The interesting thing is that arranging a funeral wasn’t taught in Funeral Directing School, at least not when I went. We spent 1-2 years learning about Anatomy, Microbiology. Chemistry, Embalming, Reconstruction, and Psychology. 

When we graduated, it occurred to us that we hadn’t learned how to do the real-life aspects of funeral directing, i.e., arranging a funeral. This gap in our education left us pondering how to navigate the real-life aspects of Funeral Directing, particularly the intricacies involved in planning and executing a funeral service.

Given this backdrop, it’s important to understand that the practice of funeral directing is not uniform across the board; it varies significantly from one state to another due to differing regulations. For instance, in North Carolina, as in every other state, funeral directors are required to obtain a state-specific license to operate. Funeral Directors must possess a license in the state they operate in. 

But directing a funeral is about more than just the steps we take; it’s about filling in the blanks that our formal education left behind. By diving into the nitty-gritty of what it really takes to plan a funeral in our state, we’re not just learning about the legal hoops we need to jump through.

We’re pulling back the curtain so you can see the real, practical knowledge of how funeral directors support families during one of the most challenging times of their lives. 

How It All Begins For Funeral Directors

The process of arranging always starts the same. A call can come in at any time of the day or night. Or it may be a family member walking into the Funeral Home after the death of a loved one. 

Establishing Next of Kin

First, it must be determined if the person reporting the event is the next of kin. Next of kin is a legal hierarchy of relationships or “Hierarchy of Next of Kin.”

This hierarchy is crucial because, according to the law, the responsibility for funeral service arrangements strictly goes to the next of kin in the following order:

  1. Spouse
  2. Child
  3. Parent
  4. Sibling
  5. Grandparent
  6. Grandchild
  7. Nieces, Nephews, Cousins
  8. Guardian
  9. The executor of the will

If no spouse takes the authority, it falls to an adult child of the deceased. And so it goes down the list.

Pronunciation of Death

Next, we must determine if a medical professional or Hospice officially pronounced the individual dead. Commonly, the deceased was under a doctor’s care. The doctor has the authorization to do all of the following:

  • Determine the cause of death
  • Say if the cause of death is natural or not
  • Provide a time of death

If the decedent was not under a doctor’s care or if the death seems suspicious in any way, the Medical Examiner’s Office may decide to investigate. If there is an investigation, they bring the decedent to the morgue.  

Getting the Call During Overnight Hours

If a funeral director on duty gets a call during overnight hours, what happens next depends on who is calling.

  • Facility Call: If the call is from a facility such as a nursing home or hospital, the staff will move the deceased to the morgue. The transfer to us at the funeral home occurs in the morning.
  • Home Call: If the death is at home, the funeral director must speak with the official next of kin before moving the decedent to the funeral home.
  • Home Call with Hospice: If someone calls from the home of a decedent that hospice was tending to, there is a waiting period until a nurse can arrive and pronounce death. Once the nurse pronounces the death, the decedent can be move to  the Funeral Home.
  • Home Call Without Hospice: Without hospice involvement, the police are called. If the deceased was under a doctor’s care, the Office of the Medical Examiner (ME) will verify the death and give clearance to move the decedent.

At this point, the process of arranging the funeral begins with the NOK (Next of Kin) and any involved family. At any time before or after the meeting with the NOK. the decedent may be brought from the place of death to the funeral home.

Death Certificate (DC)

The Death Certificate, also known as a DC, is a form that must be filed with the local governing City, Town, or County. While waiting for the final death certificate to be completed, we may continue planning other aspects of the funeral or memorial with the NOK. 

The DC must be complete before final disposition plans, such as burial or cremation.

