Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end—each equally important, each equally valuable. So when it comes to the story of your own life, how do you write an ending befitting of everything that came before it, one that represents your life, your values, and your wishes for your loved ones?
Though most people would agree that a positive legacy is important, most avoid the question of how to leave a positive legacy entirely. A 2020 Better Place Forests survey found that the global pandemic brought end-of-life top-of-mind with over 50% of Americans thinking more about mortality since COVID-19 began. Despite this, however, 60.5% of Americans surveyed have not discussed the topic of death with family simply because they don’t want to talk about it. Most alarmingly, nearly 30% have not taken any steps to plan for end-of-life.
Procrastinating on these plans can have painful effects. Lack of clarity around what you want your legacy to be can cause an undue emotional and financial burden on your loved ones when it comes to final arrangements.
“People think this is something they can put off, and keep putting off,” says Manhattan-based family grief counselor Jill Cohen. And while making decisions about death may be uncomfortable for many, choosing to consciously engage with an end-of-life plan before it becomes necessary can be one of the greatest gifts you can give your loved ones.
The end-of-life invariably involves tons of paperwork, numerous stressful decisions, and in many cases, financial pressure. Relieving your family and friends of those stressors ahead of time can allow them to progress through the grieving process with less difficulty.
What’s more, end-of-life planning can be a way to consider, in the fullest sense, who you are and what kind of legacy you want to leave behind. “It can be life-changing and life-affirming, too,” says Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider, an internal medicine doctor and the founder of EndWell, an organization that brings together professionals from different fields who deal with mortality and what it means. “It gets to the heart of, ‘Who are you as a human being? What matters to you?’”
Dr. Ungerleider also points out that talking about what happens at the end-of-life can, in the present moment, bring families closer together. “Talking about end-of-life plans, having those hard conversations, allows people to be more fully present with their loved ones,” she says.
As daunting as starting the conversation can be, it is the first and most important step to creating an end-of-life option that closely reflects one’s individual values and commitments.
“There were periods in history where death was talked about, well-planned for, and better managed—individuals would, long before they needed to, be having those discussions with family members or simply making the investments in those costs,” says Ann Neumann, author of The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America. For many people, this meant a traditional religious service followed by burial in a cemetery plot, usually with or near other close family members. While that is still the choice for many, others feel that a one-size-fits-all approach won’t suit them. So it is necessary to consider not just the “how” and “where” of a final resting place, but also the “why”.
So what do you want your story’s end to look like? From burial to cremation to hybrid options, religious funerals to outdoor ceremonies that incorporate your favorite songs, there are more choices than ever when it comes to an end-of-life plan. In past historical moments, cultural and traditional forces primarily prescribed what happened after death. Now more than ever, you have the opportunity to define your own legacies.
It can be hard to know where to begin creating your own end-of-life plan, but there are just a few essential questions, which if you answer for yourself, will allow you to share with your loved ones what a meaningful end looks like to you.
1. What do you want to happen to your body after you die?
It’s a question many people don’t consider but has a number of possible answers. While some families opt for an open-casket funeral with their loved one dressed in a favorite suit or dress, others are interested in eco-friendly post-mortem rituals or opting for cremation. In fact, according to a recent study by Tulip, a San Francisco-based direct cremation company, nearly 80% of Baby Boomers (who they define as between the ages of 55 and 64) anticipate choosing cremation. Of the many options available, they primarily break down into three categories:
For many years, the only option for families following the death of a loved one was to send their body to a mortuary to be embalmed and kept in a preserved state for a viewing and funeral service. But that’s changing: in 2010, 53.3% percent of Americans opted for a cemetery burial—which usually, but not always, involves embalming—but in 2020 that number is projected to be 37.5%, and by 2040, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, it’s projected to decline to just 15.7%. Part of the shift is cost-related: the average cost of a casket alone, according to the Federal Trade Commission, is more than $2,000 with some mahogany, bronze or copper caskets costing up to $10,000. Additional services like dressing, makeup, and hairstyling, can tack on even more money. Still, many people find it meaningful to have one last moment with their loved ones as they remember them. Seeing a dear friend or family member wearing a familiar outfit or piece of jewelry can be a way to come to terms with having to say goodbye.
