Hey, It's Your Funeral

You Don't Have to Be at Death's Door to Do A Little Planning for Your Final Farewell

By Dan Zak

Sunday, February 24, 2008; N01

If you watch cable television regularly, you may catch "Beetlejuice" on TBS or TNT. You remember: Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis play a young couple who perish when their car veers off a covered bridge into a creek bed. They are transformed into ghosts and deposited back in their home, where they are confronted with a copy of "The Handbook for the Recently Deceased." Handy!

But what about a handbook on this side of the mortality line? What about a guide for the not-yet-deceased-but-could-go-at-any-minute-without-warning? And we can go any minute. Choking on our roast beef, driving to or from work or simply dropping dead. Unlike the Baldwin and Davis characters, we can't haunt or communicate with our friends and families. So they are left to deal with a mess of personal effects and life's half-completed projects, e-mail and bank accounts with unknown passwords, and doubts about what to do with our bodies and legacies. In the wake of our deaths, we leave an incomplete puzzle whose pieces may be forever missing.

If you find that scenario less than appealing, there are simple things you can do to get things in order just in case. But many people don't know where to start -- or don't even want to start.

"Regardless of how educated or experienced most people are, most of us don't know much of anything truthful about death, dying, funerals and how to go about doing it," says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonsectarian nonprofit advocacy group based in South Burlington, Vt.

Slocum started working for the alliance at the decidedly above-ground age of 28, a full 50 years away from the average American death. Why? The funeral industry is fascinating, he says. It's an understudied segment of the economy, sometimes rife with fraud and always bound to intense emotions. Dealing with some particulars before you die will make it that much easier for family and friends to navigate the stressful waters of bereavement.

"Young people think they're never going to die," Slocum says. "I'm 33, and I could walk in front of a bus tomorrow, but my family knows exactly what I'd like."

Planning your last affairs is not necessarily a happy task to think about, but sometimes circumstances throw your mortality into sharp relief. In the summer of 2004, Susan Daughtry Fawcett, then 23, was working as a chaplain in the emergency ward of Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg. It was a hard summer punctuated by tragedies, despair and the grace required to work through both. Because of that experience, she sat down and planned her funeral, picked hymns and readings, and left a list of songs that should be put on CDs for close friends. Now she regularly sees her parishioners dealing with the loose ends that unfurl upon a loved one's death.

"Having thought about these things ahead of time is incredibly helpful," says Fawcett, an Episcopal priest in Vienna. "It's a huge gift to your family." More important, she says, we all might benefit from a little more understanding of our own mortality, since the idea of death is normally confined to hospital rooms and nursing homes.

Well, death can't hide from us. Here, we talk about the bare bones of the big checkout: what you need to do today to get your affairs in order (even if you're a vigorous 24-year-old), how to make sure that your funeral wishes are carried out, and what some of our readers are thinking about their send-offs.

Create an end-of-life planning kit. Include everything personal about you, from the simple (name and Social Security number) to the more complex (your pet's veterinarian, your funeral wishes, whether you want to be an organ donor, the locations of important documents).

A fill-in-the-blank 20-page kit titled "Before I Go, You Should Know" is available for $10 through the Funeral Consumers Alliance ( http://www.funerals.org). It comes in a transparent blue case with state-specific forms for a living will, which gives instructions on how you should be cared for in the event of your incapacitation, and durable power of attorney, which designates a person in charge of pulling (or not pulling) the plug. These are arguably the most important official documents to have completed at any point in your life, and it can be rendered official without a lawyer. All you need are witnesses and, depending on your state, a quick notarization.

"Whether you get it from us or make your own, I don't care," Slocum says. "As long as you do it."

Don't put the kit in a safe-deposit box; sometimes such a holding cannot be legally accessed until after burial. Instead, put it in a secure place at home. Slocum recommends the freezer, which is sometimes the only thing that survives a house fire. Plus, the association's kit comes with a magnet to put on the fridge that says, "Matters of life and death inside."

Draw up an ethical will. While a last will and testament details how assets are distributed, an ethical will covers everything intangible. It's an ancient practice dating back 3,000 years and mentioned in the Book of Genesis. The will may be an autobiography or self-composed obituary, or a letter from a parent to a child, an apology, or simply an essay or list explaining your thoughts on life and what you'd like to be remembered for. It's a blank slate on which you can compose anything not covered in a regular will or the end-of-life planning kit.

"It's about 'If I weren't here tomorrow, what would I want my loved ones to know?' " says Karen Russell, executive director of National Grief Support Services in California. "It's a very reflective process, too, because it allows people to really think about what is important."

Pick a trusted family member or friend to act as your agent. It will be this person's job to retrieve the end-of-life planning kit and ensure your directives are followed. If you are young and unmarried and die today, this duty automatically falls to your parents or guardian. Note that picking someone to carry out your wishes is different from naming an executor of an estate, who has a legal directive to deal with assets and money. Planning kits and ethical wills are not binding contracts but can serve as legitimate guidelines for families if there is no disagreement.

Know the legal issues. Understand what is and is not required at the time of death. Your postmortem options depend on where you live. In most states, embalming is not required, and your family need not go through a funeral home. Families can file the death certificate themselves, hold a funeral at home and transport your remains to an appropriate resting spot without intermediaries. This depends on your state's right-to-disposition laws, which govern who is able to deal with your body.

In the District, Maryland and Virginia, you have the right to designate an agent to make decisions about your body, and written directions for its disposition supersede any other party's wishes. For a rundown of laws by state, visit http://www.funerals.org and select "Personal Preference & Designated Agent Laws."

Explore your options, and don't feel limited. New send-off methods are starting to usurp the traditions of an open-casket wake and coffin burial. America is on the edge of redefining death care, according to Mark Harris, author of "Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial" (Scribner, 2007), which follows a dozen families as they carve out their own paths to a green funeral and burial.

"You've got baby boomers leading a do-it-yourself, environmentally friendly view toward life," Harris says. "They've been extremely self-reflective, they ushered in the natural child birth movement, they wrote their own wedding vows and are now bringing that same consciousness to end-of-life issues."

Harris has met people who have built their own caskets, chosen to be buried as part of coral reefs or in natural cemeteries, or had their families personally deliver their bodies to the crematory. For those who want to keep a funeral within the family, he recommends Lisa Carlson's "Caring for the Dead" (Upper Access, 1998), a book about making arrangements with or without a funeral director. Exploring these options is about maintaining a sense of control over the process.

"A natural burial speaks to old-fashioned American values of thrift and simplicity, of love and respect for family, a desire to do things yourself and a respect for traditions since this is the way we used to bury people," Harris says.

Long story short: If you want to be shrouded and thrown directly in the ground as Wagner plays on a boombox, make sure you put that in words as soon as possible. Today may be your last chance to compose your final communication with the living. Or if you're a gambler, you can just hope to come across "The Handbook for the Recently Deceased" in those first postmortem hours.