, because a ship must be deployed in the ocean, no family members may be present.
  • Many people choose to place remains in an urn in a columbarium niche. These are located in mausoleums in cemeteries and provide a private and protected place where family members can return to pay their respects and honor their loved ones.  Some churches also have columbarium niches to place remains as well.
  • Burial in a cemetery is also an option. It is possible to either bury the remains in a regular grave or in a special urn section of a cemetery.  You may be able to bury two or three urns in a single grave site depending on the regulations of the cemetery, meaning that your loved ones will be together in perpetuity.
  • Some people choose to keep a loved one’s remains at their home. They may choose to place an urn on a mantel or bookcase, or have a special container created that reflects how the person is chosen to be remembered.
  • It is possible to also bury a person’s remains on land that you own or on another person’s private property, with their permission. The only caveat here is that the grave and the remains may be disturbed or possibly destroyed if the property is sold and used for other purposes.
  • Another option gaining popularity is memorializing a loved one through the creation of cremation jewelry. Cremation jewelry is either created using a small vessel that stores a small amount of the person’s remains and is then worn as jewelry or using the ashes to be transformed into glass beads, synthetic diamonds or other similar pieces.

What is Cremation Jewelry?

Cremation jewelry is also known as memorial jewelry, remembrance jewelry or funeral jewelry.  Although it has been around for quite a while, the idea behind cremation jewelry is new to many people.  Essentially, cremation jewelry allows family members to keep the memory of a loved one close at hand at all times by transforming a small amount of the deceased person’s remains into a permanent keepsake.

There are two types of cremation jewelry.  Cremated ashes can be placed in a small vessel which can then be worn like regular jewelry.  A small urn with a screw-off top is loaded with the ashes and then sealed.  Pendants are the most common form of this type of cremation jewelry.  The second type of cremation jewelry is made from the ashes of the deceased person.  Ashes can be mixed with glass or porcelain and then transformed into beads, crystals or even synthetic diamonds.  This is the more expensive option of the two and can take months to complete.

Many people love the idea of cremation jewelry for a variety of reasons.

  • Many people will spend thousands of dollars on a traditional funeral and while cremation is a less pricey alternative, there can still be expenses ranging into the hundreds of dollars if a traditional cremation urn is placed in a cemetery or a columbarium.  Cremation jewelry can cost as little as $50 per piece, providing a family with more financial flexibility when cost is a concern.
  • Cremation jewelry is also more portable and can easily be customized. With cremation jewelry, it is easy to carry a loved one’s memory with you at all times, and several people can honor a loved family member at the same time.  Each person can also choose a unique piece of jewelry that is special to them, making the memory even more personal.  There are a wide variety of jewelry options for both men and women to choose from creating maximum flexibility when it comes to making an important choice about what to wear.

Can I Use Veteran’s Benefits if I Choose Cremation?

All honorably discharged veterans, their spouses and minor children are eligible for interment in a national cemetery if they choose cremation.  There is no charge for the interment and cremated remains can be placed in an in-ground grave, garden niche, or in a columbarium based on the family’s preference.  It’s advisable to check in advance on these options because not all national cemeteries offer all three options.

If the interment takes place in a national cemetery, free military honors will be provided for eligible veterans if families request them.  This will include a funeral honor ceremony consisting of the folding and presentation of the American flag and the playing of Taps.  Free headstones and markers are also available.

The VA will reimburse honorably discharged veterans with up to $300 for expenses as long as they meet requirements.  Veterans who died during active duty or who were discharged due to a service related injury can receive up to $2,000.

For more information on burial and cremation benefits are available on this VA fact sheet.

Can Cremation Ashes be Mailed or Taken on an Airplane?

Cremains can be mailed or carried by hand to another destination.  If they are to be mailed, the remains must be placed in an inner container and sealed, and then surrounded by a padded outer container.

If you want to fly with cremated remains, the best thing to do is to contact an airline directly to see what their policies are regarding traveling with remains.  Some airlines will allow them to be carried on board or checked as baggage.  Other airlines will only allow remains to be sent as cargo.

When you take remains on a plane, it is best to just leave them in the container as they came from the crematory.  Keep in mind that they will be x-rayed so you must not place the remains in a metal container, such as an urn, prior to your flight.  Metal containers prevent officials from seeing what is inside.

If you have been issued a certificate of cremation, you should bring that with you on the flight to authenticate that you are indeed traveling with remains.  Some airlines may actually have this as a requirement before you can board the plane.  You might also let the funeral home know beforehand that you intend to travel with the remains on a plane or that you plan on mailing them, so that appropriate measures can be taken.

Which is Cheaper Cremation or Burial?

One of the things that will help determine if a cremation or a burial is better for your situation is price.

According to industry statistics, a traditional funeral will cost anywhere from six to eight times more than a direction cremation.

Cremation vs Burial Cost

Depending on the region of the country, a cremation will run from about $700 to $1,200.

The average burial costs can exceed $6,000 and may not include grave vaults or memorial markers and other add-ons that may be presented to you.

To get an accurate accounting of the costs associated for each, the FTC’s Funeral Rule requires providers to provide pricing up front and you must also be presented with a full range of options, not just the most expensive ones.

Which is Greener Cremation or Burial?

Cremation is considered a much greener form of final disposition than a burial.  Here’s why.

