Today, I'm proud to be guest blogging over at Caleb Wilde's blog Confessions of a Funeral Director. My piece is called "5 Tips for Creating a Personal Sendoff," and it's about...well, it's 5 tips for how to make a funeral truly unique and special.

Here's a little preview:

When I tell people that I work in the funeral industry, most become speechless. Looking at me questioningly, they’ll mange to ask, “But…why?” I tell them about the funeral I planned for my father 6 years ago. It was the most emotionally challenging thing I’ve ever done, but it was also the most rewarding. I understand the power that a meaningful funeral or memorial service has in the emotional processing, grieving, and healing after a death. And so I use what I learned from my own experience to guide and empower others to create meaningful sendoffs for their loved ones. I deeply understand the power that a meaningful funeral or memorial service has in the emotional processing, grieving, and healing after a death. I hope that by helping people create personalized services I am alleviating some pain for these families.

Obviously, I can’t tell you what specifically will be meaningful to you or loved ones. I can, however, share the lessons I learned from planning my dad’s funeral and the dozens of special funeral and memorial services I’ve helped other families plan. So without further ado, here are my top 5 things to consider when creating a personalized sendoff.

For the rest of the post, and all 5 of my tips, please head over to Confessions of a Funeral Director and check it out!

What happens to your Gmail when you die? What happens to all the photos you've shared on Facebook? Who gets your text messages? And who can access your online accounts?

The more of our lives we spend online, the more digital property we collect, and the more complicated settling our estates will be in the future. And so we need to create digital estate plans for three main reasons:

  1. To communicate our wishes, and let our families know what we want done with our digital assets when we're gone
  2. To help our families, so that they can quickly and easily access our important digital assets when the time comes
  3. To preserve our digital legacy, and make sure that the treasured memories and personal imprints that we leave online can be saved

Everplans now has a suite of articles and tools to help you get started creating your digital estate plan:

We hope that these new articles will help you as you begin to think about digital estate planning and actually create a plan for yourself and your family. If you have any feedback, we'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

Today, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, is unconstitutional. At the core of the case was the issue of whether DOMA violates equal protection rights that are guaranteed in the Fifth Amendment's "due process" clause, and whether the federal government can deny Social Security, tax, health care, pension, and veterans' benefits (among others) to same-sex couples in states where they can legally be married.

And what was the impetus for the case? Estate taxes. According to CNN:

The key plaintiff is Edith "Edie" Windsor, 84, who married fellow New York resident Thea Spyer in Canada in 2007, about 40 years into their relationship. By the time Spyer died in 2009, New York courts recognized same-sex marriages performed in other countries. But the federal government didn't recognize Windsor's same-sex marriage, and she was forced to assume an estate tax bill much larger than those that other married couples would have to pay. So, Windsor sued the federal government.

So what does all this mean going forward? According to Deborah Jacobs at, for one thing, same-sex couples will now be able to take advantage of the "unlimited marital deduction" that heterosexual couples have, which allows spouses to transfer money to each other, during life or in a will (after death), without having to pay any estate taxes or gift taxes on inheritance that exceeds the tax-free amount ($5.25 million over the course of a lifetime). Jacobs goes on to say:

In its decision, the Court gave examples of ways that “DOMA touches many aspects of married and family life, from the mundane to the profound,” creating financial burdens for same-sex couples by:

  • Preventing them from obtaining government healthcare benefits they would otherwise receive;
  • Depriving them of the Bankruptcy Code’s special protec­tions for domestic-support obligations;
  • Forcing them to follow a complicated procedure to file their state and federal taxes jointly;
  • Prohibiting them from being buried together in veterans’ cemeteries;
  • Raising the cost of health care for families by taxing health benefits provided by employers to their workers’ same-sex spouses;
  • Denying or reducing benefits allowed to families upon the loss of a spouse and parent.

This decision marks significant progress in the civil rights of same-sex couples in America. Still, we must be aware that this new ruling only applies to married same-sex couples in states that legally recognize same-sex marriage—currently only 12 states and Washington, D.C. For same-sex couples in any of the other 38 states, they still face the inequality that Edie Windsor fought against. There is still inequality and, from estate planning to health care rights, there will be significant struggles.

via CNN and


The New York Times has shared a short documentary called "The Caretaker" that looks at the loving, compassionate, and challenging relationship between a caretaker and the elderly woman she cares for. The caretaker is an undocumented Fijian immigrant; the woman she cares for is Japanese-American, and was held in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. This is an incredibly moving portrait of caregiving, love, humanity, friendship, and, ultimately, loss.

