I’ll Have What She’s Having and the Art of Funeral Planning
In June of 2012, Meryl Streep gave one of her finest performances to a limited crowd. It was a performance she hadn’t had much time to prepare for but it was a role that had been planned for her months if not years earlier. It’s just that the planner hadn’t thought to tell her.
The performance in question – her role at a memorial service held at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. And the planner? None other than the late Nora Ephron.
Nora Ephron’s death caught her friends and family by surprise. But what didn’t surprise them was the meticulous care she took in planning her memorial. It was called “A Gathering for Nora” and it had been laid out in a folder that she had simply labelled “Exit.” The invited guests were impressed, and felt the ceremony was totally consistent with the way Ephron had lived her life. As one guest said at the time, “nobody knows whether to treat it as a cocktail party or not.”
Nora Ephron’s memorial service is an exemplary example of funeral planning. It was thoughtful, personal and helped her family and friends grieve more effectively. This type of planning isn’t reserved for the rich and famous. In estate planning documents, regardless of what state you live in, there is a place where we can each enter our funeral plans.
Yet many people don’t care to think about it. The National Funeral Directors Association 2017 Consumer Awareness and Preferences Study found that while nearly 62.5% of Americans knew it was important to have a funeral plan that is communicated prior to death, only 21.4% had done so. Further, the average cost of a funeral is currently between $8,000 and $10,000 – a sum too large not to plan for.
Ephron wasn’t the only one who focused on planning an effective exit. Hugh Hefner purchased the resting spot next to Marilyn Monroe for $75,000 back in the 1980s. Artist Marina Abramovic told The Guardian in 2015 that she had planned her funeral already saying “you should think about everything…the funeral is the artist’s last piece before leaving.” And in 2010, Alexander McQueen’s memorial service at London’s St Paul’s Cathedral was as chic and cutting edge as any of his fashion shows. Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune said in her eulogy, “I can’t help but thinking this was his ultimate venue.”
Funerals are as old as time and embraced by diverse cultures worldwide. Dr. Bill Hoy, a grief and funeral expert, often notes that funerals typically “are characterized by five “anchors” - significant symbols, gathered community, ritual action, cultural heritage, and transition of the dead body (corpse).” But if we had to add another anchor to it, it would have to be financial and estate planning for funerals.
And who better to be the model but Nora Ephron? If you analyze her funeral, she provides a useful framework for how to do the financial planning of a funeral plan.
Be Decisive about what you want. Nora Ephron knew she wanted a memorial that matched how she lived her life down to the printed memorial programs that included some of her most favorite recipes. As a result, she was unafraid to have definitive plans. When doing funeral planning, it is important to address key questions:
· Do you want to be buried or cremated? If cremated, where you want your ashes to go?
· Do you want a funeral or a memorial service?
· What religious ceremony do you want?
· How do you want your family and friends to celebrate your life and/or mourn your death?
Think about your funeral as an investment. Death is an expensive business. Nora Ephron was fortunate – she had the asset base to put on a memorial service at Lincoln Center. Most of us are not in that position so you really want to determine in current dollars how much your funeral will cost. Elizabeth Meyer, author of Good Mourning, often tells people to consider prepaying, as the cost of a funeral rises annually. These plans can be prearranged with the funeral home, or be in the form of a life insurance policy or a “payable upon death” account.
However, if you go down the path of prepaying for a funeral, you need to do due diligence and understand all facets of the plan.
Don’t be afraid to be a planner from beyond the grave. Nora Ephron left nothing to chance with her funeral – it was structured and planned in a very detailed manner and as a result made it easy on her family. She had listed out who would speak about her life, in what order and for how long. However, most families scramble at death to make decisions, in a manner they believe the deceased would have wanted. Think of the personal touches that will help your family and friends grieve. This could be:
· Who should eulogize you?
· What readings should be used?
· Is there any specific music that should be played?
· What symbols of your life would you like displayed?
Ultimately, while this doesn’t seem like financial and estate planning, it probably is some of the biggest decisions you can make to help your family grieve and yet remain cost effective. And it is apt that at the memorial service, Meryl Streep noted that when she found out she was on Nora’s list of speakers for the memorial, she felt “so privileged and so pissed off and so honored and so inept all at the same time that I can’t help thinking that this is exactly what she intended”. A well-planned memorial send off can be very satisfying.
 The Guardian, Marina Abramovic reveals plans for her funeral, ‘the artist’s last piece’, June 30th , 2015.
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