Terms & Definitions of Pre-Need Planning

As a death doula, one of the services that I provide is helping people with pre-need planning. This means, that while clients are relatively healthy, we discuss what they want after death. This usually involves deep discussions about what they want to be done with their bodies, ceremonial considerations, and religious doctrines. No two end-of-life plans are the same. Preparations are as unique as the people doing the planning.

But many walk into my office not knowing the proper words for what they want or need. That’s okay! I didn’t know these terms either before I started working in this realm.

Here is a pre-need checklist to help:

Coffin or Casket

We use caskets to move the deceased in preparation for burials and cremations. Made with metal, wood, or eco-friendly materials, they have a rectangular shape with four sides and a lid with hinges. Rails, or handles, are along the sides.

They can have a cloth interior. Casket manufacturers will say this creates a comfortable and relaxing setting. But honestly, the deceased is…deceased. If someone buys a casket with a fancy satin interior, that’s fine. But we shouldn’t say it has anything to do with making a dead person comfortable.

Coffins are similar to caskets. Made of wood with a cloth interior, they too transport the deceased for burial or cremation.

The main difference is how they look.

Coffins have six sides, and the top is noticeably wider than the bottom. The top also comes off completely, rather than just partly with hinges like a casket. Additionally, the body of the coffin resembles the body of a human being.

Coffins at one time were popular, but soon caskets were preferable in the United States. They didn’t taper at the bottom and seemed grander. They’re also more expensive than coffins.

However, they don’t have to be.

Find yourself a funeral home with reasonable pricing. Part of what’s great about pre-need planning is you have the time to shop around. Compare prices and lock them in. Afterward, inflated prices down the road aren’t your concern.

Although I’m happy to provide doula services to anyone who needs them, I’m primarily getting calls from Jewish clients. Therefore we discuss simple caskets made from pine wood with no cloth interior. Most of the families I work with believe that simple is best. This is in line with their religious beliefs. Or some want burial at a conservation cemetery. Conservation cemeteries don’t allow any metal or plastic in burial containers.


If you choose cremation, you’ll need an urn to hold your cremains afterward.

Some use the urn simply as a holding place before scattering cremains at the desired location. Others display the urn at home as a memorial to whoever has died.

Urns can be ornate or resemble the personality of the deceased. They can also be biodegradable and buried along with the cremains.

Funeral Directors

Funeral directors, as they’re called today, play an important role. They direct memorial services and funerals. But I’d argue, that they play an even more important role in our society. They provide much-needed guidance during a very tough time.

In short, funeral directors are licensed professionals. You call them when a loved one passes away. They take care of the details and provide comfort to the family. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • ordering death certificates,
  • transporting the diseased,
  • overseeing embalming, burial or cremation,
  • making arrangements for the funeral or memorial service,
  • dress the dead,
  • place the human body in the casket or coffin, and
  • apply any cosmetics needed for public viewings.

The term “funeral director” is more modern and updated compared to “mortician” in America or “undertaker” in England.

Do you want to be embalmed?

Embalmers are licensed professionals who prepare the body for burial. They may or may not also be funeral directors. Embalmers remove the blood and other natural fluids from the deceased to replace them with embalming fluid. This delays natural decomposition for public viewings.

Evidence suggests that embalming fluid is toxic both to the embalmer and the environment. This is why conservation cemeteries don’t allow embalmed bodies. It’s also against several religious laws to use embalming fluid. For example, Judaism or Islam doesn’t allow for interrupting the natural breakdown of bodies.

Memorials for the Grave

The headstone is the common term for a piece of granite that sits erect at the head of a grave. It tells visitors who is buried beneath. Information on the headstone normally includes the name, birth/death dates, and an epitaph. In a national cemetery, the headstone contains information about the military branch under which they served.


These are larger headstones that sometimes take on different shapes and sizes. They can include cherubs, icons, or sculptures that are symbolic or unique to the deceased.


A marker is a smaller headstone. It sits flat on the ground and contains name, death, and birth dates. Sometimes, in a conservation cemetery, the marker is even smaller and biodegradable.

It’s the easiest to maintain out of all the options and often the least expensive.

Importance of Pre-Need Planning

Almost every culture, religion, and tradition believes in showing deep reverence for the dead. Post-death rituals and cemeteries are important parts of these life cycle events – not only for the person who passes away but for the family as well. That’s why it’s so important to make post-death, or pre-need plans while you’re alive.

A wonderful gift to give your loved ones, pre-need planning means they won’t have to make decisions and wonder about what you would have wanted. It’s all taken care of for them. They can concentrate on mourning and let a caring, competent funeral director put in motion everything you set up ahead of time.

As a Jewish mom, I always knew our community took especially good care of children. From pre-school through middle school, including bar and bat mitzvah programs, my children personally benefited from the love, support, and attention to excellence from Jewish friends, teachers, and neighbors.

Now, I’m seeing how that care and love extend to end-of-life as well.

Helping people with pre-need planning is a stellar example of how to ethically care for families at a most difficult time. And you don’t have to be Jewish either. Everyone, regardless of faith, can find comfort in this exercise.

If you’d like to talk about your own pre-need planning, don’t hesitate to give me a call. Click here to reach out now.

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