  • For starters, traditional burials usually mean embalming bodies with formaldehyde and it’s estimated that about 800,000 gallons are used in that process every year. When a body goes into the ground, so does that toxic chemical.  Burial plots and cemeteries also use large amounts of acreage, and also create an added problem of leaving unrecycled metals, concrete and other materials in the ground for a long period of time.
  • Although cremation uses more energy and releases greenhouse gases into the air, some state-of-the-art crematories have installed emission controls to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that is released. New filtering technologies and energy efficiencies are also being implemented to continue to abate pollution issues related to cremation.
  • If you are concerned about keeping a cremation as green as possible you can always choose a casket or container made of recycled cardboard, ask your crematory to recycle any medical devices or metals left over from the cremation process, or choose an energy efficient cremation provider.
  • You can also choose scattering on land or at sea instead of a permanent burial place or placing an urn in a columbarium, or opt for a direct cremation which will eliminate the need for using embalming fluid.

Some people are now also choosing bio-cremation which uses alkaline hydrolysis instead of high heat to dissolve a body.  It uses 1/8th of the energy used in a traditional cremation.  It is currently legal in 14 states and many others are considering approval to permit the process.

Is it possible to be cremated for free?

If a body is donated to science, then cremation can take place free of charge.

There are several organizations throughout the country that will work with families to donate a loved one’s body upon death for medical research purposes.  Generally, cremated remains are returned to family in about two to four weeks.  Not only are families helping the greater good, they can also save hundreds of dollars by going this route.

If this is a possible option for your family, it’s best to try and make arrangements in advance.  Here are some organizations that accept donated bodies:

Anatomy Gifts Registry – a Maryland nonprofit that supplies body specimens for research

Banner Sun Health Research Institute – an Arizona organization that specializes in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cardiovascular research

Science Care – the world’s largest accredited whole body donation program

Medcure – a whole body donation program for professionals engaged in anatomical study

Several medical schools also accept body donations to allow students to further their studies.  An online search should produce several additional possibilities if this is an avenue you would like to consider.

 

What you Should Know About Death Certificates

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When a person passes away, there are several important actions necessary to ensure the person’s estate is handled in a timely and appropriate way.  To initiate many of these tasks, such as collecting on a life insurance policy or to legally transfer assets, a person will need to have a death certificate as proof of the person’s passing.

Some people seek out death certificates when they are researching family genealogy as well.  It should be noted that most states did not start recording deaths until the early 1900s and some states did not start until as late as 1930.

New England states including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire have records dating back the longest when some towns began the documentation process when the first resident of the town passed away.

In this article we will be covering some important factors about what you need to know about death certificates.

  1. What is a death certificate?
  2. How are death certificates used?
  3. Issuing a death certificate
  4. What information is on a death certificate?
  5. What information is on a death certificate?
  6. Getting copies of a death certificate
  7. How to make changes to a death certificate
  8. Are death certificates public records?
  9. Can I view death certificates online?

What is a death certificate?

A death certificate is an official government document that certifies the date, time, location and cause of death.

It also provides other important information that is used by a variety of entities who have financial interests in the deceased person’s estate, and is also used to track changes in society.

Death certificates must be completed and signed off by a medical practitioner such as a doctor, medical examiner or a coroner, as well as the entity requesting the issuance of a death certificate.

Many times, this is a funeral director or a burial agent, or a family member acting in those capacities.

What are death certificates used for?

Death certificates are used to facilitate closing bank accounts, claim life insurance benefits and file taxes, along with many other personal and legal purposes.

In some instances, a person will need to supply an entity with an official death certificate that bears an official state stamp or seal, and in other cases only a copy will be required.

If you are handling the deceased person’s affairs, here are some scenarios where you will need either a copy, or you will supply an original death certificate, which will be returned to you:

  • Social Security
  • Local bank accounts
  • Credit Cards
  • Utilities and phone companies
  • Motor vehicle licensing
  • Filing a will with your county courthouse

You will need to supply an original death certificate under the following circumstances:

Can a death certificate be changed?

Yes, one of the common reasons death certificates are changed is incorrect information.  The biggest reason you need to make sure the death certificate is accurate is so it doesn’t impact any associated insurance settlements.

You should always check with your states about who can request changes on a death certificate as all states are not created equal.

For example, changing death certificates in Texas is a different process than death certificates in Michigan or death certificates in California.

Who issues a death certificate?

A funeral home or other entity in charge of a deceased person’s remains will be responsible for gathering information that will be used to file and ultimately issue a death certificate.

This will involve getting information from family members and securing the signature of an appropriate medical professional who will certify the death.  In some instances, a police officer or a paramedic may also be able to sign a death certificate as well.

State laws dictate that this process be completed within a matter of a few days following the person’s death.

Once the information has been gathered, the death certificate will be filed with the registrar and the county health department where the death took place.

Typically, deaths must be reported to the health department within 72 hours after the death takes place.

What information is on a death certificate?

A death certificate contains important information about the person who passed away. Information will vary from state to state, but at a minimum, the information included on death certificates will include:

  • The deceased person’s full name
  • Address
  • Birth date and birthplace
  • Father’s name and birthplace
  • Mother’s name and birthplace
  • Social Security number
  • If the deceased was a member of the U.S. armed forces
  • Marital status
  • Name of surviving spouse
  • Cause of death (cancer, heart attack, etc.)
  • Manner of death (natural, accident, homicide, etc.)
  • Race
  • Usual occupation
  • Date, time, and place of death
  • A signature line for a medical professional or coroner to certify the death and information on the application

To see a U.S. Standard Certificate of Death application from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, what specific information is required, and how it might be filled out, go here.

The National Home Funeral Alliance also has several examples of death certificates that you can view as well.

NOTE:  Since 1990, for public versions of death certificates, some states may redact the specific cause of death to comply with HIV confidentiality rules.  However, immediate family members, government agencies and law enforcement personnel can always access a death certificate containing the full cause of death.

Getting copies of a death certificate

The easiest way to get copies of a death certificate is to order them through the funeral home or mortuary that is handling the deceased’s remains.

