In an ideal world, the process of planning a funeral begins long before death. It's helpful to know about the deceased person's favorite poem, or perhaps some music representing his or her life — but for most families, these conversations are too painful to have in advance.

"The idea of talking about the funeral can seem like a terrible thing," said Cathy Edwards, a staffer at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, who assists families in funeral planning. "And yet, many people feel at a loss when they're planning without the input of the person who has died."

For proactive types, many faith communities and funeral homes offer funeral-planning workshops. These events are usually attended by healthy, older adults months or even years before their own funerals, the goal being to spare family from this eventual stress. Some places of worship are even willing to make house (or hospital) calls when death is imminent. This way, information can be gathered about, say, a favorite hymn or sacred reading. "For the people who are left here, it's a tremendous comfort to know we're doing what mom wanted," said Edwards, who's been known to provide this very service for churchgoers at the Basilica.

In the real world, most families are left to plan funerals in a matter of days, and without the input of their loved one, who may have died unexpectedly. Fortunately, most funeral homes provide a full range of funeral-planning services, helping stressed-out families with everything from writing and submitting obituaries, to selecting caskets and procuring grave sites, to hiring professional musicians and planning post-funeral receptions. A new generation of funeral homes, such as Twin Cities-based Bradshaw, goes so far as providing aftercare services such as grief support.

The most important decision is selecting the right funeral home. Some funeral homes post a menu of services (with pricing) on their websites. The Funeral Consumers Alliance of Minnesota recently completed a helpful survey of pricing at 80 Twin Cities funeral homes (available at But let's face it, grieving families might lack the time for comparison shopping. Edwards suggests selecting a funeral home in consultation with the deceased person's faith community. Because places of worship have experience with a variety of funeral homes in their area, they can direct families to businesses that best fit their values and/or budgets. For families without religious affiliation, most funeral homes can assist with finding a church or temple to host the memorial service.

Cremation is an increasingly popular option, especially for those on a budget. "Roughly 53 percent of all Minnesotans right now are choosing cremation," said John Waterston, funeral director with the Cremation Society of Minnesota. "It crossed the 50 percent threshold in 2011." Cremation is less expensive than a traditional funeral, plus cremation offers more flexibility in terms of timing. Of special note to Minnesotans: With cremation, memorials can be postponed for the summer, when out-of-state family and friends will enjoy the experience all the more. "Every now and then, you'll see people gathered on a dock at a Minnesota lake," said Waterston. "And that's their burial, that's their final goodbye."