Though conventional embalming slows natural decomposition processes, it does not stop them. Because families and circles of friends are increasingly scattered across the globe, many people are interested in planning funeral services weeks or even months after the death of a loved one, in which case viewing may not be suitable, therefore embalmment is not necessary.
Another reason conventional embalming is becoming less common is that many people are worried about its environmental impact—every year, the U.S. alone uses more than 5 million gallons of the harsh chemicals essential to the process. And according to a recent study in the Berkeley Planning Journal, nearly 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde—the primary chemical used in embalming, and one that can have seriously damaging effects on humans—end up in the ground each year.
Cremation is, almost certainly, the way of the future when it comes to death: According to the Cremation Association of North America, in 2018, the U.S. cremation rate was 53.1%, and by 2023, it projects the U.S. cremation rate will reach 59.4%. And it’s a choice that, for many, feels increasingly likely: according to a recent study by Tulip, a San Francisco-based direct cremation company, nearly 80% of Baby Boomers (that’s anyone between the ages of 55 and 64) anticipate choosing cremation, a statistic echoed by studies done by the National Funeral Directors Association.
It’s a choice that can feel both practical and flexible—loved ones can keep cremains in a treasured urn, or consider turning ashes into jewelry or scattering them in a beloved spot. Some people do choose to plan for embalming and an open-casket funeral before cremation. Still, cremation itself is often the first step for people who decide they don’t want a cemetery burial but aren’t sure what they want their memorial and ultimate resting place to look like.
Cremation also means family members can make several different plans: they might choose, for example, to keep some ashes in an urn at home and place another portion in a conservation memorial forest so that other loved ones have a place to visit.
Cost also comes into play when choosing cremation: The average cost of cremation in the United States is around $2,200, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), significantly lower than the total cost associated with a traditional burial. Cremation is also increasingly accessible—the NFDA says that the number of crematories increased nearly 10% over the last two years, with a full one-third of funeral homes operating their own cremation facilities.
“We’re definitely seeing many people move towards green burial,” says Ann Neumann. A green or eco-friendly burial eschews chemicals and non-biodegradable materials, giving a person the option to return to the earth and then become a part of it.
While there is no standard definition of a green burial, for many people, it involves skipping the embalming process and opting to be buried in a wooden casket or even a simple cloth shroud. Green burials appeal to people who count respect for the environment or being with nature among their core values and want to create an ecologically conscious end-of-life plan. It prioritizes the reduction of carbon emissions and the health and safety of funeral and burial workers.
Green burial also asks people to consider the sheer number of resources used in traditional burial: according to the Green Burial Council, 20 million feet of hardwood, 64,500 tons of steel, and 1.6 million tons of concrete are used by the funeral industry each year. Some people who choose green burial seek out green cemeteries—there are nearly 300 in the U.S. and Canada—while others opt for cremation or traditional burial using elements of green funeral planning, like skipping the embalming process or choosing a biodegradable casket.
2. What do you want to do with your remains?
Traditional Cemetery Burial
Millions of people choose each year to be buried in cemeteries, usually with or near family members. For most people who go this route, the appeal is in knowing loved ones will have a dedicated place to pay respects. Some cemeteries are affiliated with a particular place of worship or military service, while others are open to anyone.
The costs of a typical cemetery burial, which include the plot itself, a headstone or marker, and interment fees, can reach upwards of $15,000. People who live in cities can expect to pay more in places where cemetery space is at a premium.
What kind of marker you want to get also impacts the cost and process of a cemetery burial: some families purchase vaults or mausoleums where multiple people can be laid to rest. It’s also worth thinking, if a cemetery burial feels meaningful to you, about what kinds of things you might want memorialized on your marker—a quote, a picture, and the names of other loved ones are all commonly seen on headstones, but there’s no set rule for what you have to include.