In most cases, if you are the executor of the deceased person’s estate, you will need at least 10 copies, and maybe more, depending on the complexity of the person’s estate.

If 60 to 90 days or more has gone by since the deceased person passed away, you will need to contact the county or the state office of vital records to get copies.

Be prepared to pay for copies of the death certificate, which normally run about $10-$15 for the first copy.  If you are the executor of the person’s estate, you can reimburse yourself for those costs from the estate at a later date.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a list of where to write for vital records for each state.  You can access the list here.

Informational copies of death certificates are available to anyone who requests them, but certified copies are only available to those with a direct connection to the deceased, such as an immediate family member, an executor, or someone who has a financial interest in the person’s estate.

Some jurisdictions approach this differently and may be more restrictive regarding the availability of death certificates.  For example, in New York, only close relatives such as a spouse, parent, child or sibling of a deceased person can obtain a death certificate.  The only other exception in this case is by a person or organization that has a documented lawful right, a medical need, or a New York state court order.

In all cases, you should wait for the coroner or medical examiner to determine a final cause of death before trying to order copies of the death certificate.

Many institutions, such as insurance companies and banks, may require the final and official cause of death to be shown on the certificate before transacting business with an executor.

How to make changes to a death certificate

There are times when the information on a death certificate changes, is missing, or is originally recorded inaccurately.  When this happens, initiating changes in the death certificate can be by anyone as long as evidence is presented to support the claim and the changes are approved by the person who originally approved the death certificate.

However, some states have restrictions on who can file the necessary paperwork.  You will need to check the laws of your state to see to what degree you are eligible to change a death certificate.

Making changes on a death certificate is important because it may impact life insurance policies as well as demographic data.  All errors such as misspelled names, wrong addresses and other personal information should always be corrected.

The other thing to consider is that there may be time restrictions on who can make a change in a death certificate.  After a certain length of time, you may only be able to make changes through your state’s vital statistics and information registry.

In many states, you can initiate the change process online by accessing forms and researching the step-by-step process.  However, to complete changes, you will probably need to mail those forms along with supporting documentation because in most cases originals of documents are needed.  Supporting documentation could include a birth certificate, armed forces discharge papers, or other similar types of information.

You may also be able to amend a death certificate in person by going to your local registrar.  Local registrars will vary by jurisdiction, but may include a county health department, county clerk, or county recorder.  You can also visit the funeral home that handled the deceased’s services and they will probably be able to make the changes for you.

Are death certificates public?

Yes.

Just like marriage and divorce records, death certificates are public records.

Your county recorder, county clerk or other similar record-keeping body will maintain the death certificate on file and it can be accessed for viewing at any time.

To view death certificates when a person passes away outside of the United States, you will need to access the National Center for Health Statistics.

After the death certificate information has been received and entered into the system, the actual certificate is sent to the appropriate physician or medical examiner for their signature.  It is then submitted to the county’s vital statistics office where certified copies are created.  This can take anywhere from 10 days to several weeks.

Death Certificate Delays

Delays can occur when there is an investigation surrounding the death, an autopsy needs to be performed or there are other delays for various reasons.

One of these delays may be due to a doctor refusing to sign a death certificate if they are unsure of the cause of death.  While there are laws that prevent doctors from delaying a final death certificate without good reasons, you may encounter this and you could have to force the issue to get the death certificate completed.

In other cases, the cause of death may be missing due to the fact that it is unknown or that there were several health issues that were contributing issues to the cause of death.

After they have been signed, certified copies of the death certificate with an official seal are generated and then returned to the requesting parties, such as funeral homes or funeral directors, who will then disburse the official copies to requestors.

Can death certificates be found online?

It depends.

Each state is responsible for administering its own records and some states have been more proactive than others.  Record keeping for deaths was not standardized until the early 1900s and while some states have records that date back to much earlier, such as Massachusetts which began keeping vital records in the 1600s, others have been far less diligent.

In other instances, some states allow access only to family members and authorized members will need to go through a process to order and view copies online.

In some instances, private companies, such as FamilySearch.org,or Ancestry.com, may have records online that you might be able to access for a fee.

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Writing a sympathy card for a loved one or friend’s funeral is never easy.

When someone you know passes away, even if you know it is coming, you and many people around you will be confronted with a swirling mix of complex and intense emotions.  Some people will be stoic.  Others will be inconsolable.

Depending on who the person was and the role they played in your life, you will either find it natural and easy to be supportive to others more in need, or you will struggle with your own feelings as you try to turn your own emotions into those that can provide comfort to others who may need it more.

What is a sympathy card?

Sympathy card is a form of communication such as a note, email, or hand written card sent to provide comfort to a friend, colleague or loved one during a time of despair.

The basics of sympathy card etiquette

Despite the rapidly changing norms of society, one thing that has not changed is the role of a sympathy card as part of the grieving process.  A sympathy card plays a small but important role in helping people heal from their loss.

You may be working through your own intense feelings, and depending on your personality, it may be difficult to express those feelings to others.  But as difficult as it may be, sending an appropriate sympathy card, along with well-chosen words can have a healing effect, not only for the recipient, but for you as well.

If you’re feeling awkward and don’t know what to say, what follows will help you.  However, here’s the single most important thing to remember about sympathy cards…

it is the actual act of sending a sympathy card and demonstrating that you care that will trump most anything you can write as part of a message inside the card.

When in doubt, when you think you can’t find the right words, make the effort anyway.  Along with the guidance you’ll find here, your thoughtfulness will be well received every time.  You do not want to be that person who will be notable by having not sent a card.

