By Eilene Lyon
“It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” – Woody Allen
“Ugh. Death. What a depressing topic!” you must be thinking. I really do apologize for bringing up this indelicate subject on your lovely weekend. But this is a blog about learning from the past, and if history has shown one thing to be irrefutable, it’s that we’re all going to wind up dead – sooner or later.
Hopefully much, much later.
Let me be clear, the death I am referring to here is my own. I like to presume it isn’t imminent, but who knows? I’ve been telling people for a long time that my target is 120 years and I’ve got a good ways to go, but…
A few years ago, I got a bit of a wake-up call when both my friend next door (age 49), and my older brother (age 55), both died quite unexpectedly of heart attacks. You see what I mean.
The Putterer and I had wills drawn up many years ago, but anyone who has dealt with the nitty-gritty of someone close dying can say that a will is just the beginning. So, I have decided that I really need to get down to this business of planning for my eventual demise.
In that vein, I’ve decided to schedule a regular “Death Day” specifically to attend to the list. Especially if you have children, I strongly encourage you to do this ASAP. You are never too young to get started.
Truly, it is a gift we give to our survivors.
The following agenda is by no means exhaustive, but will get you started on making your own To Do list:
“Nothing in life is certain except death and taxes.” – Benjamin Franklin
Will: It’s best if you can afford to hire an attorney who specializes in estate planning. But don’t allow a lack of funds to deter you. Even a will you write yourself, using forms available online, is better than nothing at all. If you already have a will, when was the last time you reviewed it? Beneficiaries may have pre-deceased you. Your estate may have changed significantly. Maybe you got married or divorced.
Advance Care Directive/Living Will: A Living Will is just one type of Advance Directive, pertaining specifically to terminal illness. Requirements for these types of documents vary by state. It’s a good idea to consult your area Agency on Aging, an attorney, your physician, and others. If you have them already, be sure to review every few years. Things change!
Okay, here is where I want you to really dig deep into your morbid box of horrors: what are the worst things that could happen? Believe me, dying isn’t the worst. I won’t detail the process of my neighbor’s passing, but what happened to her and her family should not happen to anyone. It made me want to tattoo an advance directive on my chest.
When you create an advance directive, think about what you do and don’t want the medical profession to do when you are unconscious/non-responsive, especially if your healthcare proxy is not there. Be sure your doctor knows it. Keep it close. I swear, maybe have a laminated card in your pocket, or a bracelet.
Medical Durable Power-of-Attorney/Healthcare Proxy: This document, assigning someone to make healthcare decisions for you if you are unable, does not give them direction in what to do. Usually you would select a family member or close friend. Be sure the person you select has an understanding of your wishes and can be trusted to act in accordance with those wishes. If they don’t, promise you’ll come back to haunt them.
Financial Durable Power-of-Attorney: If you have a spouse, you will likely choose him/her to be your POA. You may select an adult child, close friend, or financial advisor. If you and your spouse both become incapacitated or die at essentially the same time, be sure to have a third party selected in that event.
Beneficiaries: Be sure to review the beneficiaries on bank accounts, retirement accounts, and insurance policies. Do you want your ex reaping the benefits, or is there someone new in your life?
Other: If you have minor children, you will need to select a guardian. You will also want to look into life insurance. If you live in a Right-to-Die state (e.g. Oregon, Colorado), you may want to investigate your options if you end up in that sort of position. Then there’s the whole funeral/memorial service thing.
“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” – Jerry Seinfeld
Oh, isn’t this a fun topic?! It used to be that you had a couple options: get cremated, or be embalmed and buried in a fancy casket in a concrete vault.
Burial: The whole embalming scene is no longer considered a requirement for public health reasons. You may want to consider a “green” burial. There are certified green cemeteries, but many that aren’t certified are still willing to allow you to be buried in a simple shroud or box so that your remains will biodegrade naturally. You will have to ask around. If you choose the burial route, select your site and get it paid for. Also prepay your burial expenses, if at all possible. Otherwise, it will come out of your estate.
Cremation: If you are cremated, do you want your ashes placed in a grave, a vault, with a loved one? Do you want your ashes scattered? There are many places where it is illegal to scatter human remains. Keep it in mind. (I suspect these laws get violated on a regular basis.)
Liquefaction (aka alkaline hydrolysis): A more recent development, an alternative to cremation, uses chemicals to dissolve your soft tissue, leaving just the bones. They can be placed in something much smaller than a standard coffin. If the idea of your flesh being flushed through the local sewer system bothers you, don’t go this route. If co-mingling with the fishes and other aquatic life appeals to you, or you like doing something different, it may be just the thing! (Note: this is not legal everywhere.)
Donation: First, be sure to consider donating body parts to help the living. Perhaps you’d like to donate your body to science, or one of those Body! exhibits. Please be sure your loved ones are on board with this! It would not be nice to surprise them. Ditto for cryogenics.
Let’s face it, we now have entirely separate lives, lived out in the digital world. You need a plan for what will happen with all your digital assets.
Passwords: You will need an up-to-date list of passwords for your executor. Re-visit this regularly.
Computers and backups: What do you want done with all the information stored digitally that you have in your possession and backed-up in the Cloud?
Account access: Make sure you have a written authorization for someone to access your accounts after you are done with them.
Social media: Do you want someone to notify your online friends of your departing? In what way? Do you want your Facebook page to remain as a memorial or be zapped permanently? Leave instructions!
“For days after death, hair and fingernails continue to grow, but phone calls taper off.” – Johnny Carson
This applies to more than writers and family historians, but since that’s what I do, it will be my focus here.
I have generated reams of writing, and collected many documents, photos and such, pertaining to my genealogy research. Not everything coming out of my pen or keyboard deserves posterity. In fact, some of it I would definitely want destroyed upon my passing. But I do want to keep it around for personal use in the meantime. Hey, there might be some great essay material hidden in all those tedious, angst-ridden journals!
To-Be-Destroyed Box: I’m definitely putting one of these together. A digital one, too. Be sure to assign a trusted person to do the deed. But, please, do make sure someone will know where you buried the bodies.
Genealogy/Research: You should query your family members to see if anyone wants your research when you’re gone. Do YOU want them to have it? It might be good to find out if a library, genealogical society, historical society, or museum, would be better recipients. Decide what should go where and get it written down. Include it with your will. And be sure it is all organized, labeled, etc. No one wants a jumbled, undocumented, bolluxed-up mess to deal with.
“Once the game is over, the king and the pawn go back into the same box.” – Italian Proverb
I expect it to take a bit of time to get through my entire list, so I will schedule a Death Day once a quarter until it’s done. Because circumstances and technologies change, an annual review after that will be on the books.
“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” – Mark Twain
Note: I am not a lawyer and none of the above is intended as legal advice.
Peace and love to you all.