You don’t have to be embalmed in order to be buried in a cemetery—in fact, according to the NFDA, around 35 percent of people who opt to be cremated have their remains interred at a cemetery.
When it comes to a cemetery burial, location matters—if you want your loved ones to be able to visit the spot where you’re buried, it’s worth considering where that might be. Would you want to be buried in a cemetery close to home if it meant being farther away from family? Or would you consider burial in a cemetery closer to relatives and other loved ones, even if it was a place you hadn’t visited?
Scattering or Preserving Cremains
For people who opt for cremation, having friends or family members scatter ashes in a favorite place—in a beloved spot of ocean or parkland, for instance—is a common choice. If the spot in question is on private property or government-owned public land, you may need to get official permission or a permit before scattering–this can vary by state and city, so it’s a smart idea to do some research before committing to a plan. As of 2020, about 16 percent of people who choose to be cremated end up having their ashes scattered, and it can be a powerful way to say goodbye, with loved ones forever knowing you’re in a place that meant something to you. If you like the idea of loved ones being able to visit the spot where your ashes were scattered or buried, it’s worth thinking about what kind of access they’ll have: if ashes are scattered at sea, for instance, it might be difficult to plan regular visits. If you want to have your ashes scattered in a forest, is it important to you that it be protected land that won’t be developed?
The majority of people who opt for cremation have their ashes returned to their families. For many, having the cremains of a loved one nearby is vital to the grieving process, whether they opt to keep the remains in an urn on a mantle or tucked away somewhere more private.
If you like the idea of being cremated and having your family hold onto your cremains, you’ll want to think about what kind of object you’d like them stored in. Simple wooden urns can be had for as little as $25, while more elaborate brass versions can cost up to $1,000. While urns can be purchased through a funeral home or cremation service, you’re not limited to those sources: Many artists on Etsy and other online platforms work directly with families to create modern, personalized urns that reflect your tastes and values.
Unique Cremains Options
In the Victorian era, ‘mourning jewelry,’ in which locks of hair from a deceased person would be woven into rings and necklaces, and in some cases hidden behind stones or gems, was a popular way to keep loved ones close after their deaths. Today, that idea lives on in the number of unique ways people turn cremains into an ever-expanding array of objects.
Memorial jewelry, in which a portion of ashes is turned into glass or precious gemstones — even diamonds — offers the possibility of creating a new family heirloom that can be passed down for generations. Most manufacturers only need a small amount of cremains to create a custom object, which makes it an appealing option if you’re also interested in scattering or holding onto ashes. Similar services are available for things like golf balls and stuffed animals. Even if you don’t go this route, asking yourself, “What object would I like to become?” can be an interesting thought exercise.
Having ashes scattered at sea can be an appealing idea for people who feel especially connected to the water, though it might not be a great option for families who want to be able to regularly visit a final resting place. Still, there are ways to take it a step further and actually become part of the underwater ecosystem. An eternal reef, in which ashes are mixed with concrete, is an object that sits on the seafloor and becomes an available habitat for marine life. The impact of eternal reefs is still being studied, but an Audubon Magazine report in 2012 suggests they can attract algae, shrimp, and even larger fish.
Home Burial and Spreading of Ashes
For thousands of years, the home was the center of life: it was the place of birth and, more often than not, the place of death. In the last decade, there has been an increasing push for the return to home deaths: many people feel more comfortable at home. The intimacy of being surrounded by family and friends can be a comfort to the person whose life is ending and the people who are mourning.
There is no standard definition of a home death, as the laws governing when and where funerals and burials can take place vary by state and jurisdiction. But the National Home Funeral Alliance says that a home funeral is one that might include “preparing the body for burial or cremation by bathing, dressing and laying out for visitation, transporting the deceased to the place of burial or cremation, planning and carrying out after-death rituals or ceremonies, and facilitating the final disposition, such as digging the grave in a natural burial.”
A home funeral or burial can be significantly less expensive than a more traditional service, and it can also be more personal, something that holds value for many families. It’s also possible to work with a funeral director or even a green burial cemetery to determine which aspects of a home burial might appeal to you and where you might want to bring in professional help.