Here are some basic guidelines to consider:

  • A sympathy card is not a Facebook post. It is not a text.  It is not an e-card, a voicemail, or a message passed on by a mutual friend or family member.
  • A sympathy card is a well-established, traditional piece of correspondence sent by mail or hand delivered to those who are the closest to the loved one who passed away.
  • A good sympathy card starts with you choosing the right sympathy card. Do not grab the first one you see.  Take time to read several.  There are large sections devoted to sympathy cards at stationery stores, book stores, department stores, grocery stores, online and at other outlets.  The amount of thought you put into a card can have a direct effect on how well it is received.  When in doubt, always err to the side of caution when it comes to pre-printed messages.  The right card is out there and you will find it with a little bit of work on your part. Let your heart and your emotions be your guide.
  • When adding your message to a card, make it personalized, and make it handwritten. It does not matter if you think you have sloppy handwriting.  What matters is the personal touch, and that can’t be conveyed if your note is typed and inserted in the card.  Believe it or not, any flaws or imperfections will actually add to the sweetness of your message.
  • As far as the actual content of the message goes, whatever you write, as long as it is appropriate, will be well received. It does not have to be perfect.  The reality is that the person or family you are sending it to will be in the midst of a grieving process, and unless your words are particularly touching, insightful or personal, they will become a part of a larger healing process and outpouring of sympathy and love.
  • When in doubt, keep it short. The less words you write, the more impact each one will have.  People grieve in different ways.  Some people internalize more than others.  Conversely, in your effort to “let it all out” be careful that this is not the place you do it.  You will have other opportunities later on.  Right now, stay focused on the overall goal, which is to grieve and help your friend or family member start the healing process.

What should a sympathy card say?

Sympathy cards are sent to all kinds of people you have a relationship with and under all kinds of circumstances.  Following area a few suggestions on what to say:

  • Acknowledge the loss and express sympathy. “We were saddened to hear about Bill’s passing.  We know what a terrible loss this must be for you and your family.”
  • Share a memory or mention a special quality that the departed person had. “Bill could always light up a room with his smile and quick wit.”
  • Offer help or assistance if you are in a position to do so and want to extend it. “If there is anything we can do to help you through this difficult time, please let us know.”
  • Close with a sympathetic and sincere phrase. “With deepest condolences on Bill’s passing,”

What occasions do people send sympathy cards?

A sympathy card is most often used for funerals of loved ones or pets.  It’s common to have a loss for words when an occasion surprises you unexpectedly.

Occasions for sympathy cards:

  • Funerals
  • Loss of a pet

How should I word a sympathy card?

What you say in a sympathy card will vary greatly depending on the relationship you had with the person who passed away, and more important, what kind of relationship you have with remaining family members.  Your sympathy card for the passing of an elderly relative who died of natural causes will be quite different than if the child of a close neighbor passes away unexpectedly.

Tailor your message to the situation.  Here are some of the more common situations you will encounter where a sympathy card would be appropriate, along with a few suggestions on what you might say:

What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a mother?

  • “The passing of the one who first introduced us to this planet and who loved us along its paths is never easy. Know that you are not alone in this difficult time.”
  • “Your mother was a beautiful woman in many ways. I look back fondly at all the times we shared. She was always such a pleasure to be around.  I will remember her always with love and affection.  I love you and am truly sorry for your loss.”
  • “I am truly sorry for your loss. Your mother was an amazing woman who touched many lives in many ways.  She will be missed by all of us.  My heart goes out to you and your family during this difficult time.”

What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a father?

  • “Your father was a kind and generous man. I have so many memories of him that I will always cherish.  His strength and honesty were admirable throughout his life.  He will be missed.”
  • “Your father provided a quiet and inspirational guiding hand for many years and for many people throughout his life. I am saddened at his passing, but I will continue to draw strength from his life lessons for many years to come.”
  • “Your father was amazing in many ways. He worked hard, led by example and provided a strong and stable home life for many years.  Let your memories provide you with the comfort you need to get you through this difficult time.”

What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a wife?

  • “No words can adequately express what you must be feeling with the passing of the love of your life. I know you will have special memories of (name) that will live inside of you for the rest of your days.  Please accept my profound condolences…”
  • “I was heartbroken to learn of (name) passing. I know she was the light of your life and a kind and gentle soul to all who had the pleasure of knowing her.  My sincere sympathies on your loss.”
  • It is impossible to know the depths of your loss and the profound sadness you are going through with the loss of (name). She was loved by so many people in life, and she will live on in many people’s memories for years to come.  May she rest in peace.”

What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a husband?

  • “I was truly sorry to hear of (name) passing. He was a kind and gentle man who was not only a good husband, but a good friend, a good father and so much more to the many people he touched in his life.  May your cherished memories of him last forever.”
  • (Name) was not only a good husband, he was one of the kindest and closest friends I ever had. He set an example on how to treat others, was one of the finest people I ever had the pleasure of knowing.  I am truly sorry for your loss.”
  • “Few things are more blessed in this life than the close bond between a husband and wife. (Name’s) loss is a time of great sadness for you.  We share your grief and we are ready to support you with love in any way we can.”

What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a child?

  • “I cannot even begin to imagine the profound grief you are going through at this time. (Name) was a beautiful person in many ways. He/she touched so many lives with love during his/her short time in this world.  Please let me know if there is anything I can do to ease your pain.”
  • “No words can fully capture the full sense of grief that you must be feeling at this difficult time. Nothing ever fully prepares us for the loss of one of our children.  Know that you are not alone and that we are all mourning (name) loss.”
  • “A child born into this world is a gift to a mother, a father, and all those who come to know him or her. When that child leaves this earth all too soon, we are left with the deepest of all forms of grief.  We are completely heartbroken over (name) passing.”

