You’d be surprised how many decisions there are to make -- in a hurry -- when someone dies. Let’s make our choices now, while we can!
When I first asked my dad if he had any thoughts on what he wanted to happen after he died, he brushed me off. “I don’t think it’s time to talk about that,” he said.
Keeping in mind that he had terminal cancer at the time, I pressed a little bit.
“Well, we need to know eventually. Have you thought about whether you want to be buried or cremated?” I kind of cringe writing this. It seems insensitive.
But I knew we would soon be planning a funeral (or memorial, or “something”) and I wanted his input. If he had any “final wishes”, I wanted to honor them.
Final wishes explain in a simple, non-legally-binding document what you would like to happen after you die. This includes information about what you'd like to happen to your body, about how, where and with whom you'd like your memory to be celebrated.
What would you like to happen when you die? (And no, you cannot answer "I don't care, I'm not going to be there!")
There are four big categories of decisions to make:
Decide what should happen to your body
Decisions cascade and trigger other decisions, so start with the basics. What should happen to your body?
For example, do you want to:
- Donate your body, tissues, or organs to science?
- Be buried or cremated?
- Buy your burial plot, tomb, or memorial site ahead of time?
In the end, even after several conversations, my dad gave very little guidance beyond what should happen to his body. He had a few specific preferences and then released us to handle the rest. That was really helpful.
We made sure the few things he cared about were covered and then made the rest of the choices unencumbered by doubt.
Decide how you’d like to be remembered
Next, give some thought to how you’d like to be remembered.
For example, do you want to:
- Observe your religion’s mourning events?
- Have your death announced? (If so, where and how?)
- Have a memorial service or funeral held in your honor?
If you have a Life in Motion Guide, use the Final Wishes section to think through and draft your answers.
If you choose to create your own document, use the checklist below to learn what you should include.
Final Wishes Checklist
This printable PDF contains a checklist to help get your final wishes organized.
Decide how to pay for things
If you can set aside some money or pre-pay for the disposition of your body, that would be really nice, because this can get expensive!
According to statistics from the National Funeral Directors Association, the median cost of a funeral with viewing and burial was $8,755 in 2017. A funeral with viewing and cremation averaged $6,260.
And these amounts do not include the cost of the cemetery plot, monument or marker costs or miscellaneous charges, such as for flowers or an obituary!
Direct cremation costs average $1,500 - $3,000. (Direct cremation is a simple cremation without a viewing or ceremony.)
Plan ahead for these expenses. You can create a bank account and designate it as "payable on death" to a designated beneficiary. (Sometimes this is called a "transfer on death" or TOD beneficiary account.)
If you choose to prepay, beware of potential pitfalls. It may be better to plan, but not pay in advance, for funeral expenses (especially if you expect to have a long time horizon.)
Trust, but Verify
Always consult with an attorney for the most up-to-date advice. The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and it is not a substitute for legal advice.
Decide what should happen to your stuff
Finally, create a will or trust to ensure that property passes according to your wishes in the event of your death. These legally-binding documents also designate a person, called an executor (or trustee), to settle your affairs.
If you want to know the difference between an will and a trust, see this introduction to wills, trusts, and common estate planning questions, from the American Bar Association.
If you need to find an estate planning attorney, see these 7 suggestions from The Balance, which do NOT include asking your friends and family. They also have a nice article on how to interview potential attorneys once you've identified a few.