Rather than leaving the decisions and expenses to their survivors, increasing numbers of Americans are arranging for their funerals in advance.
Funeral directors, insurance companies and other organizations have responded with a broad array of programs and services to meet the increased demand.
Last year, says the American Assn. of Retired Persons, sales of "pre-need" funeral contracts surpassed 800,000 in this country.
The basic idea of planning funeral arrangements ahead of time makes a lot of sense, the association says in a published report. That way, you can make choices in an orderly way that might otherwise have to be dealt with by others in haste amid trying emotional circumstances.
But the AARP urges that you proceed with care before you start writing checks for a specific package.
"Should you pre-plan your funeral? Definitely," the association says. "AARP recommends everyone pre-plan, but cautions consumers about prepaying their funerals. There are risks."
First of all, it notes, ill-advised commitments can be costly, with the average cost of a traditional funeral approaching $3,000.
That outlay covers such items and services as a casket, memorial services and the use of a funeral home. It typically does not include other basics such as a burial site, limousines and flowers, which altogether can double the total cost or more.
Of course any funeral arrangement should first suit your religious and emotional preferences. However, says the AARP, a prepaid arrangement should also make sense practically and financially.
For example, it says, you may well want to look for a plan that offers flexibility should you change your mind in the future about where you want the funeral to be held.
"Most, but not all, pre-need plans offer some portability or the ability to move with you," the association points out.
The longer you expect to live after you sign a contract, it observes, the more inflation protection you probably will want.
This protection can take the form of a guarantee from a funeral director that the services will be provided at no further charge, no matter what the going rate is at the time.
Or the money you put up can be invested for you, through a trust setup or insurance policy that allows it to grow over time. "There are some pre-need plans which earn no interest," the AARP says. "Don't waste your money on these."
Even supposing that your plan keeps you ahead of future increases in funeral costs, there is another question to be considered in advance.
In cases where more funds build up than are needed to cover funeral costs, some plans turn the excess over to your survivors, while others provide for the funeral director to receive it.
In addition to the financial arrangements, the AARP says, it's important to shop carefully for the funeral services themselves, which can vary widely in price and details from one establishment to another.
Federal Trade Commission rules require funeral directors to provide itemized price lists that can be used in comparison-shopping.
You can also check with government authorities and consumer agencies to help determine the reputation and reliability of a given funeral director.
"Visit a minimum of two funeral homes," the AARP advises. "It's important to shop around for the best prices on the merchandise and services you select.
"Don't allow anyone to push you into purchasing merchandise you don't want or can't afford."