Q . What is a "cash advance" that the funeral director keeps mentioning?

A. A cash advance is when a service or item is needed or wanted for a funeral, but is not directly provided by the funeral home requiring a third-party to complete the task. A few examples of these third-parties: flower shops, clergy, grave digging, organist, newspaper publications, certified death certificates, etc. As you can see, it can get a bit complicated and overwhelming for grieving families to keep this all straight. To simplify the situation, funeral homes generally pay these third-parties directly for the family and at the end of the funeral services one single bill will be handed to the family with all "cash advances" included AT COST. The funeral home makes $0 on cash advances.

When the time comes that you need to meet with a funeral home, you will most likely not remember this specific vocabulary, yet it's important to have a general idea of how funeral expenses are figured. We understand you want the best for your loved one, but that doesn't mean you have to break the bank. Talk to your funeral director and they can help you find what your looking for within your financial means.

Q: How early do the family members need to be at the church or location for the funeral?

A: 30 minutes before the start of the service. Funeral homes ask this so that the family can be gathered, questions answered, and instructions given. Some of the questions that will be asked, generally just to double-check: What items (such as jewelry, glasses, rosary, objects, etc) come out of the casket and what will stay in, will the casketbearers be sitting with the family or seperately, do they understand how to unfold the funeral pall if it is a Catholic funeral, etc. Some instructions that will be given: the order of the procession, how to unfold the funeral pall if needed, how the recession will work, who will be in what vehicles for the drive to the cemetery, etc. This 30 minutes is also beneficial for the survivors to gather together in support and to comfort one another. While the service will generally deliver a message of hope and peace, your grief before is still very real and active. You are not alone. Use this time to reassure and care for each other and to ask or request anything of your funeral director.

Q: How many casketbearers do we need?

A: For the most comfort, weight distribution, and aesthetics, the golden number is 6. Though 8 is possible, it tends to cause more difficulty for the casketbearers to walk without stepping on each other. If you have several special relatives or friends of the deceased that you would like to give a special nod or recognition to, consider naming them honorary casketbearers. This is especially useful when someone important to the deceased is ill or physically unable to participate as an active casketbearer.

Q: May I scatter my cremated remains on the Missouri River?

A: Yes, you can. According to Codified Law 34-26A-27 under South Dakota Statutes, “cremated remains may be scattered over a public waterway or sea.” The Missouri River is a public waterway, and thus cremated remains may be scattered on it. While it is allowed, documentation still needs to be filed with the Register of Deeds in the county of closest proximity to the scattering site. Generally, the simplest way to get such documentation (commonly referred to as a “Disposition Permit”) in South Dakota is to request it from the funeral home that filed the death certificate. If you ever need aid with such documentation or have a question about funeral-related laws, your funeral home is a valuable resource.

Q: What is the difference between interment, entombment, and inurnment?

A: While all of those terms refer to laying the deceased to rest, they describe the different forms of burial. An “interment” is when the casketed deceased is laid to rest within the ground. “Entombment” is when the casketed deceased or urn of cremated remains is placed within a mausoleum or columbarium. And finally, an “inurnment” is when an urn of cremated remains is laid to rest within the ground. These terms can be tricky and easily confused, yet it can be helpful to know when reading a memorial folder or studying up on your family’s genealogy.

Q: What is the difference between a funeral service, funeral mass, and memorial service?

A: While both of these terms refer to the services held to remember the deceased and comfort one another, the difference between them explains the state of the body of the deceased. A “funeral service” is a service where the unaltered body of the deceased is present within a casket. A “funeral mass” is the Catholic version of a funeral service, only difference is that the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper is served within the service. Now a “memorial service” refers to the service where the urn of cremated remains of the deceased is present or the deceased’s remains are not present in any form. That may sound strange, but there is times when no body is present or has previously been laid to rest. For example, in cases of catastrophic events, such as an airplane crash, a body may not be recoverable. Knowing the difference between these terms may not be necessary for your everyday life, but it can make it easier to know what to expect when reading a death notice in the newspaper.

Q: Who do we call when someone has passed away at home?

A: If there is even 1% chance that the individual can be saved, call emergency services at 911 immediately. Now in the instances that death is indisputable, there are two options. If the deceased was home under hospice care with visitation from a registered nurse daily, call the nurse so that time of death may be pronounced. Then you can either have the nurse call the funeral home or personally call the funeral home yourself. If death occurred at home with no medical supervision, the sheriff must be notified and they will in turn notify the county coroner.The sheriff will arrive to survey the scene to see if there are any indications of foul play or if further investigation is necessary. The coroner will arrive to survey the body to see if there are any indications of foul play or if autopsy is necessary. In instances that both the sheriff and coroner find the death occurred naturally, the sheriff will call the family’s desired funeral home. While these are the textbook scenarios and pattern to use to notify the correct authorities, whenever in doubt call the sheriff’s office.

