Proper Death Planning Is a Final Gift to Loved Ones, it lifts the burden of your own death from others
NYTimes article, May 14, 2014
Lifting from Others the Burden of Your Own Death
By JOHN F. WASIK
AS you journey toward your end, “dreading and hoping all,” to quote Yeats, there is a lot to ponder.
Assuming that you have fully documented your intentions for your estate and charitable giving, there is the looming and difficult subject of death planning. For most, it’s akin to doing taxes and having a root canal in the same day.
Although death planning can be emotionally vexing, it is essential for families and survivors. They may not know your true intentions without written directives. By the time the will is read or estate plan executed, it will be too late.
Yet death planning will not only allow you to plan a dignified, meaningful and even splashy exit, but will provide guidance for those attending to your last moments and beyond.
When my mother died in 2009, she had left explicit written directions. She didn’t want a religious service and chose cremation. Her ashes were to be spread in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico off the Southwest Florida coast. A party in a country club celebrated her life with family and friends. It was sad, but intimately reflected her intelligence, love, thoughtfulness and joie de vivre in planning parties and holidays.
Well before death, though, the issue of medical disability needs to be addressed. Who will make decisions for you if you are incapacitated? Do you want to be put on life support?
Important documents such as medical/health care or durable power of attorney need to be drafted by your lawyer to specify who will make decisions for you in the event you cannot make them yourself.
According to Howard S. Krooks, president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, who practices in Florida and New York, you’ll also need an advance directive such as a living will that tells your family your intentions on end-of-life decisions.
You may not want to be resuscitated by artificial means if your heart stops, which was my mother’s wish. That would be specified by a “do not resuscitate” clause in your living will. Or, you may want the full complement of medical technology to keep you alive by heroic means. In any case, a health care proxy or surrogate such as a trusted friend or relative or a professional like a lawyer should be in place to make a decision.
“Most people don’t want to enter into this discussion,” Mr. Krooks said. “But you need to talk to people on opposing sides of the decision.”
Once important documents are drafted, family conflicts can be avoided, although the hospital may not observe your intentions. According to a 2011 study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, state laws can make things complicated, and that is especially true now with states diverging on the issue of same-sex marriage. At the time of the study, some 40 states didn’t allow domestic partners to be surrogates in end-of-life decisions; 35 didn’t permit advance oral directives and 48 states required witness signatures.
Your written directions need to be as specific as possible and not stored with your estate planning materials; if they were, interested parties might not see them until well after your death. Let loved ones, friends or your trusted professionals know where your final intentions letter is, or hand out copies. Having them read and review it long before your death is also a good idea.
Although many get squeamish on the specifics of bodily disposition, don’t be afraid to do the necessary planning. Do you want to donate your organs? Details are critical here.
Because critical care procedures and some drugs can damage organs, “only about 3 percent of deaths would be suitable for lung or liver or heart donation after being on life support in a hospital,” said Lisa Carlson, former executive director of the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance and co-author with Joshua Slocum of “Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death” (Upper Access, 2011).
If death occurs at home, where life-support measures are unlikely, “eyes, skin and long bones can be donated post-mortem,” Ms. Carlson added. You may need to prepare and sign documents that outline your intentions. Often this is a simple matter such as signing the back of your driver’s license. Do you want your body to be donated to a medical school or for nonacademic research? “Some will require enrollment prior to death; some will pay for transportation,” Ms. Carlson said.
Ms. Carlson also recommended appointing an “agent for your body disposition.” “This is helpful if you are estranged from your next of kin or part of an unmarried couple.” Your appointed agent would supervise the process of moving your remains, which could be complicated if it involved transfer to a medical school followed by burial or cremation.
If you choose a traditional burial, there are numerous options. “Green” funerals, for example, that don’t involve embalming, expensive caskets or vaults are becoming increasingly popular. An even “greener” and more intimate ceremony could be conducted at home, where allowed. Many states allow in-home funerals, although eight states require the involvement of funeral directors. Simple graveside services without a funeral are also possible.
Ms. Carlson said there was no limit to the variations in disposition.
“One woman chose to put the cremains of her husband in a whiskey bottle that was the base of a lamp because ‘He lit up my life,’ ” she said.
Even with extensive planning and specific directions, things can go awry because of family squabbles. One cudgel to employ in having your intentions honored is to have a strong surrogate or family member. Drafting a customized living will and power of attorney is also important. You will need a strong advocate for your final wishes. When granting durable power of attorney for health care, Ms. Carlson recommended choosing a strong-willed family advocate who’s “a witch on wheels or a bulldog.”
