The Other Forbidden Topic
This is not for everybody. It's not even a topic that many people want to discuss or read about on a blog.
This is what my parents chose to do a few years ago. They contacted a state university and made arrangements to donate their bodies to the medical department of the university once they were through with them. When my father died, my mother notified the proper department (they'd given her a card and there was also one with Dad's medical records).
The how-to is pretty straightforward. Googling "willed body program" plus your state or poking around the Web site of your favorite med school will turn up detailed information and often a donor form. The institution may send you a wallet card to notify authorities of its claim at the time of death. Be sure to discuss the matter with your family and doctor so they'll know what to do (and won't freak) when the time comes.
They retrieved his body, and there was nothing else for my mother to do. There will be no burial, no graveside service, no expensive casket, no fees for embalming, no fees for cremation, no plot in a cemetery, no headstone to buy.
They also handle the paperwork, including making sure a death certificate is on file, social security is notified, and they have kept in touch with my mother to let her know how the paperwork is being handled.
A memorial service is up to the family. In our strictly unique situation for reasons which are excellent but I do not wish to go into in any detail, there was no memorial service. It won't be that way for my mother when her time comes. The cost of a memorial service is less than the cost of a full funeral, and whether it costs anything at all is strictly up to the family. For my part, I'd be just fine if my family got together at our house and told stories on me, laughed, cried, forgave me all my many failings, remembered my successes and even embellished them a bit, said a few prayers, read a few verses from the Bible and hugged on each other. I don't have strong feelings about it, though, as I consider a memorial service is all about the survivors and their feelings and need for closure (or not), so it will be up to them.
Again, this is certainly not for everybody. On the other hand, thousands of dollars in burial and funeral fees are also not for everybody.
My husband's preference is a plain pine box somewhere on our property, but we understand that pine boxes are pretty expensive these days, and it's illegal to use our property. He started thinking about the pine box thing when he was in his twenties and he took a writing class for work. One of the essays in his writing textbook was about burial practices, and he learned then that embalming is almost never required by law- it's a cultural practice. Neither are caskets costing thousands of dollars a requirement, and it isn't true that burials on your own property are illegal in every state. If you are not too squeamish, it is not a bad idea to think about what you will want, and what your family can handle when your time comes. Write down your wishes, but don't make them binding in stone. It's not fair for the dead to guilt trip the living. Actually, even if you are squeamish, you should make some sort of plan and begin funding it now, as it's not fair to leave your loved ones to figure everything out in the midst of their grief.
If what you want is going to cost money, start setting aside that money now in a special account and leave it there. Or look into your state laws and regulations on burial customs now and make that plan. Or google that 'willed body program.'
Or learn some carpentry skills and build your own pine box.