Q: What is the difference between setting funds aside for a funeral through a certificate of deposit (CD) or life insurance policy?

A: There are two main differences between the benefits of CDs and life insurance policies. Firstly, interest income from a CD is taxable while growth rate and death benefits of an insurance policy funds are generally free from income tax to your named beneficiary or beneficiaries. Secondly, CDs have an average of .5% interest rate in today’s market, whereas a life insurance policy averages a growth rate of 2%. On a sidenote, it should be mentioned that the collection of the funeral policy funds tend to proceed faster through the reimbursement of a CD rather than a life insurance policy. When the time comes to consider your funeral pre-arrangements, talk to your life insurance company, financial advisor, or life insurance licensed funeral director to discuss what is best for your circumstances.

Q: What happens when I donate my body to science?

A: When you or a loved one makes the decision to donate your body to science, it will be used to teach anatomy to health and medical science students at Sanford School of Medicine at USD in Vermillion or at one of it’s partnered educational institutes. The school requires the body to be embalmed by a licensed funeral director, delivered to the school by a licensed funeral director, and all expenses incurred by said services would be the responsibility of the estate of the deceased. The Uniform Anatomical Gift Law prohibits medical schools from purchasing human bodies, so donation is purely the deceased gift and will not be monetarily compensated in any way. Prior to donation, the deceased can have a traditional visitation and funeral service. A typical study of the cadaver (the body donor program’s terminology for the deceased) takes two years. Once the study is complete, the cadaver will be cremated and can either be returned to the family or laid to rest at Bluffview Cemetery in Vermillion. While the school is grateful for body donations, they do not always have room and certain medical/physical conditions can invalidate a body donation. So as they say on their website, “determination of acceptance into the program can only be made at the time of death.” If you would like to know more about body donations to the school check out their website at or talk to your local funeral director.

Q: Who does the deceased’s makeup and hair?

A: In most cases, the funeral director. Mortuary science collegiate education actually spends quite some time on instructing students on facial forms, highlighting and shadowing, types of cosmetics, hue and tone, appliance, blending, restorative care, reconstruction, and etc. Generally, a funeral director will desire a photo from the family to use as a reference when completing the cosmetics. The tricky part in this situation is the hair. While a funeral director can try their best to groom the deceased’s hair, they are by no means a professional stylist and quite often have no formal training on the subject. If the funeral director feels that the deceased’s hair will need additional attention, they will request the family to share who the deceased’s hairdresser was during life. When possible, that person will be contacted and asked to provide their services one more time for the deceased. While the makeup and hair are generally the funeral director’s responsibility, there is occasionally a family member or friend who would like to care for the deceased themselves. With the family’s approval, that individual is absolutely welcome to cosmetize or style the deceased themselves. If you have a concern or curious about the preparation of the deceased, never hesitant to ask your funeral director.

Q: What should we do with the gifts of memorial funds that were given to us at the service?

A: Truth be told, the family can do absolutely anything. Our modern notions of the purpose of “memorial funds” is quite different than how they were historically used. In ancient times, memorial funds were given by family and friends to the deceased’s survivors to help with burial costs and everyday expenses that the survivors would face following their loved one’s departure. Today, the majority of people believe that memorial funds should be used to dedicate something in the memory of the deceased. For example, survivors will sometimes buy a needed item for the deceased’s church, donate the funds to charities or medical research, or use the funds to establish scholastic grants. Historically and currently, memorial funds have always been given as a sign of sympathy and concern for the survivors. It is not shameful to use it to care for your family’s needs nor is it wrong to devote it to a specific function. The important thing is to realize that you are loved and supported by wonderful people who want the best for you.

Q: Who should I call if someone dies away from home?

A: In such an event, always call the funeral home that you plan to have the final services held with. Even if that funeral home is several states away and it's 2 a.m., call them. Why is it important to call the funeral home that you plan to use for the deceased’s final services and not the one closest to you at that moment? The financial cost. Simply and forwardly put, you can call your nearest funeral home at the time of death, but the charge for the transference of the deceased to another funeral home at the family's request will cost more than let’s say, a favor between “colleagues” ie., funeral homes. 

Funeral homes understand that situations out of our control or ability can arise. No matter where, when, or how a death occurs, funeral homes are willing to lend a hand to fellow funeral homes if the need arises. They then charge their colleagues a very basic fee rather than the market value for their services. So if the difficult situation of a death away from home occurs, always call the funeral home you will use for the final services. They will take it over from there and call the needed people for you.

