The Importance of Pre-Planning Your Funeral

by Ann Heinz, Product Manager | Aug 23, 2019

How Death Cafes and the Before I Die Festival Can Help You Face End-Of-Life Issues

Death Cafes and The Importance of Pre-Planning Your Funeral Gail Rubin, a pioneering death educator and thanatologist, works to help people of all ages plan for their death and speaks to those concerned about end-of-life issues. She previously worked as a public relations professional and event planner before finding her passion in helping others pre-plan for their funerals. She currently facilitates Death Cafes throughout New Mexico and is the festival coordinator of the Before I Die Festival in New Mexico. As the author of three books on end-of-life issues, she is considered an expert in the funeral industry and is often referred to as the Doyenne of Death®.

Rubin spoke with Ann Heinz, our FuneralCE product manager, to share her insights on the importance of funeral pre-planning and discussions on death.

Heinz: What exactly is a certified thanatologist?

Rubin: Thanatology is the study of death, dying, and bereavement. When I first became involved with writing and speaking about the field of death, I came from a background in public relations and event planning. I needed some kind of bona fides, so I joined the Association for Death Education and Counseling ( I became Certified in Thanatology by doing college-level course studies, getting letters of recommendation, and taking continuing education courses. This is a certification I have to renew every three years and I’m on my second cycle of renewal now.

Heinz: It sounds like you have a strong education in the death education field. How did you come to learn so much about the death discussion movements? How did that start?

Rubin: It started with the Death Café and my involvement with that in 2012. I monitor for stories with Google Alerts about end of life and funeral planning. Early on I was getting alerts about different death discussion movements, including the Death Café. In 2011, a gentleman in London named John Underwood was inspired by the work of a Swiss sociologist named Bernard Crettaz. He held events in cafes in Switzerland and France where you would have some cake and tea and talk about what’s on your hearts and minds about mortality issues. John wanted to do this in the UK, where a lot of death discussion movements actually started.

When I found out about the Death Café I wanted to be one of the first people to bring it to the United States. I Skyped with John about it and became the first person west of the Mississippi to hold a Death Café, in September of 2012. The first person to hold one in the US is Lizzie Miles in Columbus, Ohio. Between Lizzie and myself, we’re the first to get Death Cafes going in the United States. Since then there have been almost 9,000 Death Cafes in 65 countries. It has really taken off and there are a lot of people who are getting involved in this conversation. It’s not just old people; there are a lot of young people involved as well.  

Heinz: What is a discussion like at the Death Cafes? What are the topics?

Rubin: Every Death Cafe is different, but I have found there are four areas the conversation starts to fall into:

• Medical issues – many people say they don’t want to be kept alive if they’re on life support or be revived with CPR
• Financial issues – such as wills, trusts, how to afford a funeral
• Spiritual issues – is there life after death? I’ve had people who have had near-death experiences tell some very interesting stories.
• Practical issues – if you’re a single person and you don’t have family, how are your end-of-life wishes going to be taken care of? This can be a real concern for people. And who’s going to speak on your behalf regarding end-of-life medical issues?

There’s a lot of laughter in Death Cafes, actually. People tell stories that are funny, even though we’re discussing death.

Heinz: What is the Before I Die Festival and where are they being held?

Rubin: Before I Die Festivals also got started in the UK. The UK actually has something that we don’t have in the US called Dying Matters Awareness Week, which is always held in May. It’s an opportunity for just about any kind of organization—whether it’s artists, hospitals, universities, hospices, or Death Cafes—to get people to think about their own mortality. In my case, I’m hoping to get people to plan ahead.

In 2013 the first Before I Die Festival was held as the part of the Dying Matters Awareness Week in the UK. There was another one there in 2014. Nothing happened for a couple of years before it came to the United States. The Indiana School of Nursing held a three-day Before I Die Festival in April of 2016. Louisville, Kentucky also held their first Festival in October of 2016. I held my first Before I Die Festival in Albuquerque in 2017. Last year, in 2018, we added events in Santa Fe and Belen. The 2018 Festival won the ICCFA’s KIP Award for Best Event. We’re doing the third annual Festival in 2019 with even more markets. We’re doing one-day festivals in Taos, Espanola, and Santa Fe with several days of events in Albuquerque.

Heinz: At your Death Cafes and the festivals, what are some of the key concerns that the public expresses to you about dying and funerals?

Rubin: I think people are afraid of death because they’re afraid of pain. They’re afraid of feeling physical pain and the emotional pain of not being here. It varies from person to person. People are concerned about the costs, which is why I think you see a lot more cremation these days.

Heinz: It sounds like attending a Death Café or a Before I Die Festival would be a good first step for someone who is interested in pre-planning their funeral. Do you have any other suggestions for things people can do to pre-plan?

Rubin: Absolutely. First, decide what you want. Do you want a burial? Cremation? Do you want to donate your body to science? Once you have an idea of how you want your body disposed of, go to your local funeral homes long before anybody is sick or dying. It’s a fascinating shopping trip. You can get a sense of the personalities, facilities, and prices. While the expense is a big concern for many people, there are also people who don’t want to discuss the topic at all.

When I’m out in public and people find out what I do, they will talk about good and bad experiences they’ve had. Funeral directors have to be on top of their game every single day because a bad experience can haunt them. Part of the issue is people don’t want to feel like they’re getting ripped off. Part of that fear comes from the old-school, checklist funeral director. We need to have people in this field who are good conversationalists and are good at finding out about the person who died and spinning out the story of that person’s life before you start talking about dollars. Once you get involved in that person’s story, you can start making suggestions of what works best for the family rather than product recommendations. There’s a real need to make that kind of engagement with the family before you start suggesting caskets.

Heinz: Anything else you would like to add?

Rubin: Everybody is welcome to come to New Mexico to the Before I Die festival November 3-10, 2019. We’ll have all sorts of great activities, and industry professionals will get some great community outreach ideas.

To learn more about the New Mexico Before I Die Festival or find events near you, visit
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