What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a baby?

  • “We share your profound pain over the passing of baby (name). His/her life was all too brief, yet he/she touched so many of us.  Please let us know if there is anything we can do to help you through this difficult time.”
  • “It is especially heartbreaking when the smallest of God’s creatures leaves this earth before their time. Please accept our deepest condolences.”
  • “Although (name) was only with us for the briefest of times, his/her memories will last a lifetime in our hearts. With profound sympathy.”

What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a sister?

  • “My sister was a beautiful soul who touched many lives and who took no greater joy than taking care of her husband and her children. I’m at a complete loss for words and join you in profound grief as we mourn her loss together.”
  • “(Name) was not only my sister, she was a loving inspiration to everyone who met her. I am just as sad as you are at her passing.  I’ll miss her forever…”

What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a brother?

  • “(Name) was a brother who I could always look up to, in good times and in bad. He loved his family, was proud of his children, and was one of the finest husbands I’ve ever seen.  I’m crushed at his loss.  We’ll find a way to get through this together.”
  • “There’s always one brother who is so full of life that it infects everyone he meets in the best of ways. (Name) was that brother and his passing leaves a huge void not only in my life, but in the lives of his wife and children. I’ll miss him every single day for the rest of my life.”

What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a coworker?

  • “It was truly an honor and a pleasure to work with (name) each day. He added so much to our lives with his upbeat outlook on life and the warmth he brought to our office.”
  • “(Name) was a valued member of our work family and we are saddened by his passing. Please accept our profound condolences during your time of loss.”
  • “(Name) added so much to our company with his quick wit, constant smile, and love of his job. We join you in sorrow as you work through this difficult time.”

What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a boss?

  • “(Name) was more than just a boss, he taught us many things and managed us with a fair and steady hand. We will miss his leadership and his friendship.  With sympathy…”
  • “Please accept our sincere condolences on (name) passing. He was an important part of our work lives and was a strong and guiding positive influence on everyone who worked for him.”

How to write a sympathy card to a friend?

  • “(Name) was one of my best friends and we shared so many good times together. He/she was like a brother/sister to me in many ways and, like you, I am heartbroken over his/her passing.”
  • “(Name) was a special person in my life. We celebrated a friendship on many levels and he was a trusted person in my life until the very end.  I am so sorry for your loss.  We will all miss him.”

What to write in a sympathy card for terminal cancer?

  • “Please accept my humble condolences on the loss of (name). I hope you can take comfort that after his/her long illness he/she is finally at peace and no longer suffering.  He/she was a beautiful person in life and I will carry his/her memory with me always.”
  • “I was so sorry to hear that (name) had passed after a tough battle with (condition). I share your grief and hope that your many fond memories will sustain you during this time of pain and loss.”

The loss of a member of the military

  • “We were truly saddened to hear about (name) passing in the service of his country. I know you are in pain, but hope that you take heart in knowing that he gave his life for a cause that he believed in.  We join many others in saying thank you as we pray for him and your family.”
  • “Our thoughts and prayers are with you during this time of loss. (Name) gave his life with honor to protect the lives of others and while his passing is tragic, take solace in knowing that his cause was just and his actions were noble.  God bless…”

What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a pet?

  • “I was sorry to hear that (name) had passed away. I know (name) was an important part of your family for many years, and that he/she brought so much joy to your lives.  One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is the love and affection of a furry friend.  My condolences on your loss.”
  • “I know that (name) was more than just the family (dog/cat). He/she was a beloved member of your family for so many years and I know you are saddened by his/her passing.  I hope you celebrate the fond memories and how much he/she added to all your lives as you mourn his/her passing.”
  • “I know how close you were to (name) and so I was sorry to hear that he/she passed on after many beautiful years of companionship with you and your family. Please accept my condolences on the loss of such an important member of your family.”

When the card will be delivered with flowers at a funeral

  • “Our loving thoughts embrace you during this time of profound loss…”
  • “May these flowers serve as the words we are not fully able to speak over your loss…”
  • “With love and sympathy…”
  • “Our hearts are filled with sorrow over your loss…”

When Bible verses may be appropriate

 In many cases, people find comfort through passages found in the Bible.  If you know the family were actively involved in practicing their faith, or if you are actively involved in the church, then you might want to include one of the following verses in your sympathy card:

  • “The memory of the righteous is a blessing.” Proverbs 10:7
  • “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4
  • “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” John 14:2
  • “From the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” Psalm 61:2
  • “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.” Psalm 94:19
  • “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you.” Isaiah 43:2
  • “O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear.” Psalm 10:17
  • “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18
  • “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” John 11:25, 26
  • “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9
  • “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4
  • “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28
  • “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:4
  • “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Psalm 46:1
  • “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” Isaiah 43:2
  • “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10
  • “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:7
  • “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding, but in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your path.” Proverbs 3:5-6
  • “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28
  • “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Corinthians 1:3–4

How should I sign a sympathy card?

Now more than ever, the phrase “with love” is exactly what mourners will want and need to hear.  If this phrase is not appropriate for your situation (perhaps when a coworker dies), then any of these, or versions of these, are suitable alternative closings.

Can I sign a sympathy card “with love”?

Absolutely.  It’s common to use with love as the signature for a sympathy card, but you can also choose any of the following ways to sign a sympathy card:

  • With sympathy
  • With sincere sympathy
  • With prayers and sympathy
  • May God bless and comfort you
  • God bless
  • With sincere condolences
  • Keeping you in my prayers
  • Please accept my sincere condolences
  • Sharing your sadness during this difficult time
  • With loving thoughts and prayers
  • Praying for you and your family
  • My thoughts and prayers are with you
  • With caring thoughts

When should I send a sympathy card after a death?

