It’s your funeral! How to plan ahead for the best party you’ll never attend

<span>The rise in so-called ‘death positivity’ means more people believe that planning their own funeral is as important as writing a will.</span><span>Composite: Getty</span>
The rise in so-called ‘death positivity’ means more people believe that planning their own funeral is as important as writing a will.Composite: Getty

Years before the indomitable Joan Rivers died in 2014 she immortalised hopes for her own farewell in her memoir. “I want my funeral to be a huge showbiz affair with lights, cameras, action … I want Meryl Streep crying, in five different accents. I don’t want a eulogy; I want Bobby Vinton to pick up my head and sing Mr Lonely.”

Needless to say some details were changed, but the resulting affair was perhaps even more spectacular than the queen of snark would have hoped for. Along with performances from Hugh Jackman and Broadway star Audra McDonald, it featured a eulogy from notorious shock-jock Howard Stern and the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus singing Big Spender. The bagpipers of the New York police department played as mourners escorted her body from the synagogue.

Whether you would like to be shot across your favourite vista in the form of a firework (à la Hunter S Thompson), compressed into a diamond or spin forever as vinyl, recording your wishes and sharing them with those closest to you can be a balm to loved ones during one of the most emotionally charged times of their life.

The rise in so-called “death positivity”, along with the mortal reality check wreaked on us by the pandemic, has helped to reframe death as a part of life for many of us. Taboos around discussing death are breaking down and planning your own funeral is increasingly considered as responsible as writing a will.

In recent years a host of “death apps” have sprung to life to help us with the exercise. Services such as Cake and Lantern, which promise to help users outline everything from their final tweet to their epitaph, have exploded in popularity since the start of the pandemic, with reports that many new users are millennials.

While the latest Australian Funeral Industry report found less than one in five Australians have actually planned their own funeral, a definite vibe shift is occurring and 90% of people say they want to.

Kimba Griffith, who has been operating Melbourne end-of-life service The Last Hurrah since 2019, welcomes the change. “In my experience, everyone wants to talk about death, we just needed to create the cultural climate for that to happen … Realistically we can die at any time.”

And whether it’s to exact your own agenda from beyond the grave or to spare your nearest and dearest added stress, it’s never too early to think about what will happen when we do.

Related: My grandparents donated their bodies to science. I needed to know what happens after

Talking about it is great, writing it down is essential

James Williams, a creative solutions executive from Melbourne, says: “I’ve been planning my funeral my whole life.” While the 26-year-old has no plans to check out anytime soon, he says ideas for his own ostentatious “cirque du sadness” are a regular topic of discussion among friends.

Among his current list of requests: a velvet suit that matches his coffin’s interior, a drag queen friend performing a Céline Dion tribute and planting a tree to grow from his ashes.

Williams admits his “ever-evolving” plan hasn’t (until now) been committed to the page, but hopes the mood is clear: “Fabulous and fierce … with weeping, lots of weeping.”

Griffith says having those kinds of conversations is a great start but cautions: “Where it gets hard is when nothing is in writing about who should be making decisions. You need to be explicit in your funeral plan about who you nominate for that role; it can be incredibly fraught otherwise.”

Where will your remains, remain?

Griffith says once you have determined who will be in charge, some details about how and where you would like to be laid to rest are important. Do you want to be buried or cremated? Will you donate your body to science? Do you like the idea of a traditional service or a party?

Blended families, Griffith says, can pose a significant risk for disputes in that regard. If you have children from multiple relationships or have been widowed and repartnered, things can get messy. “You might not have to think about it, but one day it could cause huge problems in your family.”

The wake is on who?

The average Australian funeral can cost anywhere between $4,000 and $15,000, so letting your people know if and where they can access any funds to cover the cost of your funeral is also crucial.

“Funeral insurance is a massive rip-off, and people should be really, really careful,” Griffith says. “If you opt in at 30 and you die at 80, you could pay for your funeral 10 times over.”

The royal commission into the financial services industry agreed, finding the industry is rife with misleading and deceptive sales tactics, and consumers are often likely to overpay in premiums for any funerals the policies end up covering.

Griffith thinks if you have the means to stash some cash, a funeral bond can be a better option. “You can set aside up to $13,000 that’s tax-free and not assessed by Centrelink.”

And if you’re really keen to sort out the finer details, you can choose an end-of-life planner and lock in a price that covers everything from your casket to the catering “and not pay a cent until it happens”, says Griffith.

While funeral bonds, plans and prepaid options are generally safer bets, as with any financial decision it’s wise to seek out professional and impartial advice – and always read the fine print.

Is it even possible?

Griffith says it’s important for people do their homework about state laws and logistical considerations.

Related: From cradle to compost: the disruptors who want to make death greener

One client, she says, had left a request for a sea burial written many years before her death. With little else to go on, her bereaved felt honour-bound to follow through. “But it was an extremely costly and complicated process.”

Beyond those practicalities, Griffith says sweeping statements can be fine. She recalls another client whose loose request to have his passing celebrated on his own rural property left room for friends and family to honour his wishes while celebrating him in their own way.

“The paddock was cleared, they paved a new road, and sent his casket off in the back of a ute – they just took it and ran with it in the best way.”

The only thing worse than saying nothing is saying ‘nothing’

“When people say ‘I don’t want a funeral’ I remind them it’s not actually for them,” Griffith says. “You might think you’re doing your loved ones a favour, but you are actually denying everyone who needs somewhere to put their grief.”