Many people like the idea of scattering ashes at home–in a backyard, for instance, or even buried at the base of a beloved family tree. And while this can feel meaningful to people who feel strong connections to home, it’s worth considering potential long-term complications: a house sale or even a backyard remodel might present challenges to using personal property as a memorial space.
Conservation Memorial Forests
Conservation memorial forests offer living, breathing memorials to those who prefer a more sustainable, natural alternative to a final resting place. At Better Place Forests, ashes are mixed with soil and placed at the base of protected trees that loved ones can visit and watch flourish as a natural monument to your life. Unlike scattering ashes on land not specifically dedicated for that purpose, choosing a Better Place Forest means loved ones will have permanent access to a resting place on land protected from future development and maintained by arborists committed to the health of the forest ecosystem. For people and families who feel connected to the natural world and love the idea of “ashes to ashes”, this can be a great way to live those values.
Better Place Forests allows people to grow their impact beyond their forest. For every tree designated as a memorial, through a partnership with One Tree Planted, between 25 and 400 new trees are planted, in your honor, in areas that have been impacted by deforestation or forest fires.
Each Better Place Forest also has Forest Stewards who work to care for the land and educate families about the environmental impact of a Better Place spreading. By allowing you to choose a resting place at the base of a tree that will thrive and grow as time passes, Better Place Forests gives loved ones a place to gather to celebrate and remember your life. It also allows you to contribute to the conservation of forest land at the end of your life—an ever-evolving, ever-living memorial.
Better Place Forests also guarantee your family and friends a dedicated place to visit and honor your life and memory in person. Better Place’s conservation memorial forests are privately owned by the company itself, and will never be developed, meaning the memorial tree you choose will grow—and thrive—for generations to come.
3. How can you make your death a part of life — not just the end?
There’s no denying that confronting death — whether it be your own or that of a loved one — is a challenge that can bring up a multitude of overwhelming feelings. But it is also possible to approach death from a place of acceptance, gratitude, and empowerment, considering not just loss and grief, but also the beauty of life itself.
Making an end-of-life plan — and then communicating your plans — can also have a positive impact on the time you do have. “Even if it’s hard for you, even if you don’t want to do it, do it for the people in your life,” says Ungerleider. “I can tell you the data supports this: When families have talked about what they want around the end-of-life, they can be more present with each other in the now.”
A Celebration of Life
Thinking of end-of-life planning as a way to celebrate your life and the lives of loved ones can be a way to think about how to express yourself even after you’re gone.
“I had a friend who was 91 and planned the most fabulous funeral party for herself,” says Cohen. “A band, all her favorite foods, speeches, toasts—she wanted everyone who loved her to remember how much fun she was.”
Cohen mentions another acquaintance, a woman in her 70s, who celebrated a milestone birthday in a unique way. “She wrote her own obituary,” says Cohen. “That was her birthday present to myself and my family, writing an obituary that gave people a glimpse into what she wanted to be remembered for after she was gone.”
Talking about what a meaningful memorial looks like to you can be a powerful exercise in defining your own values, especially when you focus on the people, places, and things that bring you joy. Asking how those parts of your life might be incorporated into an end-of-life plan is a way to bring peace, beauty, and comfort into a difficult moment, which can, in turn, be an invaluable gift to pass along for generations to come.
The Power of Ritual
“We have rituals that guide us through the grief process, and these can be incredibly helpful regardless of what your belief system is. But we’re at a moment now where individuals are defining their own rituals,” says Neumann. “We’re seeing people write their own memorial service or choose classic rock ’n roll songs instead of hymns, for example.” And while these choices are made at an individual level, they speak to a broader trend of people and families wanting to create their own new traditions, ones that incorporate elements of the past, present, and future of ritual.
There are no set categories of memorial ceremonies to choose from; they can be as unique and customized as we are as individuals. Some people like the idea of a traditional funeral that encompasses important religious and cultural traditions. In contrast, others want a memorial to serve as a celebration of life rather than a mourning of death. Your ceremony may even encompass elements of both, with photo slideshows or your designated eulogists to help tell your story. The big step here is just to begin visualizing what is most important to you — and sharing that vision with others.