There is no hard and fast rule for when you should send a sympathy card.  Generally, within a week after the person passes is most appropriate.  However, if the person was a more distant relation, you may not be immediately aware that they passed away.  In cases such as those, send a sympathy card as soon as you become aware of the passing.

Healing takes a long time, and when you reach out, whether it is two days after the fact or two months after the fact, your thoughtfulness will always be appreciated.

What is the etiquette for a thank you note to a sympathy card I received?

After a loved one passes away you will be overwhelmed by so many life changes. Replying to a sympathy card, while important, will not be your biggest priority.

You will want to take some time to grieve and collect yourself as you move to a new phase of your life.  You may not also feel like responding to well-wishers immediately either.  All of that will be understandable.

In some cases, you may never feel like responding.  That’s okay too.  Take your time to mourn.  You’ll know when the time is right to get back to people who have supported you.

What do I say in a thank you note to a sympathy card?

Much like the sympathy card itself, the simple act of sending a thank-you note will carry great impact on those who receive them.  Be sure to thank people for their support and let them know how you are getting along.  It’s okay to be honest and let people know you are hurting.  If you are up to it, you can use the card as a chance to stay connected, perhaps mentioning that you would like to see that person in the near future.

Other ways to express sympathy

If you want to go beyond a sympathy card, there are some things you can do to further pay tribute to the departed person.  You might consider one or more of the following:

  • Send flowers. Common and obvious, but always appreciated.
  • Plant a memorial tree or garden. Living memorials can be small and simple or larger and more elaborate, based on what you want to do, how much you want to spend, and how much space is available.
  • Donate to the deceased person’s favorite charity.
  • Donate to the deceased person’s place of worship.
  • Donate to the organization that is most active in the fight against what they passed away from (i.e. The Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the American Heart Association, The American Cancer Society, et al)

What not to write in a sympathy card

Although sending a sympathy card is the most important part of the process, you can undo a good portion of that goodwill if you say the wrong things in your message.  Here are some things you will want to avoid:

  • Even if a person passes from a terminal condition, stay far away from the phrase “it’s for the best”. Although you may feel that way, the deceased loved ones may not, especially not initially.
  • Also stay away from “I/we know how you feel”. You may think you do, but because everyone processes grief differently, chances are you do not know how they feel, and saying so could only anger or annoy them.
  • Do not use “they lived a full life” because if they did, their family will have wanted them to live even more of one.
  • Stay away from comparing a loss of your loved one to their loss. It could be construed that you are focusing on yourself and not them at a time when they need support the most.
  • Stay away from specific details. If a person died in an accident, at best be vague using the words “unexpectedly” or “sudden”.  The less focus placed on details, the better early on.
  • Don’t assign blame by saying “this happened for a reason”. That will most assuredly add to the amount of upset.
  • Also avoid the painful reminder of a person’s untimely death by using the phrase “he/she was so young”.

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Choosing music for a funeral service is an important task that can provide a comforting element to many grief-stricken people who cared deeply about the person who passed away.

Funeral songs can start the healing process, provide a much needed pause in the ceremony for people to cry, be alone with their thoughts, or to quietly celebrate the departed person’s life.

While some funeral songs are more appropriate in certain situations than others, there really are no ultimately right or wrong choices when it comes to the music you select, other than limitations that you may be bound to by religious considerations.  Funeral songs have evolved, and a wide variety of choices are more accessible now than ever before.

As long as the music is in good taste and done in the right spirit, for the most part you are not limited by genre or style.

What many people who haven’t planned a funeral may not know, is that there are common top funeral songs that families choose for their loved one.

Considerations when choosing funeral songs

How will the venue impact your choice of funeral songs?

If you are having the funeral service at a funeral home, there’s a good chance the facility will be primed and ready for most any kind of musical request ranging from playing pre-recorded music, microphones for live singers, or having a wide range of music already on hand from which to choose.  It should also be easy to accommodate performers who may want to play guitars, violins, a portable keyboard/piano, or even bagpipes.

If you have a service at a church or other religious facility, you may be limited as to the kind of music you can play and also how it might be amplified.  Normally this is not too much of a problem, but it is best to think about it up front just in case.  Always discuss the music component with your clergy person before the service to avoid any surprises or disagreements.

Every service is different, but you should target using three to five songs at various points in the memorial.

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How will music be incorporated into the service?

A funeral works best when all details are decided beforehand, including how music will be incorporated into a service.  What to play and when to play it must be scripted in well before the service so that the actual event proceeds smoothly.

Regardless of what music you choose, make sure you listen to every funeral song all the way through.  The last thing you want is to make a selection, only to find out that there are inappropriate lyrics in the third verse of a song that you never really paid any attention to beforehand.

If you decide on live music, should it be a friend or family member?

This is a tough one.  Well intentioned family members may want to step into the void and offer to sing at the service which may be a good thing, or maybe not.  The upside is that a friend or family member can provide a personal touch that a singer for hire cannot.  However, unless you are very familiar with the singer’s abilities and they have already demonstrated they can sing at a service, then you run the risk that he or she may not be able to deliver a quality performance.  Worse yet, they may be overcome with emotion and not be able to complete the song at all.

If you decide to use a professional singer, chances are your funeral director or clergy person will have several possibilities to choose from.  There are usually a roster of singers who perform as church soloists, at weddings, or who make a living as vocal teachers.  The singer may also have a website with some of their previous performances so you can get a sense of what to expect in advance.

If you choose a professional singer, make sure to find out what their fee is, if they require any equipment for pre-recorded background music, or if they will also provide an accompanist.

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What about copyright considerations for funeral songs?