On the Death Certificate, data must include:

  • Full name or AKA
  • Maiden Name
  • Address 
  • Mother’s name and maiden name, if known.
  • Father’s name
  • Place of birth
  • Birthday
  • Date and time of death
  • Place of death
  • Next of kin’s name
  • Relationship to the decedent: Some jurisdictions require an address.
  • Place of Death
  • Occupation of decedent
  • SS# of decedent
  • Cause of death
  • Place of Final disposition
  • Must be signed by a Doctor

Sometimes, this information is not available yet. When this happens, we can continue the funeral arranging process. 

Arranging The Funeral or Memorial Service

At the arrangement conference with the NOK, the memorial or funeral plans begin to firm up. 

Funeral Planning with a Pre-Plan

If the decedent had a pre-plan, this conference arrangement is easy for the NOK and family members involved.

When an individual plans their memorial or funeral ahead of time, their Funeral Home already has the funeral arranged. Everything from the funeral procession to transportation to the memorial service chapel site, church service, or Mass, and visitation is planned.

Funeral Planning Without a Preplan

Without a pre-plan, you and your family plan a funeral during a grieving process, which makes funeral plans hard to think about. Without a preplan, it becomes a difficult process. 

You may wonder if your family member would have wanted a grave marker. It’s stressful to decide how to share memories with close family and friends. And what about whether you need to save money? How do you know your budget?

Without the decedent’s direction, making informed decisions on planning issues can feel confusing. Other family members may have funeral planning ideas that a NOK may not agree with.

Selecting the Final Disposition for Funeral Arrangements

Once the death certificate is complete, the NOK must sign off on a form of final disposition, whether it is burial or cremation. We may ask questions to help with decision-making for funeral arrangements.

Planning a Funeral with Burial

Does the decedent have a family plot, or does the next of kin need to purchase one to fulfill funeral arrangements? 

It is preferable for the family to have a burial plot before making final arrangements. This is because the final disposition method must go on the Death Certificate.

If a vault is required, the NOK must select one for delivery to the cemetery at a specific time. Vault suppliers offer tents and chairs for families in attendance. This helps with planning a funeral service.

Planning a Funeral With Cremation by Fire or Water

If the family decides on cremation with a burial plot or vault, we will need information about this before making final arrangements. The final disposition method must go on the Death Certificate.

With cremations, we also need a Cremation Authorization from the NOK with the required initials and signatures. We generally discuss this seven-page document with the family.

There is a 24-hour mandatory waiting period before cremation can take place in NC. 

The cremation may take place once the death certificate AND a completed Cremation Authorization is in the possession of the Funeral Home. Both documents must be complete. There are no exceptions.

We may ask questions such as, “Is the family opting for fire or water cremation?” “Will you need an urn, a burial vault, or a burial plot?

Planning a Funeral With Green Burial Options

There is a Green Burial option that does not require embalming. But without embalming, a visitation must be prompt and short. You may decide on a green burial casket.

You’ll also need to find a green burial section of a cemetery. These are available in a few cemeteries, but certainly not all.

Planning a Funeral and Embalming

Embalming is usually required for a visitation. On rare occasions, it is not necessary. Such an instance would be if the NOK schedules the visitation promptly after death.

Decomposition occurs at different rates in different people. Most often, the visitation is subject to family schedules and travel constraints, so embalming is necessary.

Making Funeral Arrangements Concerning Clothing, Jewelry, and More

The NOK will need to provide clothing and jewelry for the deceased as well as a recent picture for cosmetology and hairdressing. They will also make choices about the following:

  • Flowers
  • Live streaming
  • Prayer or Memorial Cards
  • Transportation: Many families choose the hearse for the decedent. Others select a Limousine or Bus for the decedent’s transportation on the morning of the funeral.
  • Which flower arrangements will go to the cemetery
  • And more!

Planning Visitation When Making Funeral Arrangements

If the NOK and family desire a visitation, the date, time, and order of service is selected. The NOK can make many different choices here. 

They may choose to have funeral services in the Funeral Home Chapel, a Church, or at Mass. Or they may choose a funeral service with an urn present. Many options are available.

