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When There's a Death, You Need a Mortuary

Barb has been bereaved of both children, both, parents, and several close friends. She has a lot of experience dealing with grief.


Death is Usually Unpredictable.

When death occurs, someone has to start thinking about doing business with a mortuary. Maybe that someone is you. Chances are if this is the first time you have played the part of next of kin -- the one who has to make the arrangements -- you're a bit confused about what to do. I have been involved with making arrangements for five people close to me who have died. From each of these experiences I have learned something, and I'd like to pass on what I've learned about how to deal with a mortuary to those who may be facing this for the first time.

When death happens, those left behind feel very vulnerable and often don't know quite what to expect. They have just lost someone they loved and want to do right by them. If that someone did not make his or her own preparations ahead of time, then you, as next of kin, are the one who will have to make the decisions and figure out how the services you need will be paid for. The latter is often the hardest part, and, unfortunately, it often has to be thought of before you make the rest of the decisions. When you get to the mortuary and talk to a mortician, it pays to be prepared.

In the picture above, I am returning the wreath, made by a family friend, to my son Jason's grave. It had been hanging on my living room wall for years, and it seemed time to give it back. My mother, now buried in this same cemetery, took the picture.

All the photos in this article were taken by Barbara Radisavljevic or other family members. They are not to be used elsewhere without permission.

Your Loved One Will Get to the Mortuary Before You Do

I went to the back of a local mortuary to find a hearse, but this is what they have for the trip to the mortuary these days.

I went to the back of a local mortuary to find a hearse, but this is what they have for the trip to the mortuary these days.

It's Normally Easy to Get Your Loved One to the Mortuary

The hardest part is paying for it after they receive your loved one and start listing the charges. Normally you or the hospital or whoever is first aware of the death calls the mortuary that's nearest to pick up the body of your loved one. I have lost many loved ones. My dad died in the hospital and they arranged pick-up. My mom and my mother-in-law died at home with hospice care. I called the hospice nurse and she arranged for the transport.

I can't believe how quickly they arrived. Because my mom was having to go a long way, I had to have her clothes ready to go with her by the time transport arrived. Fortunately my mom's caregiver was there to help me. I wished I had asked my mom what she'd want to wear to her grave. The attendants were very respectful and patient. They took longer to prepare Mom for the trip because she had many stops before she would arrive in Long Beach.

We were burying my mother-in-law locally, so we could take her clothes when we went in to make the arrangements. She was being picked up by a different mortuary, and I was I little surprised at how unprofessional the people who came for her seemed to be. Perhaps they had had a bad day, but they were acting like slapstick comedians as they carted her to the van. I guess you can't take it for granted that those who pick up your loved one will be as respectful as those who will greet you when you come to the mortuary to make the arrangements.

If your loved one dies in a hospital or where a physician is in attendance, they will arrange for pick-up. If there's any doubt as to whether a crime was committed, the coroner will pay a visit and make arrangements for pickup. If your loved one died in an accident, normally someone on the scene calls 911 and they take it from there. For more information on complicated transport arrangements, you may find this FuneralWise site helpful. I have no commercial interest in this site.

Our local mortuary in Paso Robles, California

Our local mortuary in Paso Robles, California

Meeting Your Mortician.

The situation determines what you will feel and what you need to do.

I was first involved with making arrangements when my dad died in 1987. My mom was still alive and my dad had bought a plot. So we knew where he would be buried and which mortuary we would need to deal with. There was a trust in place to take care of the expenses because Dad had thought ahead for both himself and Mom. Mom was the one making the decisions in this case, but she needed support from me and my brother, and we met her at the mortuary the day my dad died.

The first thing you have to get used to in dealing with mortuaries is that they are businesses. Dealing with death and families is their business. They see families every day who have lost a loved one. You, however, do not do this kind of business every day, and it's a big deal to you. When you first go to the mortuary, you are grieving, not knowing what to expect, and the last thing on your mind is probably shopping. Unfortunately, callous as it may sound, a visit to a mortuary is really a shopping trip where you will spend a huge amount of money with little time to shop for the best deal.