Speaking of her own death and the imminent death of the woman she cares for, the caretaker says,"It's just another transition you have to go through; you're going to another life. I'm not afraid anymore. In her own time, she will go."

via New York Times

We know that deciding what to wear to a funeral can be a challenge. To help you figure out what to wear to a funeral or memorial service we've written articles and made how-to videos. And now, we've got pictures.

The folks over at Connecting Directors searched the Instagram hashtag #funeralattire and have shared their findings. Take a look to find inspiration...

via Connecting Directors

Everplans has been featured in an article on The Huffington Post! From the piece:

New York-based Everplans, which recently received a $1 million investment, is free and focuses on providing guides written by its staff with consultation from lawyers, funeral directors, clergy and counselors. It also lets users register for an online invitation system to organize funerals.

"As people are living farther and farther from their parents and farther and farther from their religious communities, they have less access to their religious traditions and their family traditions," said Abby Schneiderman, the 33-year-old co-founder of Everplans, explaining how the idea for the two-year-old site came about. Formerly a music service startup co-founder and employee of a tech incubator, Schneiderman said her interest in creating an online guide to the complicated and little-known facets of end-of-life planning increased after her brother died a year ago. Today, the site has hundreds of articles and a blog that covers topics ranging from "death, dying, and dealing with it" to "how to be a friend to a friend who's sick."

We're so proud to be featured,  especially alongside all the other great startups and organizations mentioned in the piece.

via The Huffington Post

Death, Dying, and Dealing with It

Three years ago, I could never have imagined that I’d be contributing to a blog about end of life. I was a new mom, focused on reading parenting books and blogs—thinking about the beginning of life, not the end. My husband, son, and I had a comfortable, happy life in Philadelphia, and enjoyed having much of our family nearby in Washington, DC and New York. We were like most new families: stumbling along trying to figure out how to be good parents and how to still be good to ourselves, each other, our friends and our families despite our new responsibilities. Death was the last thing on my mind.

But during the summer of 2009, before my son turned one year old, my mom was hospitalized with pneumonia. At first it seemed like no big deal. My mom was otherwise healthy. She was weeks before her seventieth birthday, and barely looked sixty. While not one to exercise a lot, she was very active and naturally svelte. We all assumed that with a couple of weeks of antibiotics she’d be back to her old self in no time.

I got the first inklings that something wasn’t right when I visited her at the hospital and there was some talk about the antibiotics not working. After chest x-rays and switching antibiotics, they decided to drain some fluid from her lungs and send her home with oxygen, new antibiotics, and a follow-up appointment for a CT scan. A week later, back home in Philly, I got a call from my dad: my mom didn’t have pneumonia. She had lung cancer. Stage IV adenocarcinoma.

I knew nothing about adenocarcinoma, but I knew that Stage IV was bad. Even before talking to a doctor, I knew that this was the beginning of the end, that the end couldn’t be too far away, and that it would probably be pretty ugly. My mom didn’t want to know anything about her chances of survival, but my brother—who lived near my parents in DC—and I wanted to know everything. My dad was caught somewhere in the middle: he wanted to be informed, but like my mom, he wasn’t ready to hear that the end was near. My mom suggested that my brother and I talk to the doctor without her and ask whatever questions we wanted. Between her doctor and our own research, here’s what we learned: there’s no cure, the best you can do is keep the disease in check with chemo (often called “palliative chemo”) and that about 99% of those diagnosed with Stage IV adenocarcinoma do not survive 18 months.

Amazingly, my mom fell into that other 1% of cases: she didn’t die right away. She beat everyone’s expectations and almost made it to the two-year mark. But four months before she passed away, in a cruel twist of fate, I was diagnosed with my own cancer.

In January 2012, I became pregnant, and we began hoping that my mom would be around long enough to meet our second child. Instead of having a child though, I suffered a miscarriage and was diagnosed with a molar pregnancy—a rare condition in which the placenta grows irregularly and becomes tumorous. Most often a molar pregnancy can be resolved just with surgery, but two months later I found out that I was in the unlucky minority for whom it turns into cancer. You read that right. Instead of having a baby, I got cancer.

So here I am, a year later, newly cancer-free and without my mom, doing something I’d never imagined doing: telling the story of this insanity on a blog about death, dying, and dealing with it. Over the next few months, I’ll shed more light on my mother’s decline and death, my own struggle with facing mortality, and what it’s been like trying to maintain some semblance of sanity throughout. I’ve been through it all, and hopefully by sharing it, we can learn from each other.