Funeral arrangements may include a person leading the service from the family. Or leading the ceremony could include a chaplain or other religious figure such as a priest or reverend.

Many families opt to let a funeral services Chaplain or Deacon help lead funeral services and the traditional burial service at the gravesite.

Religious Funeral Services and Visitations

Catholic Mass of Christian Burial

If Catholic there will be a Vigil Service the evening before the Mass and burial. We’ll need information about the available mass times. A Mass of Christian Burial is not available on Sundays.

Many Protestant Churches offer the same church or temple services. Families practicing Judaism generally plan this type of service with a Rabbi present.

Other Religious Denominations

Other religious denominations, such as Buddhist and Islam, typically hold services in the Funeral Home chapel before disposition.  

Visitation Schedules

On the day the visitation is to start, the family usually arrives about 30 minutes before the general public is welcomed. This allows them private time to express their grief and sorrow before the rigors of visitation start. 

Visitations are scheduled according to family preferences. Most frequently, visitation lasts for one day. However, families occasionally select 2 days of visitation.

The funeral director works with guest services staff to ensure that there are enough guest services associates present to serve the family at the loved one’s visitation. The associates greet guests as they come in and direct them to the family so they may visit.

During the visitation, it is common for additional flower arrangements to arrive. Guest services staff deliver these flowers to the appropriate chapel or visitation room and may also rearrange them if necessary.

Civic Organizations and Rituals During Visitation

If the decedent was an active member of civic organizations such as the Elks or Knights of Columbus, there will also be a ritual service.

The club members announce themselves to the guest services associates when they arrive. Guest services direct them to the gathering space to prepare to perform the ritual. The guest services associates will quiet the crowd and ask them to be seated in anticipation of the ritual.

Rituals such as these typically take about 10 minutes to perform but can last longer.

The Day Before

Often, the family wants to pass by the decedent’s home on the way to church or the cemetery. The funeral director is responsible for establishing the exact route of the hearse, limo, and trailing private cars. The Funeral Home Director will drive by the house the day before to map out the route. 

The last thing a funeral director wants is for a procession to get lost on the way to either the church or the cemetery. The schedules for these services are often tight because of multiple services in one day.

The Morning Of the Funeral Services

Livery for Funeral Service

On the morning or day of the final disposition, the Funeral Director anticipates the exact activities that will transpire. This involves securing and scheduling the livery vehicles. 

Often, the Funeral Home has its own, but during particularly busy periods when many funerals occur at the same time, so an outside livery service may be hired.

These livery services have hearses, limousines, vans, and flower cars available for rent, with drivers, just for this occasion. The funeral director informs them exactly when they must be at the funeral home.

Preparation to Leave the Funeral Home

On the day of the funeral, the funeral director will enter the chapel and proceed to start the process of departing in accordance with the arranged schedule.

They will ask everyone to be seated and typically lead the attendees in a prayer. They will then announce it is time for everyone, except the immediate family, to depart. The director asks them to please pay their last respects and proceed to their cars.

A guest services associate is outside to direct everyone except immediate family to a predetermined location for the car lineup.

The limo is then brought to the exit door, and the immediate family is invited to pay their last respects. The guest services associates then guide them to the limo or other private cars.

A guest services associate then directs the limo and private immediate family vehicles to the front of the car procession. Everyone then awaits the arrival of the hearse.

At this point, the funeral director will direct the guest services associates to take the flowers previously selected by the family to the hearse..The casket will be closed, placed on a casket truck, and wheeled to the exit door. There, the guest services associates will take the casket truck to the hearse, lift it, and place it in the hearse.

The hearse will then proceed to the front of the Procession to begin the journey to the final disposition.

If A Religious Ceremony or Church Funeral Service Is Next On the Schedule

If there is a religious service at a church or temple, the pallbearers remove the casket from the hearse. They then, with grace and dignity, carry it into the church. They handle all responsibilities in the church, such as placing the Pall (a cloth casket covering) on the casket if required.