Your salesperson will usually be very kind and understanding, but he or she is still a salesperson. He will know you are very vulnerable and he will be interested in getting you to shell out all you can (or can't ) afford. First you will sit down with your salesperson, and he will ask you all kinds of questions about the deceased, your relationship to him or her, the names (including maiden)and birth places of the parents and grandparents of the deceased. You might not even know all the answers, but you have to do the best you can. All this is for the death certificate.

You will also have to decide how many death certificates you would like to buy. These are needed for settling the affairs of the deceased -- closing bank accounts, claiming death benefits, and all sorts of other reasons. I suggest you start with ten or whatever amount you need to get a price break. It's more expensive if you have to buy one more because you didn't get enough.

You will also need to decide if you want the mortuary to write the obituary or whether you want to do it yourself and submit it to the papers. If you want them to write it, they will ask you more questions and there will probably be an added charge. The newspapers will often have their own charges by the line if you submit them yourself. Pictures are often extra.

I took this picture of my local mortuary when writing this article.

Chapel and Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Sunnyside in Long Beach, California, where most of my exended family is buried. Mom and Dad are in one of those walls.

Chapel and Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Sunnyside in Long Beach, California, where most of my exended family is buried. Mom and Dad are in one of those walls.

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Cremation or Burial?

Once you've answered all the morticians other questions, you need to decide whether your loved one will be buried or cremated. My family has always tended toward burial, the most expensive option. Burial requires a place to be buried and that involves a real estate purchase of some sort in the ground or in a wall. Since I have only made arrangements for burials, I don't know the ins and outs of cremation, but I know that some people buy urns and take them home and some people have services at sea and scatter remains in the ocean. Some hike to a loved one's favorite place and scatter ashes there. I don't know if buying an urn is required. I am sure you will be given the option of buying one. Your mortician will explain all your options.

If you choose burial, you will need to either buy a place to be buried or show that you have title to one. Sometimes you can choose a cemetery and sometimes your city decides for you. In my county, each city or district has its own cemetery and if you don't like it, you will pay high fees to go elsewhere.

My family members are all buried in the same cemetery, Forest Lawn Sunnyside in Long Beach, a city with more than one choice. We don't live in that city, and since it's far from us, we will probably be buried in our own town if we still live here when we die. We are getting to the age when we should start thinking about it.

A Cemetery in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada


Does It Pay to Buy Your Burial Plot Before You Need It?

The last real estate you will ever need.

If you need to buy a plot in the cemetery associated with the mortuary you are doing business with, your salesperson will turn into a real estate person. You will walk the grounds and/or mausoleum discussing the pros and cons of each vacant place until you decide on one. Then you will go back and make your purchase. At this time, payment arrangements might be discussed. It's good to think before you get to the mortuary about how you are going to pay for all this. If you have insurance, it will be a little easier. The price you have to pay will probably be more than you were counting on.

Your choices, depending on how full the cemetery is, will vary. This picture shows a rather ornate cemetery in Niagara Falls, Canada, where my husband's father had bought a plot he never used because he later came to the United States. As I understand it, the deed was not transferable, so the money was lost.

This is one of the disadvantages of planning ahead. You never know for sure where you will die. At the end of this article, you see a very simple grave where my son and daughter are buried -- Jason in 1991 and Sarah in 2009. It was a double grave, and if Sarah had not also died, I'm not sure who would have used the other half. We might have donated it to a poor child whose parents did not have the money for a plot.

So your real estate options might be a single plot, a double plot, a grave outside, a crypt in a wall, such as where my parents are buried, or a crypt in a mausoleum, such as the one where many of my relatives are buried. All these options were available at Forest Lawn Sunnyside in Long Beach, where we were shopping.

Kosta's parents are buried in a double grave in Templeton, where we live. It is much simpler than at Forest Lawn cemetery. You must live in Templeton or be related to someone who is to be buried there.

Flowers and Alternatives

Many people sent flowers for Jason's service. Others lovingly assembled photo albums of his life, drew pictures, and used their talents to honor him.

Many people sent flowers for Jason's service. Others lovingly assembled photo albums of his life, drew pictures, and used their talents to honor him.

