Pre-Planning for Death: Part 1

/ October 2, 2012

This is the first in a three part series on pre-planning for your death. This series is written by Jill Sauber, a current law student and licensed mortician. 


People often segue into talking about their own mortality or death by saying, “if something happens to me.” As though stating it in terms of “maybe” will make it less likely that they will die. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but let’s go ahead and be frank. “When something happens to you.” It’s not a matter of “if.” Whether poor or rich, tall or short, Democrat or Republican, inevitably we are all going to die. It is the only sure thing in life. Well, and taxes.

Uplifting, right?

Consider what you can do to pre-plan for “the inevitable.” Pre-planning for your death can provide peace of mind about fulfillment of traditions and wishes as well as lessen the financial burden on family or friends if pre-paid. Pre-planning for your death is as important as estate planning, and the two are closely related. In this three-part series, I will first clarify terms related to pre-planning for your death. Second, I will cover what exactly happens to your remains after you die. Finally, I will discuss the steps to pre-planning your funeral.

Clarifying Terms

There are a few terms about death, funerals and pre-planning that I would like to clarify.

Funeral Director and Mortician

“Funeral director” and “mortician” refer to the same thing in Minnesota. A person who practices Mortuary Science is licensed as a mortician by the State of Minnesota (Minnesota Department of Health). The State requires a four year Mortuary Science degree from an accredited University (the University of Minnesota has a degree), passing of national and state board exams, and a one-year internship to gain licensure as a mortician.

Once upon a time, the two licenses were separate: Morticians performed embalming, cosmetizing, dressing, casketing, and other technical aspects of funeral services; Funeral directors were in charge of arrangements with families, coordinating with clergy, filing the death certificate, and other clerical work associated with a death. Minnesota morticians do all of these things.

Everyone thinks morticians are rich or make tons of money. Let me dispel that myth. Unless you own your own funeral home you’re probably not making much, especially as an intern out of college. Also, morticians are on-call a lot. This means that in addition to working a typical 40 hour work week, they are required to answer calls, pick up bodies, embalm, do arrangements, etc. 24 hours a day. Sometimes they sleep on the funeral home couch because they don’t have time to go home to their own bed. They get yelled at, cried to, and (sometimes) peed on. Please be nice to them. Someday they will see you naked.

Pre-Need Arrangements or Pre-Planning

“Pre-need arrangements” or “pre-planning” generally refers to funeral arrangements done before death and can include arrangements to create a trust to pre-pay for funeral services or drafting a life insurance policy listing a funeral home as beneficiary. Some morticians hold an additional insurance license to provide pre-need insurance policies.

A pre-need arrangement (or pre-arrangement) with a funeral home hashes out the details of a service and may list goods associated with the service, yet a family is not legally bound by a pre-need arrangement. They can change the casket, the printed items, the church, or anything else. However, in my experience, families do follow the decedent’s wishes made in a pre-arrangement if the wishes are put into writing or expressed before death. Why is this? It could be the familial connection or a desire to treat the dead with dignity and respect, but I’m convinced it is fear that their loved one will haunt them for eternity if they don’t follow their wishes.

A pre-need insurance policy or a trust for funeral expenses secure funds for after death. The assets are set aside to go to the funeral home, and a statement of goods and services is likely drawn up during the time of payment. Both are legal documents that transfer assets.

Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts

Purchased on iStock“Revocable” and “irrevocable” trusts can be used in pre-planning. Revocable trusts are those where funds can be taken out by the benefactor, and irrevocable are trusts those where assets are untouchable by the benefactor and the trust beneficiary is “any funeral home as its name shall appear.”

A trust may be drafted at one funeral home and transferred to another. A funeral home cannot keep any funds until services are performed. A funeral home cannot force a person to use that funeral home for services just because a trust was drafted there.

If you are concerned with Medical Assistance spend down to “tie-up” assets, an irrevocable trust or life insurance policy can be completed. Since funds in an irrevocable trust are untouchable by the benefactor, they are exempt for Medical Assistance purposes. For a life insurance policy to be exempt as an asset for Medical Assistance, it must:

  1. be assigned to any funeral home as its interest appears,
  2. name the estate as the contingent beneficiary, and
  3. be accompanied with a statement of goods and services selected from a funeral establishment.

 At-Need and Right to Control

“At-need” refers to arrangements done by a person with the right to control after the death has occurred. The person with the “right to control” may be someone listed in a Health Care Directive or instrument executed by an attorney under Minn. Stat. § 145C, or is the surviving spouse. If there is no surviving spouse then right to control continues to next of kin (children, parents, siblings, grandchildren, grandparents, nephews/nieces, etc.)

If there is someone you want to give the right to control that is not your spouse or next of kin, then providing the name and information on a Health Care Directive is key! A funeral director will not follow instructions if the person does not have the right to control.

Power of Attorney

Power of Attorney” (either durable or non-durable) is a document, usually drafted by a lawyer, which allows one person (the Principal) to give another person (the attorney-in-fact) power to act on the Principal’s behalf. This is one document drafted during estate planning and is crucial for planning in case of incapacity. This power ends at the death of the Principal, and the document is useless for funeral directors (unless needed on a pre-need basis). Power of attorney does not give someone the right to control disposition.

Final Disposition

“Final disposition” is ultimately what happens to your body. Today, the cremation and burial rates in Minnesota are each at about 50%. Contrary to popular belief, one is not necessarily cheaper than the other. Many people associate cremation with “direct cremation” with no additional services, and burial with a full traditional funeral with visitation. However, depending on services selected with the funeral home (visitation with purchase of a casket, embalming, memorial service, goods, sundries, etc.) the cost may be the same for cremation or burial. A body can be embalmed, viewed, and then cremated, so the same services can be provided as with burial. Vice versa. Someone can have “direct burial” and forego any additional services.

  • “Funeral service” generally refers to a service with a body present before burial or cremation.
  • “Memorial service” generally refers to a service with no body, or cremated remains.
  • “Visitation” or “wake” is a viewing of the body where it is laid out, typically in a casket after embalming, for friends, family, and the public to come see the person after death.


“Embalming” is the process of sanitizing, washing, and chemically preparing the body. I’ll skip the details here.

In Minnesota, embalming, refrigeration, or package in dry ice is required if:

  1. the body is being transported by public transportation (think: planes, trains, and automobiles)
  2. burial or cremation will take place more than 72 hours after death or 72 hours after the funeral home receives the body from the Medical Examiner or other authority,
  3. there is a public viewing (dry ice is only allowed if the viewing takes place on private property, so if it is in the funeral home the body must be embalmed), or
  4. the Commissioner of Health orders it to control infectious disease.

5 thoughts on “Pre-Planning for Death: Part 1

  1. Very well explained Jill. Pre-planning for death may be a topic that others are afraid to talk about but just like what you said it is inevitable. I had great time reading it and I find it worth it to continue reading on the other parts.

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