Is prepayment a good idea?

Although preplanning for after-death care is a good idea, FCAME does not recommend prepaying for one unless one is spending down for Medicaid or death is expected relatively soon. Disadvantages of paying in advance of any expectation of dying include:

  • You might move or die in another state, and it would be expensive or no longer desirable to have your body transported back to the funeral home you made the contract with. In most states, you would not receive a full refund including interest if you did not follow through with the original contract, so the total expenses would be higher than you had planned for.
  • You might change your mind about the kind of arrangements you want. Or those you leave behind might not find the original plan appropriate to the circumstances at the time of death if you long outlive your contemporaries.
  • The money you pay today might not cover the cost of what you want in the distant future, necessitating substitution of cheaper merchandise or additional money from your survivors.
  • If payments are made in installments and you do not complete the payments, your refund may be reduced by a sales charge as high as 30%.
  • The seller of the funeral services may not be in business when the need arises or the business might be taken over by another one that refuses to honor the contract if the money was not kept in a protected trust.
  • In some states, part or all of the interest on your account may be withdrawn by the seller as part of his administrative fees.
  • Your survivors may not be aware of your prepayment contract. At the very least, they are not likely to have been present when you made the contract so may not be in a position to make sure that what you arranged for is what you get.

   There are other ways to make certain there are resources to pay for your funeral.

  • Create a pay-on-death account with your bank. You control the account and can withdraw from it at any time. The money is put in a CD, or savings or money market account and is payable to a beneficiary of your choice. You should have a backup beneficiary in case the primary one dies before you do. The funds are available immediately at the time of death without having to go through probate. All the beneficiary has to do is produce a certified copy of the death certificate to have access to the funds. Annual interest is subject to income tax. 
  • Life insurance or an annuity contract may be structured to provide a death benefit. It should be  payable to a beneficiary and not a funeral home. 
What should I do immediately after someone dies?

At the time of a death:

  • If the death was expected, call the hospice nurse or the doctor in charge of the case, who will come and pronounce the death.
  • If death is unexpected, call 911. The dispatcher will decide who will respond to the call – i.e., rescue squad, police, fire, and rescue. If there is a Do Not Resuscitate order that is in effect, that should be relayed to the 911 dispatcher and it should be immediately shown to the first responders who may otherwise attempt CPR. 
  • If the death is unexpected, a decision will have to be made about whether it is a medical examiner’s case that will have to be investigated with an autopsy. Generally, if there are known medical conditions, one’s doctor will be consulted by the medical examiner’s office. If they feel comfortable certifying a cause of death without further inquiry, then the coroner (medical examiner) will waive the case and the doctor will fill out the death certificate. 

A doctor must be willing to stipulate a cause of death and sign the death certificate before the body can be released to a funeral director. The death certificate must be signed by the doctor within 24 hours. In Maryland, the funeral director takes care of getting this done, or if the body is donated to the Maryland Anatomy Board the Board takes care of it if there is no funeral director. If it is a medical examiner’s case, it will be completed by the medical examiner.

In general, there is no need to make quick decisions after a person dies in a hospital. Most hospitals have a place where a body may be stored in a cool environment or refrigeration facilities for several hours or even a day or two. Bodies in a hospice or nursing home must be picked up sooner as they do not have any storage facilities. Bodies should be picked up from a home within a few hours, unless they are preserved with dry ice, to avoid decomposition.

The family may find it comforting to spend some time alone with the body after the death if it is expected. 

The National Institute on Aging offers general guidance on what to do after someone dies. The AARP (American Association of Retired People) also offers guidance on what to do when someone dies, as does Consumer Reports.  

Who has the authority to make funeral arrangements?

Maryland:   A person may designate someone to make arrangements on their behalf in an advance directive. Absent such a designation, this right falls to the following person(s) in order of priority:  A) spouse; B) adult child; C) either parent; D) adult brother or sister; E) guardian at the time of death; or F) any other person or agency authorized to or under obligation to dispose of the body. If the person has registered with the State Anatomy Board as a body donor, the Anatomy Board has jurisdiction.

Delaware: This right falls to: A) any person the deceased gave this right in a written disposition prior to death; B) surviving spouse; C) personal representative or administrator of your estate; D) adult child or majority of children if more than one; E) parents; F) siblings; G) next of kin; H) any person willing to take on the responsibility; I) a person appointed by the probate court.

District of Columbia: Unless other directions have been given by the deceased, the right to make arrangements falls to: A) competent surviving spouse or domestic partner (as defined by DC law); B) surviving child or, if more than one, the majority of children: C) parents; D) surviving competent adult relatives in the next degree of kindred, or if more than one in the same degree of kinship, the majority of them; E) an adult friend or volunteer.

What if I die elsewhere and want to be buried here?

Unless there is a need for a viewing or service at the place of death, it is usually better to work through the funeral home you will be using at the place of burial. 

