A sad, but unavoidable fact of life is that none of us will live forever.
While many people prefer to not think about their eventual demise, (and put off even writing a basic legal will for their estate), an increasing number of people wish to have a say in how their final send-off will happen – their “last hurrah.”
There are many choices that are available in today’s society. Do you want a traditional funeral in a stately church and burial in a particular cemetery, or a low-key memorial service on a beach with your ashes scattered in the ocean? Perhaps you want your body to be donated to a medical school so that you can help train the next generation of doctors?
It can be difficult to discuss your own post-death wishes with your family, and even more difficult to start the conversation with an ill or elderly loved one. Planning a funeral or memorial service and body disposition in advance may seem morbid, but it can give people a sense of control over their own destiny. Funeral and memorial service planning also relieves families from the pressure of making tough decisions when the end comes.
We will give you tips on how to start a conversation about post-death wishes and the types of issues that should be discussed.
Nobody knows your family like you do. Assess whether the direct approach or an indirect approach is the best way to start the conversation. The direct approach is literally starting a discussion with a statement like: “I’ve been thinking about planning my memorial service, and I would like to discuss it with you. Can we talk about it next Tuesday evening?” The direct approach works best with families that prefer to speak frankly and are highly practical. By scheduling an appointment to have the conversation, you are giving your family members time to prepare themselves mentally. You may even request a formal gathering of all adult family members.
In other families an indirect approach (where the topic of post-death wishes is weaved into casual conversation) works best. You can create opportunities to have this conversation by first mentioning someone’s death and subsequent funeral or memorial service. It can be someone that you know that has recently died, or somebody in the news, or somebody who died on a TV show.
After the general topic of death has been raised, ask open-ended questions like “Have you ever thought about where you would like to be buried?” or “What type of funeral would you want?” After you have had the opportunity to hear what their wishes are, you are able to share your own thoughts and wishes.
Whether you take the direct approach or the indirect approach, you may have family members that get upset and resist having the conversation. (After all, you are wonderful, so the thought of having to live without you is unimaginable.) Reassure your loved ones that you are not trying to upset them and that you only want to have the conversation because you love them very much. You do not want them to be burdened with having to make difficult decisions about your funeral or memorial service and about your final resting place. Planning ahead is an expression of your love.
It goes without saying that having a conversation about your post-death wishes will be much easier to have if death is not an imminent possibility. Therefore, it is best to have this important conversation with your family when you are still in good health. However, if you are already in poor health, it is not too late to have the conversation. Choose a quiet time when your family members aren’t distracted. Be prepared for tears. Again, reassure them that you want to do as much as possible to make life as easy as possible for them during the difficult time you foresee coming.
Not only is it important to share your funeral wishes with your loved ones, it is also important to encourage loved ones to share their wishes with you. Again, it is easier to broach this topic when everybody is in good health. It can be extremely stressful when you are mourning the loss of a loved one to try and figure out what they would have wanted for their final arrangements.
If, on the other hand, you know what their wishes are, it relieves you of the burden of making these important decisions. You can take comfort in knowing that you have fulfilled their last wishes.
When you are encouraging your loved ones to discuss their wishes with you, all of the advice provided above also applies here. Consider whether a direct or indirect approach is best. Create opportunities for discussion. Be gentle and reassuring should your loved one find the discussion upsetting.
Despite your best efforts, your loved one may not be prepared to discuss anything that reminds them of their own mortality, especially if they are dying. In this case, do not force the issue. In these instances, talking about their wishes for their death can be exceptionally difficult. The threat of death is imminent. Speaking about their death may seem to them like a form of abandonment, that you have lost hope in a miracle. Your own emotions of sadness, anger and anxiety might make the words too difficult to say.
It is possible that your loved one will have a change of heart as death approaches and wish to talk about their post-death wishes. You should always be alert for subtle cues that he or she now wishes to discuss this painful topic.
But the possibility exists that he or she will never be ready for this discussion. In this case, all you can do once he or she has passed away is make the best arrangements that you can and let go of any anxiety that you could be making the wrong decisions. Also talking to family members and friends may help you piece together a plan that makes sense, given the personality, beliefs and values of the person that passed away.