For many people, an ideal end-of-life plan is one that mixes and matches, pulling valued ideas and moments from a wide variety of traditions. That might mean, for example, having a private religious ceremony at Better Place Forests before ashes are mixed with soil at the base of a tree. It might mean a small service for immediate family and a larger memorial for friends and acquaintances down the line. It might even mean regular events at a final resting place or another meaningful spot.
Central to many rituals connected to death and grief is having a place to go—a physical space where people can feel connected to their loved ones.
As Sandy Gibson, Founder and CEO, Better Place Forests says: “It’s important to consider how we’d like to be remembered, for both your own legacy, as well as how people who love you will remember you. This can take the form of thoughtful keepsakes, like short written letters to those you love, personalized rituals or ceremonies, and thought-out end-of-life plans and written wills. It will help bring peace to your loved ones to know that you are remembered the way you want to be remembered.”
Your Legacy: Your Story Keeps on Giving Back
End-of-life planning is also a way to think about how you want to give back to your family and community after death. This might be by giving money or treasured items to family or friends, writing short letters or setting up pre-paid gifts for your loved ones. Or it might be making charitable bequests. This can be a great way to think about your values and the causes that matter to you: do you want to set up a planned gift for an organization that supports a cause you believe in? Or to an institution like a school or hospital that has been meaningful to you or your family? Having a conversation about what you want to support can be a way to become more active about those ideals and principles well before the end of your life.
“People are recognizing that every day really matters and that if we can live our lives with some relationship to the fact that one day it will end, maybe we can live better every day and make choices that are better for ourselves,” says Ungerleider.
That can extend beyond the personal, too. Working with Better Place Forests, for example, can be a way to invest in the future of green, open spaces that will be accessible for generations to come. These choices, in turn, can add to the already treasured memories your loved ones will hold dear–the knowledge that the end of your life held as much meaning and promise as everything that came before it.
Many big events in life ask us to think about what’s important and what we want to say about who we are. Why should an end-of-life ceremony be any different? For many people, a ceremony in a place of worship is an important ritual. For others, a focus on nature is key, as evidenced in the popularity of memorials held beachside or in nature preserves. Do you envision a party atmosphere in which loved ones can tell favorite stories about your life, or do you imagine a contemplative scene where the focus is on the connection between death, life, and the natural world? Whether you want a small indoor ceremony with only your immediate family or an outdoor celebration where family and friends come from near and far to be together as they remember your life, it’s important to consider what you would like your life ceremony to be.
At Better Place Forests, a team of supportive staff works with you to customize the memorial experience. Each ceremony is unique, allowing you and your family to choose the readings, songs, and rituals that are most meaningful to you, all with the care and guidance of staff trained in helping families through an often difficult and painful time. The Better Place team is ready to help you ask—and answer—the questions that will help you determine a memorial plan that reflects and honors you.
4. How to complete your plan once you’ve made the big decisions
By starting to answer these three questions — what you want to happen to your remains, where you want your resting place, and how you want to mark this transition — you’ve already made the most crucial step in creating an end-of-life plan that expresses who you are and what’s important to you and will relieve your loved ones of a tremendous burden after you’re gone.
It’s OK that end-of-life planning can feel a little scary! It asks you to take stock of significant personal issues: health, family, and money. And that’s why Better Place Forests has put together resources meant to help demystify the process of making an end-of-life plan, including a guide to broaching the subject with your loved ones, which enables you to come up with open-ended questions designed to begin the conversation and begin to identify what an ideal end-of-life plan looks like for you.
Part of a good end-of-life plan ensures considering things that might not initially occur to you, like who you’d want to include in a memorial service and where you’d like to see your possessions end up. To get started, Better Place Forests offers a checklist that breaks down questions you’ll face, which makes it even easier for you to formulate answers.
“Death’s got its own schedule, so we can only determine so many things,” Neumann says. Your legacy is one of them.