Shopping for a Casket Can Be the Hardest Part

Picking out a casket, deciding if you want a package deal

When my father died, this was absolutely the hardest part for me. The salesman had gone over the preliminary interview in the office, gotten the information for the obituary and death certificate, and helped us pick a plan. Then he ushered us into a room full of caskets. He was as causal about this as he would be if he were selling us a sofa. We discussed materials -- wood or metal, and lining fabrics.

My mother had brought one of Dad's suits along, as instructed. When we had found a couple of caskets and were trying to decide between them, the salesman brought the suit and laid it in each one. That's when I just about freaked out. We were picturing my dad in there, and we weren't ready for this visual display. It was almost as though one was trying on clothes in a dressing room to see how they looked -- that casual. This was routine for the salesman, but not for us.

If you want to avoid this, you can shop for caskets on line. I did this when Mom died. And I just did it for Sarah. Forest Lawn has a web site where you can see all their pricing You might want to check to see if your local mortuary has a web site with this information before your appointment so that you can have time to think through your choices before you are influenced by your salesman.

Recently, a friend told my husband that when a relative died, he saw the price of coffins and made his own, saving lots of money with a simple casket made lovingly with his own hands. So this is still possible. Check your state's laws and your rights to see what your state allows.

Do you need a funeral package?

Most mortuaries will try to sell you a plan that includes the casket, and sometimes a funeral. You will have to decide whether you want a funeral or grave side service that requires the use of their service staff or chapels. There are alternatives to this. For example, at Jason's service we had to postpone the grave side service until after the weekend because their service staff doesn't work on the weekend, or if they do, the charges for their services are much higher. For the grave side service, you can order some chairs to be put out and they will have the casket by the grave side at the time of the service, bring the flowers to the site, etc.

The chairs were limited and uncomfortable for Jason's service. They don't actually lower the casket into the ground until you are gone. At my mom's service (same cemetery) they put out metal folding chairs. For Sarah's service (same cemetery), we wanted it on Saturday so more people could come. It was to be her only service. We decided not to use any services of the mortuary or cemetery staff.

Family members had access to plenty of folding chairs and brought them. We just met around the grave site for a short service performed by family members. Then we went to the home of a family member afterward for a light lunch and time of sharing memories as a group. We could do that because we were a much smaller group than for Jason's memorial service. His was too big for our church to hold, so we had it outdoors. I will talk more about funeral planning below.

Another part of the packages they want to sell you include the price of the hearse and limousines for the family members. You pretty well have to have a hearse, but we opted out of the extra expense of limousines, since most of us had to drive long distances anyway. It seemed kind of silly to make a long drive and then have a limousine pick us up from a relative's home or motel. It helps to know that even if some things may be traditional, they may not be necessary or desirable for you.

That brings me to flowers. They are a lovely custom, and if you are going to have a funeral or graveside service where the casket is present, you may want flowers to adorn the casket. You also might just have a wreath and a few flowers planned and encourage people to donate the money they might have spent for flowers to a favorite charity in honor of the deceased.

If you have ever been part of the family, you may know that after the graveside service, the flowers will either be given to the family members or be disposed of by the cemetery staff after everyone has gone home. They may be allowed to stay until wilted but that depends upon the rules of the cemetery you choose. The picture above shows the many flowers people sent for Jason's service. A special family friend made the wreath you see. After the graveside service, we took it home and hung it on the wall in the kitchen for years. When my aunt died in 2003 we went to Long Beach for the funeral and left the wreath on Jason's grave. You can see it close up in the lead photo at the top.

Explanation for Alternative Guestbook Photos Above

Most mortuaries will try to sell you a guest book. The first two photos above were from the guest book the mortuary sold us because we thought we had to buy it there. I don't even remember if we had different styles to chose from. It's the standard book that people sign as they arrive at the viewing or service.

People we didn't even know, as well as members of our church families, blood and adoptive families, his Boy Scout brothers, homeschooling group, and neighbors all loved Jason.. Some of those people wanted to do something special we hadn't even thought of. They knew Jason loved cats, and they bought the second guest book you see. One of them was a talented calligrapher. and she wrote a specially chosen verse of Scripture on the flyleaf. She also did the next page. The guests signed the other pages.

Sarah's book was totally generic because that's all we could find. It was hard to find a plain one that wasn't a wedding guest book. I'm not sure who wrote above Sarah's photo. I'm guessing her best friend did it, to make it personal. But I don't remember. Those days are a blur. Suicides mess with one's mind.

