Some family crises, coworkers’ family crises, and Persephone staff crises reminded me of something I know more about than some people think is healthy, but I’m glad I know my way around it: end-of-life planning.
I used to work for a funeral home and cemetery, helping people make arrangements for their death in advance, as well as working with the families of the recently deceased to make cemetery arrangements. I lasted about six months before I took a crappy coffee job to get out, because, of course, it was devastating work. But I learned a lot. Here are the highlights.
It is cruel not to make arrangements for your death before you die. I mean financially, of course, but I also mean being very clear about communicating to your family and close friends precisely what things are important to you about the final arrangements for your body and personal effects. I call it cruel because I have sat with many a grieving widower, daughter, lifelong friend, and sibling, and watched them – no matter how normally put together, prepared, and competent – find themselves at a loss to answer basic questions, a loss that intensifies the kind of bereavement they feel immediately after their loved one has gone. I mean it with all the kindness, understanding, and empathy in the world when I say: people become stupid when they grieve. It is nearly impossible to think clearly about minutiae in the midst of grief. Your brain is dealing with a big question: that of life and death, of missing someone who has been present to you for a long time, of missing, in essence, a piece of your own self. Funeral arrangements are by comparison petty affairs. But it is precisely because things like type of casket, floral arrangements, music selections, plot of land, and so forth don’t matter that it’s essential that you make your wishes understood on these matters before you go. It’s impossible to focus on things that are unimportant when your heart is broken, and leaving your family to worry about these mundane questions after you’re gone is unnecessarily thoughtless.
Life insurance will probably not cover the immediate costs after you die. Sad but true, and a little known fact about life insurance policies. They are insurance, after all. Have you ever gone through the rigmarole of trying to get your health insurance company to pay out when you need them to come through for you? Now imagine trying to get that stuff turned around, while grieving, in order to pay a funeral home for a casket that you need to bury your mother or best friend within three days of their passing. It doesn’t work like that. So, consider choosing a funeral home near you and making arrangements (and payments) well in advance. Like, now would be good.
Not that life insurance is without value. But it’s just best to take that out to benefit your family, pay off any outstanding debts, and help float the people you leave behind for a while. That is a kindness. But even if you can’t afford to plan ahead financially (and Lord knows many of us can relate), at least write down your wishes, do some research into various preparations and insurance plans, and take advantage of them if your situation ever changes.
Know the laws about disposal of the dead in your area before you make your wishes known to your family. Things like Viking funerals, scattering ashes in public parks and waterways, burying someone’s urn in the backyard of the family home, and the vague notion of “donating your body to science” all have strict laws that accompany them. Like, that entire montage of Orlando Bloom sprinkling his dad all across the southern U.S. in Elizabethtown was illegal. Don’t put your family in a position in which they will need to break the law to make your final wishes come true; if you do your research early, you can probably find ways around the laws to make what you want happen.
Don’t be shy. Everyone dies. It’s a sucky thing to talk about, so the sooner, the better. And put it in writing, and tell someone where the writing is. And be specific about what you want, and if you are able to plan ahead financially for it, include in your written record what arrangements you’ve made, so when the time comes, folks will know how to figure this stuff out. It’s not so much about having a legally binding document as it is about clarity, and taking some responsibility for potentially controversial wishes you have.
Death is expensive. Burials have to include the cost of embalming or refrigeration to preserve the body until the time of burial, any makeup etc. potentially included for viewings, the casket, the outer container (many cemeteries are required to place the casket in a concrete container due to various issues with the land, ecological impact, etc.), the burial services, not to mention headstones, not to mention funerals, and the services of a licensed funeral director who is required by law to oversee the whole process. Cremations don’t include embalming, but they have their own rigmarole of costs associated. And the ubiquitous “I’m donating my body to science” schtick people like to say so casually? What if science doesn’t want you? Have you made arrangements with a learning facility somewhere near you that would like to have your body when you’re gone? These things need to be prepared in advance; donating one’s body is not like donating to the Goodwill. You can’t just have someone drop you off at a loading dock and get a tax-deductible receipt in exchange.
Think ahead about people dynamics. Is your significant other notoriously prickly with your siblings? Are you legally married or related to the person you hope to have making your arrangements? Because the person in charge of making your arrangements has to have a legal (blood or marriage) connection to you. Has to. Don’t get angry at the funeral directors for this; it’s law. In fact, between cemetery regulations, state and national laws about the handling of deceased persons, local ordinances about burial and disposal, and so forth, there are so many laws and guidelines covering exactly what a funeral director can and cannot allow you to do. They’re usually trained to accommodate a number of traditions, faiths, and practices, but if they tell you they’re legally not allowed to do something, they’re not just being difficult.
Feel free to be creative. Legal issues aside, it’s okay to call in the fantasy bagpiper number, or have your grandkids drinking your spirit into the afterworld from the family Quaich, or request your guests to come in Harry Potter costumes, or, as a beloved Persephoneer’s family is doing this week, wear Hawaiian shirts to the memorial service. Your memorials don’t have to be official, don’t have to be religious, don’t have to be reverent or serious at all. I have attended memorials that included stand-up comedy acts, Van Halen, a motorcycle rally with everyone in chaps. Each was beautiful, for its authenticity, sincerity, ratio of smiles to tears.
Look, it’s, no doubt, completely fucked up that death costs so much, that there is so much red tape stretched across the bald fact of our grief, that it often becomes a raw opportunity for the very worst of old conflicts to rear their heads and make what is hard yet more difficult. But educating yourself, planning ahead, communicating clearly, and striving for authenticity can ultimately make your passing a less stressful time for the people who will be left to miss you. And that’s a gift that really does make all the difference.