We've talked on the blog before about how to help a friend who's experiencing a hardship and what to say (and not to say) when offering sympathy. Every time the topic comes up—whether on Facebook or Twitter or in our personal lives—it's clear that this is an issue that we all want to talk about and that we could all use a little guidance around. Thankfully, now there's a book for that: How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who's Sick by Letty Cottin Pogrebin

In today's New York Times, Judith Graham shares an interview with Ms. Pogrebin to talk about her personal experiences of being sick (she was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago), and what being a patient taught her about being a better friend. From the interview:

Q. When you were ill with breast cancer back in the fall of 2009 and early 2010, what did you most want from your friends?
A. I wanted them to really tune into my moods. Because I’m somebody who sometimes needs a lot of love and sometimes needs to be left alone. And the illness heightened those extremes. Being sick magnifies everyone’s essential characteristics.

Q. What kinds of responses were most helpful to you?
A. The people who asked, “Would it be good if I came over now, would you rather I don’t come over at all, or would you rather I come on Saturday?” And the people who said, “I’m going to bring you a present, so you might as well tell me what you want.” I learned through these interactions that you can be direct and candid — on both sides.

Q. What kinds of responses were most off-putting?
A. That everyday question, “How are you?,” with the portentous overlay of tragedy. You would say, “Fine.” And then they would say, “How are you, really?,” with a sort of sanctimony bordering on pity. In normal discourse it’s common to say, “How are you?” And we all say, “Great, fine.” But when a sick person is asked, “How are you?,” we have to calculate how much we’re going to tell and how much someone really wants to know. If it turns out someone is just going through the motions in asking, that leaves a really sour taste in your mouth.

Q. So, what’s a friend supposed to do?
A. Ask, “What are you feeling?” That will elicit a much more honest answer. Then the person who’s been sick can say, “I’m really depressed and tired of people asking me how I am, and I want to normalize my life.” That’s how I felt: I really didn’t want to revisit my diagnosis and the fear I’d felt.

Q. What about when someone’s died? That’s often awkward.
A. Tell the truth. Say something like, “I feel so sad for you.” And if you have a memory, give it. Tell how you’ll always remember how beautifully this woman’s husband played the cello or how his smile could light up the room, or how your friend’s mother had the most magnificent voice. Something that establishes that the person left a mark on your life and acknowledges the meaningfulness of the life that’s just ended.

For the complete interview, visit The New Old Age blog. And for our tips on how to express sympathy, see our article How to Express Sympathy: What to Say and What Not to Say.

via The New York Times

On May 29, 2013, an event that many in the funeral industry had been anticipating for years finally came to fruition: Service Corporation International (SCI), America’s largest provider of funeral, cremation and cemetery services, acquired the second largest, Stewart Enterprises. According to SCI’s press release announcing the acquisition, the deal “has an enterprise value of $1.4 billion.” The CEOs and shareholders were pleased; both companies saw a rise in stock price after the announcement. 

SCI released that they were keen on this acquisition because not only would they obtain more funeral homes and cemeteries but also, they were attaining them at a time when they could bank on the baby boomers aging. According to Reuters

Large-scale consolidation in the highly fragmented funeral business has long been on the cards, with the industry looking to sell more pre-planned funeral contracts to the 76 million baby boomers in the United States.

SCI believes it can profit from of these 76 million people—not only when they die, but also beforehand, by convincing them to pre-arrange their own funerals. (SCI anticipates that this will bring in about 9 billion dollars for the company.)

Of course, there are those who are not pleased with the acquisition. In this situation, it’s the independent funeral home owners. One, Tom Crean, made a short film in which he compared himself to Don Quixote. He fears that as SCI gains over ten times the revenue of its nearest competitor not only will he be put out of business, but also citizens will be penalized with higher corporate prices and less personal service.

I’m not going to take a stand on the acquisition and the growing of SCI. I will, however, agree with both SCI and the independents that everyone should pre-plan his or her funeral! This means that you take the initiative to go to the funeral home and work with a licensed funeral director to plan out what you’d like when your time comes. It means deciding whether you want to be buried or cremated (and where you want to go after that), picking your casket, and even choosing the flowers, and then (possibly) paying for the arrangements. You might think that sounds crazy. I want to tell you: it’s not!