As you can see above, we put photos of Sarah at the front of the book. Most people at her small graveside memorial service had not seen her in several years, and not since she had grown up. I decorated the rest of the pages with stickers. The first page was for those who just wanted to sign. The rest were for those who wanted to say more.

As you can see, if you have a scrapbooker in the family, or a calligrapher, or an artist, you can easily make a more personal guest book than the one the mortuary wants to sell you.

The Viewing Room

Sarah in casket in viewing room waiting for transport to grave.

Sarah in casket in viewing room waiting for transport to grave.

Should You Have a Viewing?

To look or not to look, that is the question.

It has become traditional in our society to have a period of viewing the deceased loved one in the casket at the mortuary in a special viewing room. The purpose is for family and friends to come and bid a private farewell. I would like to point out that this is an option -- not a requirement. It is an expensive option, and the room is normally rented by the day or partial day. Some people would prefer to be remembered as they were when alive.

You alone will need to decide whether this option is necessary or desirable. You will also need to decide, if you choose the viewing option, whether this is something you want to expose young children to. I still remember when my dad died and our children were young. An older child (my daughter was 12 ) might behave appropriately by instinct. A younger child needs some preparation about what to expect and how to behave. (Maybe we all need to know what to expect.)

My son was eight when my dad died. I myself didn't know what to expect, since this was my first viewing. Also, I did not fully understand the mind of a curious eight-year-old boy. He had only known his grandpa for three years (We adopted him at five), and they had only seen each other a few times a year. So in some respects, my dad was still somewhat of a stranger to him. When Jason saw Dad, his natural impulse was scientific inquiry. How does a dead person look and feel? So Jason looked and touched and communicated his observations about how dad's skin felt and how stiff he seemed. That wasn't what I wanted to hear right then, but it was a very natural response from Jason.

It's not that children should be kept out or prevented from touching, but you might want to instruct them about appropriate words on the scene and to save questions and observations until later. Then, later, be sure to give them the chance to ask and get answers. This is especially true if other members of the family, such as the spouse of the deceased, is present at the viewing when you are. Such remarks from a child, innocent as they may be, might hurt.

When Jason himself died, several families with young children came to the viewing to say goodbye, but I only accompanied our closest friends in. I needed that viewing, since the last time I had seen Jason, he was healthy and whole as he left to go water skiing one morning and never came back alive. I needed to see him again, even if I knew he no longer inhabited his body. It was a mother/son thing.

I spent as much time with him as I could. I remember how hard it was for me when, right before the service, I had to leave, knowing I would never lay eyes on him again. Having them close the lid was the hardest thing I'd ever experienced. Had it not been that I was almost late to the memorial service, I think they would have had to drag me out. Unless you're a mother who's lost a child, or a married person who's lost a spouse, this might be difficult to understand. Be sure you have some private time with the loved one if you are in this category.

When our good friend Rich died, I always felt a bit cheated that I had no way to see him once the mortuary wheeled him away. The attendants who took him away wouldn't let me see him then, insisting I should wait until the mortuary fixed him up. His family, from whom he'd been estranged and separated for many years, decided to have him cremated and sent to the family plot back east. It's true Rich wanted us to remember him the way he was when alive, and he had also come to say goodbye (though we didn't understand it at the time) before he went home to take his own life. I still missed that kind of closure I had with Jason.

When Mom died, we did not have a special viewing. We had to have her transported 200 miles to the family plot so she could be interred with Dad. All my dealings with the mortuary were by phone. Since I was present when Mom died, I did not feel I needed to attend a viewing.

My brother, on the other hand, wanted to inspect the job the mortuary had done. He and his family asked to see Mom before she was interred, and the mortuary accommodated them at no extra charge, so, in effect, they had a private viewing. Most of Mom's friends had preceded her in death, so it was mostly my brother and his family, who had not been able to be present when Mom died, that needed to see her.

When Sarah died, we did not have a viewing either. My brother, who lives nearer the mortuary, again went to inspect the results of the mortuary's work. Most people attending the service lived too far away to attend a visitation, including Sarah's husband, and he had been with her at the scene of her death. My brother did take pictures so we could also see the results, and I was sorry I looked. The person in the casket didn't even resemble my daughter -- not even the pictures I'd seen of her as an adult. (See the story of Sarah's suicide here.) The picture here was taken by my brother after Sarah's death.

