Looking ahead: Issues of Life and death-Part I

Candle with FlamesMay I put a serious matter before you?–regardless of your age or household size. It’s an important discussion that should not
be ignored. Still, people often avoid talking about it.  I’ve seen some sad repercussions because people failed to address or realize this fact of life–usually at a cost to loved ones. How we handle major issues impact lives more so than lesser ones.

Dying is one such issue. As part of living, 100 % of us can count upon the grim reaper’s intrusion with family or friends at one time or another. Death’s arrival, whether  fast or with lingering illness, always brings sadness and varying degrees of grief for those left behind.

Thus two aspects in which I’d like to pass on some practical advice —our plans and general funeral etiquette. Etiquette supplies excellent guidelines about respectful consolation.  The proper expressions of sympathy provide good support and comfort to surviving friends or family members.
In this post I’ll talk about the first aspect with some simple steps we can take, beyond our “last will and testament” to help those who will survive us.

Responsible and considerate planning, complete with our written preferences, makes mourning and loss easier for surviving members who must deal with a myriad of funeral arrangements during a state of grief.  Death has a nasty way of crashing life’s party.

For Christians, death’s eternal sting is removed, but still there’s much hurt. How we answer the door when death knocks matters.  So does planning for our own demise in a way that helps our loved ones.  I’m not talking about a gloomy over-preoccupation with the subject, but realistic (and thoughtful) common sense while we are healthy and clear headed. Where we plan ahead and pave the way for those left behind. This is not morbid stuff—it’s responsible and realistic with a true concern for those we love. With that it mind, here are a few specifics:
If you prefer a certain type of funeral or special location, say so–in writing. Generally, funeral services are times to honor the deceased and laying the empty body “to rest”.  Funerals may also serve as personalized memorials (often the body is not present at a memorial). Most funeral directors and clergy have excellent suggestions for actual arrangements and protocol, but stating your preferences in advance eases the decision making burden when death visits  a family.

Your loved ones will appreciate any expressed preferences or advance prepartions you’ve made.

Expressions of mourning differ as much as individuals.  This is because mourning affects different people differently. Some people feel numb, some spring into action. Some people weep heartily while others do not, but in all, grief remains a heavy weight that clouds the mind and encompasses emotions. It’s a time when feelings are easily hurt and misunderstandings can happen. That’s why any thoughtful advance preparation and planning greatly aids the survivors who must make funeral arrangements in a state of grief as well as tend to legal and estate affairs. At such times, written instructions  from the deceased are a welcome comfort.

I appreciate that my parents, years ago, thoughtfully put into place their own funeral plans. They have purchased and paid for their “resting place”. Their preparations will eliminate that decision on our parts as their children. They followed traditional advice that every household should have an “in case of emergency” file in a safe place with  lists of special requests, preferences, copies of deeds to burial plots, birth certificates, coopies of life insurance papers, financial, titltes, and legal information including bank account numbers, and a list of all kin, close friends, co-workers and attorney to be notified in case of death.  A copy of the “will” is a must.  So is a health directive.  Family hisotry, photos, a brief biography with personal highlights proves helpful for death notices. (Originals of legal documents should be kept in a separate fireproof file or safety deposit box). Of course, family members should know where this file is kept.

These practical preparations lighten the surviving family’s load by removing stressful hunts for information and reduces deliberations over multiple details. Young families with children should indicate, in writing, (preferably in their will) the names(s) of who they prefer and appoint as guardian of their children in case something happens to both parents.

Having these details in place grants peace of mind and provides necessary future directions to your family members.  I remember when our children were small, my husband and I were flying over hot, dry Death Valley in a small plane with several friends.  The plane’s engine began to sputter and jerk with mechanical problems.  Not a good feeling as we began to lose altitude.  I had two thoughts while my husband calmly sought to navigate us to a safe landing—“do we have enough drinking water if we survive a crash and who will care for our children if die?”  Our will was much too general in this last regard.

Advance bequeathals bring mixed reactions, but are something to consider. About ten years ago, my mom requested that each of her adult children specify sentimental items in the family home that we would most like when she died. She planned to discreetly tape our names to the items!   I admit that at the time I didn’t like her directness, but she was preparing and planning realistically for the future and I was not.  Because she knew I was uncomfortable with her straight approach ( and the idea of her house filled with name tags) several years thereafter she included in my birthday presents some of her favorite items that I wouldn’t let her “tag and tape”.

Recently, my now ailing mother has updated and shared her requests of favorite music and psalms to include for her funeral. She also delights in my use of her ruby goblets and several other cherished objects from childhood memories.

In a similar way, a dear friend, who died after a long fight with cancer,  planned his memorial service together with his sons.  His forward thinking courage in the face of suffering made for one of the most personalized and meaningful funerals I have ever attended. His faith and courage strengthened his family—and friends.  His preparations helped his family realistically grasp their inevitable earthly loss. Not everyone is up to this, but I think it helped his family greatly. They lovingly implemented his requests in a personalized memorial that honored this beloved man’s life.

Funerals may certainly include personal touches—and many times surviving loved ones don’t know personal preferences.  One friend indicated that she wanted her burial attire to include a favorite pair of ruffled anklet socks—whoever would have guessed it if she had not specified such a thing. She had her reasons and it brought a smile to our faces, and to her children, to see this request honored. Her white “girlie” socks were a sweet personalized request granted by her family eager to honor her wishes.

Every family, including “just married” and “single “households, should have “in case of emergency plans” with important legal and business records, vital information, and personal preferences (in writing) in a safe place.  It’s a responsible gesture that makes the loss of a loved one a bit easier. It’s a thoughtful protocol that matters.

As we enter 2009 may your “emergency plans” gather much dust and your lives be filled with peace and happiness.

1 thought on “Looking ahead: Issues of Life and death-Part I

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      Hi Sandi,

      I came looking for anything you may have written on funeral etiquette, and there it was right at the top! Thanks so much! Do you have any thoughts on the post-funeral meal or wake? Where it should be, who is invited, what kind of food should be served? I would appreciate any more info you have.

      Thanks again,

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