“Do your most important planning early,” said Laurie Siebert, a certified financial planner with Valley National Financial Advisors in Bethlehem, Pa. “Complete your estate planning documents, including a will, power of attorney, advance directives and a living will. There’s not a lot of control from the grave, but a trust may help, if needed. Do your planning today.”
In the written directions you provide your family, you may also want to include grave site or mortuary information, funeral directions and provisions on how you want to pay for your memorial. Do you want specific music played or pictures displayed? Are there past events or accomplishments you want your survivors to remember?
Most important, Ms. Carlson noted, is to discuss with your family what you don’t want in your final moments and beyond. Many severely disabled people do not want to be kept alive if they have experienced extensive loss of control over their bodies. Death with dignity is also a subject to be aired in family meetings.
“If I’m totally dependent upon someone else,” Ms. Carlson said, “my sense of self will evaporate. My time is up at that point. I will be looking forward to the other side — and coming back.”
Although death planning may be one of the most difficult things you will do, it is one final act of self-determination. You may not have control over your last minutes on earth or how you will be remembered, but you can certainly guide your survivors on how you want to be treated and memorialized.
A version of this article appears in print on May 15, 2014, on page F2 of the New York edition with the headline: Lifting From Others the Burden of Your Own Death.
CBC ideas radio show “Death Becomes Us” (2-part series on alternative death-care) available as podcast.
Death is called the greatest of equalizers — the greatest of mysteries. At one time we tended to our dead with home funerals and mourning rituals. Over the last century we pushed death further from our collective mind by outsourcing our dead to mortuary professionals. But our thinking about death may be changing. In recent years, a new phenomenon has taken hold: the rise of Death Cafes — a place where citizens can explore their fears and concerns about any aspect of death.
Participants in the program:
- Josh Slocum, executive-director of Funeral Consumers Alliance, South Burlington, Vermont.
- Rebecca Daum, death midwife, grief and bereavement counsellor, host Hamilton Death Café, Hamilton Ontario.
- Kory McGrath, licensed funeral director, student midwife, Bowmanville, Ontario.
- Aspen Heisey, lay chaplain at Unitarian Church, life celebrant, Guelph Ontario.
- Jerrigrace Lyons, director/founder of Final Passages in Sebastopol, California.
A century ago death was viewed as inevitable, families washed and dressed the bodies of their loved ones, the local carpenter often built the simple pine box, and burial took place at the church cemetery. By the 1920s, mortuary customs had begun to shift dramatically, and today in Canada dealing with death has largely become outsourced. People are beginning to question North America’s ‘outsourcing’ of funerals and burials. [5-7-14]
Caitlin Doughty is a licensed mortician and founder of the Order of the Good Death. In this short video she addresses the concern about bodies being dangerous. Note: Caitlin is a young, new breed of funeral directors. She is a bit irreverent with her videos and uses antics to express and demonstrate her points. I, personally, find it very funny. But we all have different tastes so others may not find it humorous! If you want more, Caitlin has over 20 videos on YouTube.com. ~ Donna Belk
See video below:
Below are three short videos by Laurel Lewis, a transition specialist. The videos present material that is not discussed frequently (such as poop at the time of death) in a matter-of-fact and professional manner.
Here is an anointing practice that I compiled from several different sources.
Anointing is a devotional practice to honor, to consecrate and as a sign of affection. It is something we bestow upon another as a blessing.
It has been practiced for thousands of years as a way to invite the divine into our lives, our hearts, and our minds. When we anoint ourselves or others we are inviting the Divine to be a part of us. Even to this day inn last rites priests use oils to consecrate and bless someone who is preparing to journey out of the body. With this intent, we do so anoint, bless and pay homage to our dear _______.
- I anoint your brow that your mind may be clear
- I anoint your ears that you may hear the words of Spirit
- I anoint your eyes that you may see clearly and discern your truth
- I anoint your lips that you may speak your truth
- I anoint your shoulders now released from the burdens they have borne
- I anoint your heart, receptacle of your purity and connection to the Divine
- I anoint your arms and hands thanking them for how they have served the world
- I anoint your legs and feet that have so lovingly supported you on your pathWe seal upon you this washing and anointing, that you leave this dear body with appreciation and blessings. In beauty it is finished.
Biblical References to Anointing:
- Mark 14:8: She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.
- Like 23:56
This is a website from an actual mortician, Caitlin, who is very helpful and hilarious at the same time. It is a bit irreverent, but she has lots of great information and I recommend that you view some of the videos on her website. ~ Donna Belk
Order of the Good Death.com