Funeral homes are bound by copyright laws and must comply with them during funeral services.  Some exceptions are allowed when the service is performed by a clergy member, but in general each funeral home must have licenses through BMI, ASCAP, SESAC and other licensing agencies.  Usually, funeral homes just purchase a license through a blanket agreement negotiated on their behalf for them through the National Funeral Directors Association.

In some instances, a license may not cover music used in a slideshow that you want to present before a service takes place.  It’s always best to check with a funeral director to see if there are any conflicts in this regard.  If you find that you are not covered in this instance, you might consider using music available online that is free and in the public domain.

Involve your family to make your funeral song choices easier

The loss of a loved one will impact family members in several different ways.  Some will be so overcome with grief that they will only want to just make it through the service and the difficult adjustment period that follows.  Others will want to play an active role in deciding how a loved one should be remembered and will want to be involved in every detail of the remembrance.  It’s important to understand and respect the full range of emotions that people will be feeling, and how those feelings will manifest themselves in things such as choosing the right songs for a funeral service.

Here are some things to consider that may help make your funeral song choices easier while also helping to move the grief and healing process forward.

  • During the planning stages, try to include family members in the discussion and not only ask for their choices when it comes to picking songs, but also use the occasion to share great memories, especially if they are linked to particular musical pieces.
  • Create a master playlist of the best funeral songs that memorialize your loved one. Be sure to add all possibilities, even if they seem a bit off beat or don’t fit a theme you’d like to use.
  • After your master list is assembled, gather as many of your family members together as possible and play all the songs on the list. See which ones trigger the most emotional responses among your family, along with memories that are sure to surface as well.  It’s an organic part of the healing process that will help people start to deal with their grief.
  • Create a final playlist with the help of family members. It should be a mix of music that helps celebrate the life you are remembering.  Once the list has been finalized, share it with the funeral home and the person presiding over the service so that they can appropriately incorporate it into the events of the day.

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What makes a good funeral song?  What are the most popular funeral songs?

Choosing music to be played a funeral is a highly personal choice, but sometimes people may be overwhelmed by all the details that go into planning a service and may need suggestions to help them come up with the best musical selections.  There are many ways to make musical decisions and going with your gut is always a safe way to go.  But if you’re stuck for ideas, here are some ways you can narrow your choices.

Most Popular funeral songs

These are some of the most popular and commonly play funeral song choices.  When in doubt, you can always rely on any of these to provide a meaningful place in your service.

  1. Amazing Grace – Elvis Presley
  2. Angel – Sarah McLachlan
  3. Angels – Robbie Williams
  4. Candle In The Wind – Elton John
  5. Death Is Not The End – Bob Dylan
  6. Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley
  7. Have I Told You Lately – Van Morrison
  8. Memory – Barbra Streisand
  9. My Heart Will Go On – Celine Dion
  10. My Way – Frank Sinatra
  11. Over The Rainbow – Eva Cassidy
  12. Tears In Heaven – Eric Clapton
  13. Unchained Melody – Righteous Brothers
  14. Unforgettable – Nat King Cole
  15. What A Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
  16. Wind Beneath My Wings – Bette Midler

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Funeral songs by genre

If the deceased was a fan of a particular kind of music, you might want to consider these possible choices:

Pop and Contemporary Funeral Songs

  1. Angel — Sarah McLachlan
  2. Bittersweet Symphony — The Verve
  3. Fields of Gold — Eva Cassidy
  4. Fix You — Coldplay
  5. Goodbye My Lover — James Blunt
  6. Hallelujah — Leonard Cohen
  7. Halo — Beyoncé
  8. How Long Will I Love You — Ellie Goulding
  9. I Will Always Love You — Whitney Houston
  10. I Will Remember You — Sarah McLachlan
  11. Lay Me Down — Sam Smith
  12. Make You Feel My Love — Adele
  13. Never Tear Us Apart — INXS
  14. One Sweet Day — Mariah Carey
  15. Tears in Heaven — Eric Clapton
  16. To Where You Are — Josh Groban
  17. Wind Beneath My Wings — Bette Midler
  18. You Raise Me Up — Josh Groban

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Country Funeral Songs

  1. Angels Among Up – Alabama
  2. Go Rest High on That Mountain – Vince Gill
  3. I Hope You Dance – Lee Ann Womack
  4. I’m Already There — Lonestar
  5. Jealous of the Angels — Jenn Bostic
  6. Live Forever — Billy Joe Shaver
  7. See You Again — Carrie Underwood
  8. Temporary Home – Carrie Underwood
  9. There’ll Be You – Faith Hill
  10. The Dance — Garth Brooks
  11. When I Get Where I’m Going — Brad Paisley/Dolly Parton
  12. Clouds – Montgomery Gentry
  13. I Can Only Imagine – Bart Millard

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Broadway/Musicals Funeral Songs

  1. Borrowed Angels — Kristin Chenoweth
  2. If Ever I Would Leave You – “Camelot”
  3. Memories – “Cats”
  4. Moon River – “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”
  5. Over the Rainbow – “Wizard of Oz”
  6. Someone to Watch Over Me – “Oh Kay!”
  7. Somewhere – “West Side Story”
  8. The Party’s Over from “Bells Are Ringing”
  9. You’ll Never Walk Alone – “Carousel”
  10. Wind Beneath My Wings – Bette Midler
  11. Who Can I Turn To – “The Roar of the Greasepaint…”

