The first question I ask my clients when we are discussing their wills is what their wishes are for their remains. I am often greeted with a blank look. This topic is not one that tends to come up frequently but it needs addressing. You leave a burden for those who survive if you don’t address the issue yourself. When your family is mourning, this type of planning is difficult, and this is particularly true if your situation includes a second spouse with children from your first marriage or you are part of an unmarried couple, because next of kin can trump your partner in making the determination regarding remains.
The first decision to make is whether you want to be an organ donor. You may dismiss this notion if you are “too old” but think again as your acceptance as an organ donor is made based on you as an individual rather than on your age. Many organ donors make this decision at the DMV. In North Carolina your decision to be an organ donor is signified by a heart symbol on your license. As of October 2007 this heart indicates a binding gift of your organs rather than a mere preference. Your family members will not be consulted as was true under prior law. You also may register to be an organ donor at or you may complete paperwork and send it to Donate Life North Carolina. Visit for more information.
Another possibility is the donation of your body for scientific research. Eye donors may donate their bodies; otherwise, you must choose between being an organ donor and being a body donor. Local teaching hospitals will welcome you post-mortem. After the research is completed, your remains will be cremated and returned to your family. The cremation is free (typical cost is usually between $800 and $1500), but there will be a longer wait before your family receives the ashes while the research is being conducted (as long as 18 months to 2 years).
To ensure that your wish to donate your body is followed, you should execute forms with the entity of your choice and inform your family (in particular your health care agent under a health care power of attorney) of your decision. Both UNC and Duke have forms available and both hold ceremonies when the ashes are returned as a signs tend to be highly and deeply religious, and sometimes will go overboard with their devotion to their particular faith. memorial and to thank the family of the deceased.
If you do not wish to donate your body for research, you have other options to consider. The first is burial. The most common method involves embalming, the chief purpose of which is to preserve body long enough to allow for an above-ground viewing. You may ponder the environmental impact of embalming; the embalming fluids are toxic and eventually leech into the soil. Traditional burial is not cheap. The final bills for burial and funeral range from $10,000 to $20,000. The green burial movement is growing. If you are buried in a green cemetery, you will not be embalmed and you will be buried directly in the ground, wrapped in a cloth or placed in a recycled, biodegradable container. The cost is significantly lower than the traditional approach with the range of fees for green burial being $800 to $1500.
Cremation is a popular choice, the one selected by most of my clients. It is comparatively inexpensive and quick; however, some religions prohibit it and some families battle over it. If you choose cremation, you should consider executing an “Authorization to Cremate’” form, which must be either notarized or witnessed, and will assure you that your family will not be able to override your decision. You may want to consider the environmental impact of cremation. Toxins stored in our bodies, such as mercury, are released into the atmosphere during cremation, as well as a significant amount of C02.
If cremation is your preferred method, be sure to let your family know your wishes for your ashes. Some clients will provide in their will for a payment to cover a trip to take the ashes to a designated spot.
If you have interest in other possible approaches, an excellent resource is Grave Matters by Mark Harris. He covers family cemeteries, burials at sea, memorial reefs, coffins made by furniture makers, and home funerals. In the end what matters most is that you craft a plan now so that later your family knows what to do for you.
Originally published in Southern Neighbor, October 2009