Your Funeral – Your Way – Your Last Wishes
Thus far, in all of human history, only two people have escaped death – Enoch and Elijah in the Bible. You and I? We WILL die eventually. Nevertheless, death is one of those topics that is seldom discussed, in relation to yourself or the one you are talking to. But wouldn’t it be comforting to know, when the day comes, that your wishes have been stated, written down, and will be respected and followed?
It can be a difficult conversation – unless you start it and it’s about you. Then, perhaps, you can continue the conversation and include that elderly person you’d like to have the discussion with, as well.
There is really nothing morbid about thinking about and discussing mortality and final wishes. Death is a natural progression of life. Talking about it can be awkward at first but, in the end, the resulting conversation will relieve family members of a lot of pressure and the making of tough decisions on the spur of the moment. Talking about death is a GOOD thing.
Step 1: Talk About Your Final Wishes With Your Family
You know your family. The first thing you need to determine is whether facing the subject of final wishes should be directly approached or something a bit more nuanced.
If your family is a ‘no nonsense’ kind of family, you may want to simply broach the subject directly: “I’ve been thinking about my memorial service when I die. I’d like to sit down with all of you in the near future to talk about it, let you know what I’m thinking, and get some of your input. When can we all get together?”
It is usually better to say ‘let’s get together soon’ rather than ‘let’s talk about it now’ in that allowing your family members to think about it a bit and process the whole idea of you dying and having specific wishes.
But some families don’t work that way. For some, it is necessary to approach the subject more casually and to bring it up in the course of talking about other things – such as the death of someone you know and the beauty (or lack of) of their funeral or memorial service. “You know, I really liked the way their service flowed and the music and the eulogies. Let me tell you what I’d like at my funeral or memorial service…” Hopefully, this more casual approach – and more natural in some ways, will allow people to talk and listen to your wishes and have input.
Once the subject is in the open, it is much easier to let them know where you want to be buried, what you want to service to look like, whom you want to give a eulogy (or perhaps several eulogies), what music you’d like, what poems or scriptural passages you’d like read. It can be as detailed and specific as you want. You could even broaden it by asking them “What kind of funeral would you want?... Let me tell you what I want…”
With either approach, there very well may be family members who are upset or uncomfortable and will not want to talk about it. Our culture is so death-talk averse, that this would not be uncommon. The very thought of you dying is unthinkable and, most certainly, unmentionable.
Let them know that you aren’t trying to upset them but that, if they are honest, they know that you WILL die – everyone does – and that wisdom says making preparation and letting people know your final wishes is the only way those wishes can be honored. Reassure them that you aren’t planning to die any time soon – you want to talk about these thing because you love them and want them to not be overwhelmed with indecision when the time comes.
If the topic is so odious that it cannot be discussed openly, we would suggest that you write out your wishes and enclose them in a clearly marked envelope. Tell someone in the family (if not everyone) that you have done this and where the envelope is.
Talking about it is preferable, but if uncomfortable conversation is not an option, having it written out is a good alternative.
Obviously, any of the three approaches – direct, indirect, or writing it out – is much easier if your death is not imminent. These things should be decided well ahead of need.
However, if your health or prognosis is not good, it is still not too late to discuss final wishes issues. It will just be considerably more emotional. Hopefully family members will be able to take part in these discussions and not use their denial as armor against talking about them.
Step 2: Try to Get Agreement on Your Final Wishes
The person or persons responsible for making funeral or memorial decisions when you die are under no legal obligation to do as instructed. THEY are the makers of all final decisions and, of course, you can do nothing about it. Come to agreement on what you want. That really is the only way your final wishes will happen.
In addition, if your family hasn’t agreed on what you want, it is not uncommon for family disputes to happen when you pass. One child may want you buried in their locale, another in theirs. YOUR final wishes need to be known and agreed upon by all.
If you have a Legal Will (which is a good idea for many reasons, including minimizing estate taxes), ensure that your executor understands and agrees with your final wishes.
You can, of course, make your final wishes legal by including them in your will. The down side to that is the fact that often the will is not even opened until after the funeral or memorial service so those wishes may not be know until too late.
Step 3: Create a “Final Wishes” File and Let Everyone Know Where it is
Even if you have discussed your final wishes, it is a true gift to your family to have those wishes written out in as much detail as you’d like. It will quell arguments. It will relieve stress. It will give a sense of confidence that family is honoring you in the best way possible.
The first document in the file should be your ‘Last Will and Testament.’
The funeral director may ask that your estate executor give evidence that he/she has the authority to make decisions about your funeral or memorial service. This is usually not necessary unless there seems to be some kind of family dispute about who makes those ‘final wish’ decisions, but it does happen. Your will should spell this out clearly so there is no doubt.
Your file should contain an entire checklist of your final wishes. At a minimum, it should outline your wishes for:
You can get as specific as you want in your final wishes documents. You can include items such as:
Step 4: Encourage Your Loved Ones to Discuss Their Final Wishes
People die. Often unexpectedly. You want to make your final wishes known, but you may well not be the next in your family to die. While you are discussing YOUR last wishes, open up the discussion to include everyone’s. Not everyone will be as intentional as you, but getting these things on the table may be very helpful to family members down the road. ‘Remember what mom said she wanted at her funeral when grandma brought up the subject? Let’s do that.’
Discussing Final Wishes With a Terminally-Ill Loved One
Terminal illness is emotionally devastating for most people. Your loved one may not want to discuss anything about their mortality. Let it go… Allow them NOT to talk about it.
It is possible that your loved one will, as death approaches, be ready to talk about their last wishes. Be alert for subtle cues. Never force it. It is possible that they will never be ready to talk about what they want. That’s OK.
In this case, when you have to make decisions after they die, you cannot make wrong decisions. You simply do what you believe would be respectful of their life.
Family members and friends may be able to help you piece together a plan that makes sense, given their personality, beliefs and values.
Steve Schafer is the founder of TheEulogyWriters and is probably the most prolific eulogy writer (and, no doubt, the best) anywhere. He lives in Michigan and has been writing eulogies for well over thirty years. The articles in this blog are designed to help people through the process of losing loved ones.