The pallbearers then walk the casket up the aisle and place it in the predetermined location in front of the altar. When the Mass or service is over, the pallbearers will repeat the process in reverse.

The Funeral Director must be familiar with many different religious customs. Each one requires some form of activity unique to that religion or culture. The funeral director is there to ensure the flow of the religious service is uninterrupted and is performed in a most solemn and respectful manner.

The Procession Heads to the Cemetery

After the casket is back in the hearse, the pallbearers will direct traffic and ensure the entire procession stays together as it enters the flow of traffic.

If the Priest or Pastor is going to the cemetery, they will ride in the hearse. If they want to drive their own car, then a guest services associate will direct them into the Procession. The funeral director determines if they are going and how they intend to get there and back home and makes those adjustments.

Police Escorts

If the family has a police escort, the Funeral Director will have coordinated that beforehand. The police escort then joins and leads the procession. 

If this is a high-profile funeral, such as that of a well-known dignitary or a Line of Duty death, several police cars may effectively seal off every intersection so that the procession can proceed unfettered.

At the Cemetery: Graveside Services

At the cemetery, the Funeral Director first stops into the office to sign in to the funeral, thereby alerting cemetery workers that they must now assist.

Before the family is brought to the gravesite, the flowers and casket are placed at the grave, preferably out of the sight of attendees. The funeral director coordinates with the Limo driver about where to wait while this takes place. When the site is ready, the funeral director alerts the driver to bring up the procession.

When everyone has made their way to the graveside, the service begins.

After the Graveside Service

At the service’s conclusion, the funeral director will announce reception arrangements. Then, the family and friends will be asked to file by the casket and place a provided flower on it.

The funeral director waits for the crowd to disperse and then witnesses the cemetery lowering the casket into the grave.

At this point, the Funeral Director’s job is done, at least for this funeral. All the plans developed come together on the day of the final disposition. There is only one chance to get it right. There are no “I forgot” or do-overs.

Summing Up

Arranging a funeral is a complex, multifaceted process that requires not just a deep understanding of the legal and procedural requirements but also a profound sense of empathy and support for the grieving families.

From the initial call that can come at any hour of the day or night to establishing the next of kin, pronouncing death, and navigating the intricacies of the death certificate, each step is crucial and must be handled with the utmost care and professionalism.

The journey doesn’t end with the logistical arrangements; it extends into the emotional and personal aspects of planning a funeral or memorial service that honors the deceased’s life and legacy.

Whether it’s deciding between burial or cremation, selecting the final resting place, or choosing the flowers and music for the service, each decision is deeply personal and reflective of the deceased’s and their family’s wishes and values.

For those without a pre-plan, the process can feel overwhelming, especially amidst the grief of losing a loved one.

This is where the role of a funeral director becomes not just a professional obligation but a personal mission to guide, support, and assist families during one of the most difficult times of their lives. It’s about making the process as smooth and stress-free as possible, ensuring that every detail is taken care of with dignity and respect.

Providing a Meaningful and Respectful Farewell

At the heart of every funeral arrangement is the desire to provide a meaningful and respectful farewell to the departed. Whether it’s through a traditional burial service, a cremation followed by a memorial, or a green burial, the goal is to honor the life that was lived and provide solace to those left behind.

The funeral director’s role is pivotal in achieving this, blending professional expertise with compassion and understanding to support grieving families.

The process of arranging a funeral is a testament to the delicate balance between adhering to legal requirements and addressing the emotional needs of grieving families. It’s a journey that funeral directors navigate with professionalism, empathy, and a deep commitment to honoring the lives of those who have passed.

We Can Help

If you’re facing the task of planning a funeral, remember that you’re not alone. At Renaissance Funeral Home and Crematory, we’re here to help guide you through every step of the way, ensuring that your loved one’s farewell is a fitting tribute to their life and legacy.