It’s time for more hard conversations. This time we’re talking about life after death.
Back in January, I posted about the death of a friend and asked readers to start thinking about and planning for the end of their lives. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has probably caused lots of people to consider their end-of-life care. I hope they’ve been able to have those hard conversations face to face, not separated by masks or quarantine barriers in hospitals.
The other day, a friend on Twitter talked about the sudden death of her husband, and how she and her kids were able to survive those first few hours and days and weeks. She talked about the decisions she had to make, like disconnecting life support, choosing his burial clothing, his casket, his vault, and even whether to bury or cremate. She lamented about having to consider reserving the plot next to her husband at age 37. If you haven’t been around death, or haven’t had to deal with those questions before, it can be absolutely overwhelming to do it the first time when you’re in the middle of grieving.
I talked in that previous post about end-of-life decisions, and of making your loved ones aware of your wishes, and equipping them to carry out those wishes. Now I want to talk about what happens after those decisions have been made. What happens after you die?
My parents had the foresight to have set up a revocable trust to handle their estate. Their finances were sort-of complicated, and Dad wanted to make sure whoever survived didn’t have to worry about how to handle things. But when my dad died suddenly twenty-six years ago on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, we realized we didn’t know the answer to a very pertinent question. Where was the key to the safety-deposit box?
You see, he’d kept his copy of the will and codicils in a safety deposit box, along with several other documents that would come in very handy over the next few weeks. But no one could remember where the blasted key was. Yes, we could have had the lock drilled if we’d needed to, but it would have cost a hundred bucks or so, and back in 1994, a hundred bucks was a pretty steep fee. It took us several hours of searching over the next four days to find that key, during which time I found both his cigar and chocolate stashes.
My dad was a veteran of World War II, and so was entitled to receive a flag to drape the casket and a two-man detail at the cemetery (we declined the latter). But to verify his eligibility, we needed a copy of his discharge document, which wasn’t immediately available. I seem to remember that turning up while we were searching for the key, but we shouldn’t have had to spend time looking for the key. It added stress to a time that was already pretty stressful as it was. So allow me to make a few suggestions that might make that time easier for you or your family.
Document, Document, Document
That’s a common refrain for cops: if you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. So to avoid making my kids go through what I did when my dad died, I’ve written a bunch of stuff down. I have a folder in my Dropbox account called “Important Stuff.” It’s got scans of my DD 214, my VA disability letter, and a few other documents that will come in handy when I kick off.
It’s also got a Word document called “Stuff You Need to Know,” broken up into five headings: Funeral Stuff; Net Stuff; Ravensbeak Domain; Writing; and Family Stuff. Let’s take a look at what’s where.
Funeral Stuff is just what it sounds like. I talk about what funeral home to use, what I want done with my body, and what songs I’d like to be played. I offer some notes about my obituary, because there are certain things I want emphasized. There are no rules on obituaries, by the way. Have fun with them! But please make sure the facts you list are really correct. Genealogists make great use of obits to verify things they’ve found elsewhere, and to give them tips pointing to other facts. The last part of that section is information about how to contact people. Now that I think about it, I should probably list actual addresses and phone numbers there.
Net Stuff has a list of online forums where I’m active so that my family can let those people know what’s happened. I started that list after reading a forum post about a member who’d died months prior. After reading the condolence cards and letters after my parents’ funerals, I realized that the family would have liked to have read all of those comments. I also realized as a forum member that it gave us a chance to grieve rather than wondering what happened to so-and-so.
That section also has the master password to my Lastpass password manager. That way my family doesn’t have to go through all of the challenges involved with forgotten passwords. I highly recommend using a password manager, and Lastpass is very easy to use.
Ravensbeak Domain tells my family how I’m running the domains that I keep running, like this site and our family site. Ravensbeak also hosts my genealogy site and a mystery writers forum. It’s got a quick primer on what they’ll need to know to keep things running.
Writing gives an overview of books I’ve written, books I’ve got planned, and books in progress. If I get around to setting up a literary trustee, that information will go here as well. I probably don’t have enough books done to consider a literary trustee, but I hope I’m around long enough to do so.
Family Stuff is extra information about things that didn’t really fit anywhere else.
What Else Goes Here?
You don’t have to set up your own document this way. I’ve got sections in mine that most people probably don’t need to have. You may need a section that I don’t need. But you really need to have a document like this.
What do you need to have in yours? Any of the important stuff. (smile)
Do you have a will? Where is it? What law firm did you use? I hang out at /r/legaladvice, and regularly see posts saying, “My family member just died and we don’t know where the will is.” Make a note in this file about who did your will, and where your copy is if you have one.
Are you the one who handles the money in your family? Does your significant other know about all of your bank accounts and insurance policies? Do they know all of the passwords and security questions regarding those accounts?
Take an afternoon and look at your life from the outside. Can you picture yourself or your spouse six months after you die, throwing up their hands and saying, “I just don’t know. They handled all of that for me?” That’s the kind of info you need here.
Where do you keep it?
If you keep it in a safety deposit box, make sure everyone knows where the key is!
It doesn’t even have to be on the computer, although mine is in two places. The digital (and most recent) version lives on the computer, but I also print it out every so often and put it in the folder that contains our trust information. My wife and I set up a revocable trust several years ago, and they gave us a binder to keep our copies of documents related to it. All of the kids know where it is and what they need to do if we both die suddenly.
And just like your estate planning, this isn’t necessarily a set-it-and-forget-it thing. For example, my religious views have changed rather drastically from eleven years ago when I first created my document, so I’ve made the appropriate changes in the funeral section. You should review it at least once a year, just as you review your estate planning and insurance policies.
You do review that stuff, don’t you?
Tell The Stories
There were dozens, if not hundreds, of stories lost to the ether when Dad collapsed that afternoon. I’m sure he didn’t expect to have a massive MI that day, and that he thought he’d have years to pass on the stories behind all of the stuff we’d brought back from his childhood home. I’ll probably talk about this more in depth in another post, but I really want to encourage you to start writing down stories about your childhood. Even if your kids don’t want to hear them right now, I can almost guarantee that when you’re gone, they’ll appreciate hearing those stories, especially if they’re in a form they can share.
Everyone’s going to die. Do what you can to make it easier on the people who are left behind.
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