Classical Funeral Songs

  1. Adagio For Strings – Albinoni
  2. Adagio Lamentoso (from Symphony No. 6) – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
  3. Adagietto (from Symphony no. 5) – Gustav Mahler
  4. Agnus Dei – Samuel Barber
  5. Ave Maria – Andrea Bocelli
  6. Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten – Arvo Pärt
  7. Canon in D major – Pachelbel
  8. Lacrimosa, from Requiem in D Minor – W.A. Mozart
  9. The Lark Ascending – Vaughan Williams
  10. Pavane – Fauré
  11. Pie Jesu – Fauré and others

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Funeral Songs from the 50s, 60s and 70s

  1. Unforgettable – Nat King Cole
  2. Blackbird – The Beatles
  3. Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon and Garfunkel
  4. Knocking on Heaven’s Door – Bob Dylan
  5. Stand By Me – Ben E. King
  6. Spirit in the Sky – Norman Greenbaum
  7. Simple Man – Lynyrd Skynyrd
  8. Knights in White Satin – Moody Blues
  9. You Are the Sunshine of My Life – Stevie Wonder
  10. Candle in the Wind – Elton John
  11. Bright Eyes – Art Garfunkel
  12. Dust in the Wind – Kansas

Christian Funeral Songs

  1. How Great Thou Art – Carrie Underwood
  2. You’re Beautiful – Phil Wickham
  3. There Will Come a Day – Faith Hill
  4. How You Live – Point of Grace
  5. How He Loves – John Mark McMillan
  6. There Will Be a Day – Jeremy Camp
  7. You Never Let Go – Matt Redman
  8. 10,000 reasons – Matt Redman
  9. Jesus Died My Soul to Save – Pocket Full of Rocks
  10. Various Iona songs – John Bell

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Funeral Song Hymns for Catholic Services

  1. Amazing Grace
  2. Lord of All Being
  3. Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley
  4. Come Holy Ghost
  5. I Have Loved You
  6. We Remember
  7. Holy is His Name
  8. Here I Am Lord
  9. Be Not Afraid
  10. On Eagles Wings

Funeral Songs Based on a Family Relationship

The deceased will generally hold a certain place in a family’s structure.  Here are some suggestions based on family relationships.

Funeral Songs for Dad

  1. Song for Dad – Keith Urban
  2. The Greatest Man I Never Knew – Reba McEntire
  3. Because You Loved Me – Celine Dion
  4. Temporary Home – Carrie Underwood
  5. Father and Son – Cat Stevens
  6. Love Without End, Amen – George Strait
  7. Simple Man – Lynyrd Skynyrd
  8. Tenderly Calling – John Denver
  9. When I Look to the Sky – Train

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Funeral Songs For Mom

  1. Mama – Il Divo
  2. A Mother’s Wish – Kirtsen Andersen
  3. A Song for Mama – Boyz II Men
  4. Unchained Melody – The Righteous Brothers
  5. Ave Maria – Josh Groban
  6. Song for Mom – Jon Barker
  7. I Believe – Leanna Rimes
  8. Angel – Sarah McLachlin
  9. In the Blue of Evening – Frank Sinatra
  10. Wind Beneath My Wings – Bette Midler
  11. Heaven’s Garden – Kieran Brennan
  12. Mama’s Song – Carrie Underwood
  13. Mother Like Mine – The Band Perry

Funeral Songs For a Brother

  1. Down the River – Chris Knight
  2. Brother – Beck
  3. Missing You – Diana Ross
  4. I’ll See You in My Dreams – Joe Brown
  5. He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – The Hollies
  6. Still They Ride – Journey
  7. No Expectations – The Rolling Stones
  8. Go Rest High on That Mountain – Vince Gill
  9. Lay Down Burden – Brian Wilson

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Funeral Songs For a Sister

  1. The Other Side of Life Now – Emmylou Harris
  2. Sissy’s Song – Alan Jackson
  3. View from Heaven – Yellowcard
  4. Hello – Evanescence
  5. Miss You – Blink 182
  6. Let It Be – The Beatles

Funeral Songs For a Grandparent

  1. Supermarket Flowers – Ed Sheeran
  2. Nan’s Song – Robbie Williams
  3. My Angel – Kellie Pickler

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Funeral Songs For a baby, child or young person

  1. Tears in Heaven – Eric Clapton
  2. Brahm’s Lullabye
  3. A Mother’s Prayer – Celine Dion
  4. Fly – Celine Dion
  5. Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel) – Billy Joel
  6. In Dreams – Roy Orbison
  7. Borrowed Angels – Kristin Chenoweth
  8. In My Daughter’s Eyes – Martina McBride
  9. God’s Will – Martina McBride
  10. Forever Young – Rod Stewart
  11. Over the Rainbow – Judy Garland
  12. There You’ll Be – Faith Hill

Funeral Songs For a Husband or a Wife

  1. Free as a Bird – The Beatles
  2. When September Ends – Green Day
  3. Keep Me in Your Heart – Warren Zevon
  4. The Living Years – Mike and the Mechanics
  5. Courtney’s Song – James Blunt
  6. Homesick – MercyMe

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Funeral Songs For a Military Veteran

  1. America The Beautiful
  2. Dixie’s Land
  3. El Captain by John Philip Sousa
  4. Eternal Father, Strong to Save (The Navy Hymn)
  5. Semper Paratus (Always Ready, US Coast Guard)
  6. Taps – Trumpet
  7. The Battle Hymn Of The Republic
  8. The Caissons Go Rolling Along
  9. The Marine’s Hymn
  10. The Stars and Stripes Forever
  11. Wild Blue Yonder (US Air Force)

Conclusion

These are just a few of the hundreds of possible songs you can choose from to use as funeral songs for your loved one.  If you’re still searching for just the right song or the right mix of songs, the Internet is loaded with possible choices that you can access for additional ideas.

A quick search using the key words “funeral songs” should give more than enough to help you make the right choices.

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