My dad’s 2003 death left a wake of confusion and conflict that went beyond the great loss of one of the universe’s shining stars.
Dad didn’t mean for it to go like that. A few years before, he’d had a will hastily drawn up on his way to the airport before traveling to Europe for a medical procedure, and never bothered to update it or have it thoroughly checked out when he returned.
Organizing Dad’s wake was a no-brainer: Bring all the food and booze from his house to the Community Center in Lilliwaup, Wash., (which serves as our family hub in times of celebration and mourning) and hire some guy to wail on the bagpipes. Tell some stories. After that, we just didn’t know how to “do” death. We’d all had different interpretations of what the will actually meant, and what Dad would have wanted. I’m ashamed to say that even though he’d tried to talk to me about “when the time comes,” I wasn’t brave enough to have the conversation.
I think about the fragility of life a lot. But I was sparked into action to organize my own end-of-life affairs after a visit to my excellent cousin Elizabeth McGrady, who runs a company called Angel Files out of Portland, Maine. She helps people organize all their personal and household information and “death wishes,” if you will, in case of an accident or worse.
Here are some thoughts from Elizabeth about making the plans nobody ever wants to see come through.
1. Wait, you mean our affairs don’t magically take care of themselves when we die? What’s the most important thing someone our age needs to know about how to plan for the end of their lives?
By having your memorial plans written down, you can release thoughts of the unknown and replace this with a sense of empowerment that your final chapter in life has been drafted. This can be one of the kindest things you can do for your family and friends. This way, they are not making big decisions during their time of grieving, but honoring your wishes.
2. In your work creating Angel Files, what’s the most common misperception people have about organizing their lives so that others can close up their affairs?
If people have their financial affairs in order they believe they are “all set.” I believe to leave a meaningful legacy behind is important, such as the story of your life and your experiences. Also, the story of your home and its possessions. People don’t have the time to have items assessed so valuables can go to Goodwill and lawn sales. If there is a story of an heirloom, let people know what is it so they can know why it’s important — either sentimental value, monetary value, or both.
3. Talk to us about funeral homes. Essential services or ripoffs?
I have enjoyed interviewing funeral homes, they are very willing to share information. They are trained, educated and looked after by the FTC. It is like any business in that it is up to you to be a savvy consumer. In an emotional state you can add all kinds of things that raise the price. They take great care of having the bodies treated with respect and dignity. In some states you do not have to use a funeral home, but realize that there is paperwork that has to be exact in order for everything to be done on your own. It is wise to research the crematory process or the burial process if you wish to do it yourself. Then if you do choose a funeral home you will know exactly what they have done for you.
4. When you’re in your 40s, it’s so complicated, there are ex-spouses, new spouses, stepkids, maybe even grandkids. What’s the best way to organize your affairs so people don’t feel left out or cheated? Should you decide who gets Grandma’s ring before you die, or just let them duke it out?
It would be helpful to have a draft of who you would like to be beneficiaries and list them by what percentage you would like each individual or charity to receive. If you have possessions, such as Grandma’s ring, it might be worth it to open up a conversation with your family and ask them which five items would they like to receive from you if they had a wish list. It would give you an idea as to what exactly people would wish for instead of assigning items.
5. Anything else people should know?
Memorial services and funerals can cost half as much as a wedding. A wedding takes many hours to plan, as does a tribute done well to honor someone’s life. It is a process and most of it can be enjoyable but the work involved shouldn’t be underestimated. I know people pull it together in a few days or a week, but do you want this frenzy of activity to be planned when people are grieving? I have amassed a checklist and it has more than 130 items on it. After death there are still about 30 items to be done such as: Sending out the death notice to newspapers, contacting people, details of the service, photos organized, music chosen, body choices, a lot of paperwork to be done and many, many minute tasks. An organized plan would be so appreciated by your loved ones and you can know your end of life tribute will be authentic if you take the time in planning this.