Q: What exactly is a funeral director?

A: In simple terms on the national level, a funeral director is someone who organizes and directs all aspects of the care and services for the deceased. Now in South Dakota, “funeral directors” have a much larger area of responsibility. By law, all South Dakota funeral directors must also be simultaneously qualified and licensed as an embalmer. The funeral director/embalmer career is defined, mandated, and regulated by state law and the South Dakota Board of Funeral Service. The responsibilities legally authorized and designated to a funeral director/embalmer by the state include, but are not limited to: “the business of disinfecting, preserving, or cremating dead human bodies, in whole or in part by use of chemicals externally, internally or by other methods... the business of preparing dead human bodies for burial or disposal, and supervising the burial or disposal of dead human bodies.”

Not only is the career responsibilities outlined by state law, but also the personal requirements needed to be licensed in said career. A funeral director/embalmer for the state of South Dakota, as found in state law 36-19, must be “at least eighteen years of age, of good moral character, have a high school education, and sixty semester hours credit from a college or university… must have completed one year's course at a school of embalming… must have completed one year's work as a trainee embalmer-funeral director in this state, and must pass an examination on the following subjects: embalming and care, disposition, and preservation of the bodies of deceased persons; sanitation for the prevention of the spread of infectious or contagious diseases; and local health and sanitation ordinances and regulations relating to mortuary science.”

With the understanding of these laws, roughly two-thirds of a South Dakota funeral director’s legal calling and duty are completed without the public’s direct awareness. So while a South Dakota funeral director is indeed someone who organizes and directs the services for the deceased, it is only part of their function.

Q: Can we have a funeral even though the deceased didn’t have a church?

A: Absolutely, but it does present a couple challenges that need to be considered. Firstly, since the funeral will not be at the church, the location for the services must be decided. Generally this means the service will be held in the funeral home’s chapel, but with permission from private property owners it can be held nearly anywhere (such as a school gym, community hall, senior citizen center, etc.). The next important factor is who will officiant the service. When not a member of the clergy the officiant doesn’t need any specific qualifications or licenses to organize and narrate the service’s schedule. So the officiant can be a family member, friend, funeral director, etc. When a service is not held in a church nor officiated by clergy, its’ content and formula is very flexible. An example of such a service could include a family member narrating a eulogy, special music, a tribute video, special readings or poems, lighting of candles, sharing of memories, etc. Every death creates grief, every survivor seeks comfort. Don’t let secular philosophy keep you from gathering together and participating in healthy mourning.

Q: What do I need a certified death certificate for?

A: What makes a death certificate certified is the embossing of the official South Dakota Register of Deeds seal. The state currently charges $15 a copy and they may be purchased from any Register of Deeds in any South Dakota county. The rule of thumb is if you will be receiving any money from something (ie. insurance policy, real estate, etc) you will need a certified copy. If you are canceling preexisting personal property contracts (ie. cellphone, mailbox, tv, etc.) that will not dispense any monetary funds to the deceased’s estate, a photocopy is sufficient. Social Security and Medicare are automatically notified of the death when the funeral home enters the information into the state website, so families do not need to worry about contacting them. The funeral home enters the basic death certificate information into the state website, then the doctor or coroner will fill out their portion, and finally the state will approve it. The average wait for a death certificate is about 2 weeks.

Q: Why are caskets so expensive?

A: There is a wide range of price points for caskets. The price of a casket is determined by the material it is made of, the shape of the casket, the finish of the casket, the type of hardware, the interior design and material, and its level of protection. These topics deserve an essay of their own to fully explain their impact and differences, but the following will be just a brief introduction into each of the categories’ options. Generally caskets are either made of metal or wood. Metal caskets can be steel & nickel mixture, stainless steel, copper, bronze, etc. The thickness or “gauge” of the metal also varies. Wood caskets can be oak, cherry, poplar, mahogany, cedar, etc. They can also be either “solid wood” or a veneer. The shape of the casket is commonly a rectangle here in the southeast South Dakota, but they also come in anthropoid (the historic “coffin” shape), elliptical, full couch (meaning one big lid instead of two), etc. They also have different corner shapes, such as round, vertical, urn, etc. Caskets also come in a wide range of “finishes,” meaning semi-gloss, matte, hammertone, etc. The intricacy and material used to make the hardware and interior couch also play a part on costs. Lastly, whether the casket is protective or not (meaning it seals or doesn’t) also is a factor. In all honesty, there is no such thing as a “cheap” casket. So depending on your desires and available funds, talk to your funeral director and they can help you find the casket that works for you.

Q: How long can we wait to hold the service?

