Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Decisons Your Loved Ones Don't Want To Make

August 25, 2003

Did you know that 40 to 50 decisions have to be made within 48 hours after a death? It is a gift for loved ones if the decedent has already made those decisions. Survivors are freed up to grieve the loss instead of being preoccupied with a myriad of details. Because of the raw or numbed emotions, decisions made within the first two weeks of a death are generally poorer than normal. The number of unmade decisions about the funeral overwhelmed and distracted grieving family members.

We are all terminal. Shauna Hannan, associate director of admissions at Luther Seminary in St. Paul MN, draws on her experience as a parish pastor. She gives workshops on the importance of preparing beforehand for an inevitable day in each of our lives. "We all are terminal."

The emotional benefits of preplanning. Hannan’s main message is that if these decisions are discussed and worked through ahead of death they will be in accordance with the desires of the deceased. It will also bring peace and contentment about the choices that were made with respect to family members and creates an opportunity to celebrate and grieve meaningfully for the life of the deceased.

If these decisions are left to the survivors, in addition to the sheer number of decisions, opportunities abound for disputes about what is right and appropriate. People’s emotions are keenly involved. Old rivalries will be present. More family disputes occur following a death than almost any other time. Hurts and bad memories may linger for years because of the way decisions were made.

The conversations about ultimate wishes bring into focus basic values and potentially can transform the way we live now and bring our lives more in tune with what we really care about.

Write them down. Decisions should be written down. If possible, prepay funeral expenses or have a designated life insurance policy pay for these expenses. This will relieve family members of the burden of having to worry about finances.

There are several workbooks for planning that are available at funeral homes or over the Internet. One favorite of Hannan is, "Let The Choice Be Mine," by Cathy Robertson. This booklet is available at www.funeralplanning1.com.

What are these 50 decisions?

- Living will? Power of attorney? Hospice care? Organ donation?

- Funeral home? Funeral Director? Embalming? Full funeral? Graveside service? Closed casket? Cremation? Cremation followed with a memorial service? Disposition of cremated remains?

- Choosing and purchasing a grave plot? In a mobile society, this is not always an easy choice. Earth burial or entombment above ground in a mausoleum? Grave marker? Inscriptions and designs? Paid for? Casket/vault selection? Outer burial receptacle at cemetery?

- Death certificate information? Veterans death benefits - information needed? List of survivors? General information - church affiliation, civic memberships, achievements, honors, military service, public or community service? Special talents, hobbies, interests, pets?

- Clothing? The task of choosing funeral attire is quite stressful for family. You choose. Hair style? Have a favorite hairdresser? Include the name and number. Have a photo of your choice. Make-up instructions - foundation color, lipstick color, eye shadow, rouge? Fingernail polish? Color? Perfume or aftershave? Jewelry? Many people prefer jewelry to be worn during visitation and funeral and then returned to specific individuals.

- Funeral service? Who will make arrangements on behalf of the family? Body present? No service? Location? Conducted by? Who gives the eulogy? Is there anything you wish to censor from the eulogy? Favorite scriptures, poems? Prayers? Favorite flowers? Preferred charities? Video tribute? Items for memorial table? Mementos? Photographs? Handicrafts? Organist? Pianist? Vocalists? Special music? Pallbearers? Honorary pallbearers? Luncheon and invitees?

- Location of important papers and information such as will, attorney, insurance papers and policy numbers, bank accounts - location and account numbers, safe deposit box, stocks, bonds. Be thorough about what others might need. A friend of mine has what he calls a "Just in case" file.

- Special messages to those you care about. Have these in a special booklet to be distributed. Disposition of special belongings not included in the will. Leave special messages to those you care about.

Write your own obituary. Make it interesting. Include special people, dates, activities, accomplishments, events, and other events important to you. Don’t make it a list of facts. Tell a story of your life. What do you want to be remembered for? What made you what you are? Your reflections will probably be the most treasured of your gifts. Which picture do you want to send to the newspaper? What other papers besides the local paper do you want your obituary to appear? Specify the disposition of special belongings.

- Compile a list of people to notify in the event of your death. The family may be unaware of who some of these people might be.

If you have complied all of this in a booklet form, sign it and have it witnessed and request that your wishes be carried out to the extent possible.

None of this is easy - for anyone. Just try going through this list. Now imagine your spouse or children being confronted with these decisions at a time when they are absorbing the finality of their loss. If you haven’t decided these things, how will they ever know what to do? Do them and yourself a favor by engaging in this life-giving activity.