Each family will have to decide on the need for the viewing according to the circumstances. The younger the person, and the more numerous the close friends who are nearby, the more important a viewing might be. Consider your own needs as well, and what you can afford.

Jason's Memorial Service

Pastors from two different churches spoke at Jason's service, which was held outside of our church. He loved the outdoors, and the church wasn't big enough to hold everyone.

Pastors from two different churches spoke at Jason's service, which was held outside of our church. He loved the outdoors, and the church wasn't big enough to hold everyone.

The Funeral or Memorial Service

It's all up to you.

Because our family is Christian, we have always planned Christian services for our family members. When planning the service, there are as many options as there are families. I will share here some of the options I've used or seen used for Christian services and how they have worked out.

Time: When you pick a time, remember that if you use any services provided by a mortuary, such as transport of the casket, it will be much more expensive to have the service on a weekend when mortuary staff get higher hourly wages. For this reason, we did not have a casket present at either Jason or Sarah's service, since almost everyone had to make at least a one-hour drive one way--really hard on a work day. You also need to know when any participants in the service are available. If you have need of services provided by the mortuary or are using its facilities, they will have to be considered in the scheduling.

Place: The place you choose can be almost anywhere. The mortuary will probably suggest their chapel, which you will have to pay for. If the deceased has a church home near where most of the mourners live, that is usually the best place. Often there is no charge if the deceased was a member. Also, if the family has been active in the church, there will be many helping hands, as we had for Jason's service. We didn't need to worry about food afterward or many other details because people just offered to take care of them. If your church is too small, you may need to consider another option.

We belonged to a fairly small church when Jason died. Jason was fourteen and very popular with not only people his own age, but also with the adults he knew. He was almost like the church mascot, since he was schooled at home and was often available to help the seniors fold the bulletins when they called, or to help on work projects. We lived only three blocks from the church, and he could come on a minute's notice. We knew Jason's service would have to be at the church, which although small, had a large church courtyard. We also believed Jason would prefer outside to inside. So we had the service in the courtyard.

When Mom died, she had few living friends, and most of them were 200 miles away from where she would be buried. Since she was forewarned about when her life would end, she helped make the decisions, and we decided on just a graveside service at the cemetery.

When Rich died, we had a small service in the church we both attended, and we had it at night, since most of Rich's friends worked during the day and were self-employed. We wanted to make it convenient for them.

Most of the Christians we know whose services we have attended have had services in their home churches, since this is usually the easiest arrangement. Sarah did not have a local home church. We had to bring her from Texas, since she had told all the people she lived with over the years since she left us, that if anything happened, she wanted to be buried beside her brother in California. We did not expect a large turnout, so we decided again on a graveside service, without any services from the mortuary or cemetery, since Sarah had been buried a few days earlier.

Some people have services in parks, at the beach, or at some other place the deceased loved. If a church memorial service doesn't seem right for you, use your imagination to decide what your loved one would most want. The casket does not have to be present. It was not there for Jason, Sarah, or Rich. The most important thing to consider is your own needs, what the loved one might have wanted, and the needs of the mourners. If you have elderly, pregnant, or disabled people coming, you should have chairs available -- at least for them. Be sure and let people know they can wear casual attire if you will be in a place that is outside and where people will be standing. You want attendees to think about the service -- not their sore feet because they wore heels.

What Happens at the Service

The first things you will need to know before you plan even the date and place are whether you want clergy, musicians, and other people whose services you think you need to be present. You will also have to decide whether you want the casket there, and, if so, whether it will be open or closed.

If you are lucky, your loved one may have told you some of his or her wishes, or you will already know favorite Scriptures or songs of the deceased. That will make it easier to plan the service. If you will be assisted by clergy, they may already have a standard format to suggest and you will only need to supply the Scripture verses or other readings you want and some music suggestions. You may prefer congregational singing to a soloist or other special music. Either way you will need to know who will accompany any music you want to happen.