This is because if you call a funeral home at the place of death to initiate transportation, it will charge you retail for “Forwarding Remains” which includes transporting the body to the funeral home, embalming and preparing it, and transporting it to a common carrier (such as an airplane). It may or may not include a minimum shipping container, which will be used only for transportation, and it will not include airfare. Then at the receiving end, the funeral home will charge for “Receiving Remains,” which includes transportation from the common carrier to the funeral home, filing permits, and transportation to the cemetery. So you will end up paying retail for the initial funeral home, airfare, and a shipping container as well as retail for the receiving funeral provider and further services and casket for burial.

But if you begin by calling the receiving funeral home, it will arrange to use a wholesale shipping service that specializes transporting bodies all over the country such as Inman. This service picks up the body, transports it to a local funeral provider for embalming near the location of death, secures the necessary permits for transportation, provides a shipping container, and transports it to the airport in a well-coordinated process. This results in significant savings.  

Of course, cremation near the place of death will cost much less than transporting a body for burial, and the ashes can be mailed or carried home.

How many death certificates will we need and where are they obtained?

Generally, you will need a certified copy of the death certificate for each asset that will need to be transferred after death, such as bank accounts, cars, or real estate, as well as for insurance policies, annuities, veteran’s survivor benefits, the IRS and state taxing authority. The funeral director typically alerts Social Security , so you don’t need one for that. In the interest of preventing identity theft, you may want to provide one of the credit monitoring bureaus promptly with one as well, and make certain it will inform the others.  It has traditionally been necessary to provide original certified copies to each entity, although some banks may look at it and not retain it, but currently many financial institutions require only a  digital PDF copy. So it is hard to predict how many will be needed ahead of time. They may be ordered initially through the funeral director. Additional copies may be obtained from the funeral director or the following entities, but only by those with a clear right to order them, as defined by the issuing entity in each state. The cost information quoted below is current as of 2022.In Maryland, death certificates are obtained through the Division of Vital Records of the Maryland Department of Health for a fee of $10.00 and may be ordered on-line or by mail.

  • In D.C., death certificates are obtained through the D.C. Department of Vital Records and may be ordered on-line, by mail, by phone, or in-person by appointment for a fee of $18.00. 
Can I fill out the death certificate if I conduct a home funeral?

In Maryland

If you are an individual designated by the deceased in his or her advance directive, then you may complete and file the death certificate yourself. The death certificate must be filed with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene within 72 hours of the death. The doctor, assistant, nurse, medical examiner must complete medical portion of death certificate within 24 hours of its filing. 

In Washington, DC.:

On the other hand, in Washington, DC, only a funeral director may complete a report of death to the local office of vital records. The medical portion must be completed within 48 hours of its filing by a doctor, chief medical officer, or an approved medical provider. 

DC now uses an electronic death registration system, but you can still obtain paper death certificates from the attending physician or a medical examiner. This person will supply the date, time, and cause of death before returning the certificate for completion and filing. 


In Delaware, the funeral home, mortuary, cremation organization, or other person in charge of the deceased person’s remains will prepare and file the death certificate with the local or state vital records office within three days and before the body is buried or cremated. When an official death investigation is not required, the attending physician or registered nurse must complete the medical certification on the death certificate within 48 hours after death. If the cause of death cannot be determined within 48 hours, the attending physician or medical examiner files a pending death certificate and orders a toxicology study. In that case, the Division of Forensic Science assumes custody of the body and completes a revised death certificate. 

In all of these jurisdictions, if an official death investigation is required by law, the medical examiner determines the cause of death, completes the death certificate, and files it with the Office of Vital Statistics. 

Can I bury a body on private land?

Maryland requires that bodies be buried in an established cemetery or in a family burial plot or other area allowed by a local ordinance. Before establishing a family cemetery, check with the county health department and the county or town clerk for any local laws you must follow

In Delaware, most bodies are buried in established cemeteries, but there are no state laws that prohibit burial on private property. 

Local governments may have rules and zoning ordinances governing private burials. Before burying a body on private land or establishing a family cemetery, you should check county and city zoning ordinances and obtain a burial permit. 

In Washington, DC, bodies must be buried in established cemeteries. Because of D.C.’s urban environment, home burial which would require establishing a new family cemetery and probably won’t be possible. The funeral director will need to obtain a permit before transporting the body. Additionally, the funeral director must obtain a separate permit from the medical examiner before a body can be cremated. However, there are no laws in D.C. restricting the disposition of the ashes.

Where can I turn for help resolving problems?
How can I find out about after-death benefits for veterans or burial in a national cemetery?

The VA website on burial benefits contains comprehensive information about available benefits, burial in a national cemetery, and eligibility. Most national cemeteries are operated by the VA.

Arlington National Cemetery is operated by the Army instead of the VA, and must be contacted directly to determine eligibility for burial there.

Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maryland and Environs

P.O. Box 34177

Bethesda, MD 20827


FCAME is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Donations are tax-deductible to the extent of the law.