Tom Crean appropriately quotes Don Quixote saying, “Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.” In “life as it is” we don’t think about or talk about our own funerals because we’re afraid. In “life as it should be” we know what we want for our funerals, we make decisions ahead of time, and we share our choices with our families, relieving them of the burden of last-minute, super-stressful decision-making. When we pre-plan, we don’t have to fear being taken advantage of by the mega conglomerates because we go into the funeral homes not when we are grieving, not when we are emotionally drained, and not when we’re primed to be taken advantage of.  Instead, we will take the time to visit multiple locations and meet with different directors. We will decide not only whom we want to work with, but also what we want our send-offs to look like.

This might sound bizarre to some of you, but take a step back and ask yourself why. I cannot think of another significant event that we plan last minute.  Imagine planning a wedding two days before the guests arrive! Would you be able to choose a venue under the pressure of an imminent deadline? Would you be able to pick exactly which flowers you wanted? Could you remember each song that you wanted played? The bride certainly would not be able to find her perfect dress... 

You might protest, noting that you are not the one attending your funeral—and that’s a fair point. But let me tell you: even if you don’t care about what happens at your funeral, by planning in advance, you are giving your family an invaluable gift by not burdening them with the task. Let it be your final loving gesture to them; let them grieve and not plan. 

I worked in the industry for multiple years. Every day, I saw families struggle to figure out exactly what their loved one would have wanted.  “If only we knew….” was a sentence I heard too often.  I unfortunately was able to empathize with these clients because I too had been in that painful situation. When my father passed away, not knowing what he wanted, I fell into the trap that many others do; I overspent. We cannot help but think that this is the final gesture we can make for our loved ones; it seems reasonable to break the bank for them. But it’s not necessary.

Empower yourself! Accept that you are not invincible. You, like every other person in the world, will have a funeral. So make it yours, and make it great.

“I don’t know what I want to do, but I do know that I will never wear a suit to work.” At the time, I wasn’t lying when I made that bold statement to my college advisor. I was a bubbly and vivacious young Manhattanite who was trying to choose among exciting jobs in the fashion, event planning, or maybe even non-profit worlds. I had the passion to work in those industries; all I had to do was choose one.

But my plans changed. Just before I graduated from NYU, my 60-year-old father, my idol, lost his battle with cancer. He was the most important person in my life, and I was convinced that he was too good for a typical funeral.

So I used my event planning skills and gave my father a worthy sendoff: friends delivered funny speeches, roasting my father; we covered his casket in peonies, my mother’s favorite flowers (which were out of season at the time); and at the end of the service we played The Rolling Stones and David Bowie, and everyone danced their way out of the chapel. Not only did I shock and impress the hundreds of guests who attended, but also I surprised myself. I found that I really enjoyed planning funerals! And actually, it all made sense: planning funerals combined the best of all the careers I’d been interested in.

After graduating, I stunned my family and friends and I took a job at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, the funeral home where we held my father’s funeral. For over three years I worked with the talented funeral directors there to help families through their extremely (and uniquely) difficult times. Sometimes I assisted with organizing a 1500-person funeral; sometimes I was simply a shoulder for a widow cry on. No matter the task, I felt privileged to be a part of helping people through the emotional and logistical challenges of a funeral. As time went on, I also had the opportunity to work with our prearrangement counselors, sitting with families as they discussed and choose what they wanted their farewells to look like.

Through my work at the funeral home, my passion to help people after they’ve lost a loved one grew. I realized that I wanted to reach more people than just those who came through the Campbell’s doors, so I got my MBA. Perhaps, from a business standpoint, there was a way  to reach and assist more people.    

It was at this time that I was able to connect with Everplans. I soon realized that their entire team shared my passion for removing the fear and helping make these hard topics more approachable. They, like me, want to make the difficult task of planning as easy as possible—whether planning a funeral or planning for your family’s financial future.

I know from experience that no one can predict for sure when a death is going to occur. Unlike many, I accept that death is inevitable. My hope is that in working with Everplans I can help people think about things like funerals before the time comes. Rather than fearing the experience and brushing aside funeral planning, I want to show people that with the right information and the right attitude, the end doesn’t have to be overwhelming and scary—it can be a joyous celebration, just the way you’d like it to be, complete with The Rolling Stones.

I'll be contributing to the blog with my thoughts on funeral planning and the funeral industry; I'll be tweeting @FuneralGuruLiz; and I'm also on Quora, answering all your funeral queries. Be sure to stick around!