Sometimes the church your loved one belonged to will determine the service contents. My in-laws were both Orthodox, and my mother was Episcopalian, and in each case there is a specific liturgy for funerals and burial. Your clergyman will be able to help you plan your service if you are concerned that it conform to the pattern your faith provides. Protestants have a number of options, and can be much more flexible in the form a memorial service takes. Sarah's service is described in my hub about her.

Whereas Sarah's service was very simple and fairly unstructured, Jason's and Rich's were more traditional in their form. In each case clergy participated. For Jason's we actually had two clergymen from two different churches officiating, since one of them had been present when Jason's accident took place and was too emotionally involved to provide much of a theological perspective, so we asked a former clergymen, who had met Jason on a few occasions, to deliver the main message.

We chose some of Jason's favorite songs, and members of his Boy Scout troop presented the colors at the beginning and also helped with reading the Scriptures throughout the service. Both Kosta and I spoke, and anyone who wanted to also shared their memories. Two of our choir members asked if they could sing a special duet for the service and we gladly accepted their musical offering. Jason had babysat for one of them. We had a lot of congregational singing, and this was led by a member of our former church, which we were in the process of reconnecting with again. The words to all the songs and the order of service were provided in a bulletin the church produced for us.

Rich's service was more subdued . The service for a suicide is never easy, although not everyone who attended knew it was a suicide. We chose our pastors, both of whom knew Rich pretty well, to officiate. One gave the actual sermon. The other shared memories. In many ways, Rich, who had left his family to come west and try to resolve some issues in his personal life, was like an adopted adult member of our family. He spent most major holidays with our extended family and Christmas Eve he spent just with Kosta and me. That is why both Kosta and I spoke at his service.

His brother, whom none of us had ever met, had come to town to take over dealings with the mortuary which I had started when the next of kin had not yet been found. He also spoke and offered the perspective of a brother who had known Rich all his life. After the service, everyone was invited to my mother's home in the area for refreshments and informal sharing of memories.

When a memorial service or funeral is very large, many families elect to serve a light lunch or other refreshment appropriate for the time of day right at the place of the service -- especially if it's at a church. That permits people to hang around and talk longer if the crowd is too big to fit into a house. Then the smaller group of family and very close friends usually go to an available home of a family member. If the deceased was a member of the congregation, the ladies of the church will often take over preparing and serving the food and drink. That was certainly the case when my dad, Jason, and Rich died.

As you can see, the service can be anything you want it to be. If you are too numb to plan the service, your clergyman or funeral director will be willing to help. Family members will usually also be a great help at this time, often offering to provide food or open their homes after the service. In the end, do what seems most appropriate under the circumstances for those who will be coming and to help you through your grieving process.

I am writing from my own experiences, not a professional point of view. My object in writing this was so others might not be caught off guard the way I was in my mortuary experiences. Maybe you've experienced other things people might want to be aware of. Or maybe what I've written has raised questions I didn't address. Please share, either way, and if I can't answer your questions, maybe another reader can.

Do you have Experience in Dealing with Mortuaries? - Maybe you can add to what I've written.

Audrey Howitt from California on January 22, 2015:

Such a difficult subject--

Barbara Radisavljevic (author) from Paso Robles, CA on December 22, 2014:

Thank you for your comment, Erin. I can testify on how hard it is to be suddenly faced for the first time with making these decisions. The experience never becomes easy, but knowledge can make you less vulnerable to spending money you don't need to.

Erin Mellor from Europe on November 21, 2014:

Thank you, it's good to have a walk through ahead of time, so you know what you should be thinking about, and are at least part prepared, although when you need to be thinking about these decisions your mind really struggles to concentrate.

Sandy Mertens from Wisconsin on September 06, 2014:

This has everything that one should know about with dealing with burials. There are times I thing that my husband and I should have this all set up.

Susie Lehto from Minnesota on September 06, 2014:

Barb, this is truly a great help for others who just do not know what to expect. I am the primary caregiver for my elderly Mom, who has Alzheimer's disease, and I know that sad day will come when she has passed. She asked me years ago to officiate her memorial service, but I feel that would be too emotional for me to do.

Jim from Kansas on September 06, 2014:

There are so many things to do, and decisions to make. Nice guide for those who haven't been through it. Sadly, we have several times in the last decade.