Growing up during the heyday of The Beatles, I used to sing along to Eleanor Rigby when it played on the radio:
Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name
Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved
Little did I know, at age six, that I was on the trajectory of an Eleanor Rigby demise and would find myself wondering, as I do now at age 55: Who will be there to make arrangements for my funeral, or at least give me a proper burial?
So I set out to investigate my question in search of solutions for single people without close family members.
I frequently wonder who in my family will bear the inconvenience and the expense of coming to Massachusetts to dispense with what is physically left of me.
— Cathryn McIntyre
Brought up in the Deep South, I was exposed to elaborate, formal church funerals organized by the survivors, the children and siblings. Though I left Georgia almost 40 years ago, I have struggled with the expectation that my own funeral and burial must come with similar pomp and circumstance.
Expectation: No Survivors
These days, I face the harsh reality of a solitary life. I never married. I never had children. My family estrangements span four decades, producing a string of relatives who are complete strangers. As for close friends in my adopted cities of New York and Los Angeles, my big city life has turned out only fair-weathered relationships. It is safe for me to assume that when I pass away, I will have no survivors.
Turns out, I am not so alone after all. The Pew Research Center’s 2014 study, A Record Share of Americans Have Never Married, found that “there has been a steady increase since 1970 in the share [of the U.S. population] that remains never married by the time they reach ages 45 to 54.” Based on this, I suspect the funeral industry will increasingly see a new type of consumer.
When I interviewed two of my boomer friends who never married or had children, I learned that even the presence of close relatives does not preclude concerns about death planning for single people.
A Terrible Burden?
My friend, author Cathryn McIntyre, who lives in Concord, Mass., explained: “I frequently wonder who in my family will bear the inconvenience and the expense of coming to Massachusetts to dispense with what is physically left of me, not just my body but my belongings, too. It seems like a terrible burden to place on any one of them.”
Echoing these worries, K. M., an adjunct professor from New York City who prefers not to reveal her name, told me: “Even with brothers and sisters, I’m still alone. They live too far away and have their own families, and their own concerns. So I don’t look to them to take care of me.”
K.M. admitted that she’s looking for a “substitute pathway” without her own family. “I sometimes think of donating my body to a hospital so that nobody will have to deal with it. But I haven’t pursued it,” she said.
I pressed her to tell me if she thought her choice would be different with a husband and children. She replied: “Yes, I’d know someone would handle things. Then I would prefer to be cremated, and have a simple memorial service. I have lots of friends, and it would be nice to think that people would remember me.”
Hearing what worried my fellow single friends, I detected feelings of unworthiness, helplessness and a fear of being forgotten. So I sought advice from three of the funeral industry’s leading experts. They offered these recommendations:
Pre-plan Your Funeral (or Cremation)
Making your own funeral arrangements is something many people say they want to do, but few actually do. The 2015 consumer research study by the Funeral and Memorial Information Council said “69 percent of adults over the age of 40 indicated they would prefer to pre-arrange their own service; however, only 17 percent had made arrangements.”
Said Darin B. Drabing, president of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association: “Even with a family, there is no guarantee they are dependable. My advice is the same to anyone — married with a family or unmarried. You can pre-plan it all, and have the arrangements the way you want.”
Drabing, who’s also president and CEO of Forest Lawn Memorial Parks and Mortuaries in California, advised singles to visit cemeteries and funeral homes in their area and meet with funeral directors to discuss planning options, merchandise and prices. “Many funeral homes offer group information sessions, which I recommend if you are single and feel more comfortable in small group settings,” he added.
Talk About Your Last Wishes With People You Trust
“If you’re single and not necessarily close to family or relatives, then look to good friends you feel comfortable with and can rely on,” said W. Ashley Cozine, president-elect of the National Funeral Directors Association.
He encouraged singles to “start having serious discussions with friends about how you’d like to be remembered when you pass away.”
Be a Smart Consumer
“Think of your death planning as a project,” advised Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA). “I encourage single people to take a trusted friend with you throughout your planning process.” Slocum’s group has a good Four-Step Funeral Planning article to help you get started.
Although Slocum recommended planning ahead, he cautioned against pre-paying for funeral arrangements. The FCA website explains what the group believes are nine risks of pre-paying, along with a summary of alternative financial arrangements.
Get Okay with Your Death
“The memories of your life are not tied to the location of your remains,” said Slocum. “We need to ask ourselves what really matters.”
This practical advice resonated with me. In fact, after hearing it, I have starting letting go of the Southern funeral traditions that have consumed me. Instead, I have begun looking into ways I can make an impact now on the lives of others.
My friend, K.M., explained it best when she told me: “I don’t care what happens to me when I die, but I do want to be remembered.”
As never-married, without-family boomers, people like us are the heads of our family of one. We’ve grown to become experts at self-reliance and courage. By planning our own death arrangements, we can find peace in what we can control, without the need to feel we must compromise.
We are, effectively, there for ourselves when we are gone.