A: For a service that includes viewing the embalmed deceased, it’s generally reasonable to wait up to 1.5-2 weeks. If the body is refrigerated, the deceased could still be viewable for a slightly longer span of time. It’s important to understand that embalming inhibits decomposition, but cannot stop it. While holding a viewing service following longer than average delays is possible, they are not recommended due to the uncertainty of the sustainable physical condition of the deceased. In contrast, if a memorial service will be held after the deceased’s cremation, the services and/or burial can be delayed for an indefinite amount of time.

Q: Does the family need to be present for the entire visitation?

A: No, the family can be present for however long they choose or come and go as they please. During this mourning period, the family has the freedom to choose what is best for them. Typically in this southeast South Dakota area, public visitations range from 2-4 hours. When you or a loved one is making the arrangements, it’s important to remember and consider the purpose of visitations.  Visitations are a time to publicly mourn your loved one’s death and in turn receive immediate, loving support from friends and community. This is one of the most traditional and culturally understood venues for the public to express sympathy and offer actions of comfort (ie. such as hugging, giving cards, clasping hands, etc.). Many people want to see the deceased, but they ultimately come to see the surviving family. Therefore, if the family will not be present for the entire visitation, as a courtesy it's appropriate to mention a specific time frame stating when the family will be available to receive acquaintances’ greetings.

Q: Who should sit in the reserved family section at a funeral service?

A: Depending on the deceased’s family’s wishes, the “family” section is actually quite flexible. The general rule of thumb is to have the deceased’s immediate family sitting in this section, meaning the children, grandchildren, siblings, and any surviving parents. In some cases, the extended family is also invited to join, meaning cousins, aunts, and uncles. There are also special relationships that the deceased’s family may wish to honor, such as significant others, close friends, and caretakers (ie. nurses, CNAs, neighbors, church deacons, etc.). So while this section of seating has traditionally been for the immediate family, there is no right or wrong  in determining who can sit where. If you attend a funeral service and are unsure of where its appropriate to sit, ask a funeral director and they can discreetly help you.

Q: May I take a picture of the deceased in the casket at the funeral?

A: Yes, but this decision must be thoughtfully considered and respectfully accomplished. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, taking photos of an individual post-mortem was a well-known practice, though not common due to most people's financial inability to afford photography services. Many people today would ask why any one would want to do such a thing. Historically speaking, a post-mortem photo was often taken for two reasons. Firstly, post-mortem photos often captured a previously unphotographed individual, such as children, so that the family would have an image to remember the loved one by. And secondly, families' wished to perpetuate a pleasant final image of the deceased; one where the deceased seemed merely sleeping rather than suffering from sickness or discomfort of their death.

Today in our death-denying society, especially in urban coast states, the practice of post-mortem photography is found as distasteful and is considered a taboo practice that is socially chastised. Yet, that doesn't mean post-mortem photography is wrong or even disgusting. Just as some of our ancestors wished to capture a peaceful final image, some of our neighbors and friends today find this practice helpful and healing. With these things being said, please ensure you are being respectful of the immediate family and other service attendees. Restrain from photography when: other people are directly present and viewing the deceased, if the family requests media privacy, during the funeral services within a church's nave, etc. So, yes, you can take a post-mortem photo of your loved one, but do so politely and privately.

Q: How do I write an obituary?

A: There is no right or wrong way to write an obituary, google "funny obituary" or "odd obituary" sometime and you will discover their is no end to unique life recountings. While every family, culture, religion, social group has different nuances that should be reflected in the obituary, there is a basic common formula for a traditional obituary.

Generally an obituary will start with the who, when, where and why questions. Who are we talking about? When did special events occur in their life? Where did that event happen? Why did that exact event happen? For example, Jane Smith (who) was born on January 1, 1947 (when) to John and Jane Smith, Sr. in Smithland, South Dakota (where). When these emotionally devoid, factual statements have all been made, now a fuller account of the persona of the individual can be shared.  How would you describe their personality? Any unique traits or capabilities? Special club or organizational memberships? For example, Following her retirement, Jane refused to slow down and was lovingly dubbed "the Energizer bunny" by her grandchildren. Lastly, the obituary needs a few sentences stating the when and where of the death, list of survivors, and list of preceded.

There is no minimum or maximum length requirement, it can be anywhere from a few words to a short novel. Keep in mind, the length of an obituary can effect the newspaper cost and the memorial folder's layout. Still not sure how to write your loved one's obituary? That's perfectly fine, this is one of the many jobs a funeral director can handle during your time of grief. A funeral director will take down information about your loved one and write a draft of the obituary for you to either approve or edit. So while there is a common format obituaries tend to follow, there is no right or wrong, write what fits your circumstances and culture.

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