Estates 101: Decisions, Decisions

Strictly speaking, this entry in our series isn’t about estates.  It’s about things that are harder to quantify and to legislate.  But it fits the general theme of “things you should know when, or preferably before, someone close to you dies.”

This article is going to be the heaviest of the series, both in length and in emotional content.  Brace yourself.  Grab some caffeine.

If you’ve never been the person chiefly responsible for planning a funeral, as I (mercifully) was not until I was 41 years old, you may be astounded at how many decisions have to be made — on short notice, while you’re in a state of grief, and when you’re doing your best to know what your loved one would have wanted.  NO PRESSURE.

If you take the time to plan many of these things for your own funeral, and discuss them with your family in advance, it really can make a difference.  I had to make a lot of decisions, and as usual my wife was amazing and gave me sound input when I was flailing about something, but there were a number of important points on which my mom had given me clear instructions.  The worst week of my life could have been even worse.

Autopsy. If a crime is suspected or known to have occurred, an autopsy may be conducted at the discretion of law enforcement (at no charge to the family) whether the family allows it or not.  If you suspect that medical malpractice or misadventure has claimed the life of a loved one, you can request an autopsy be performed to provide additional documentation and evidence of the deceased’s condition.  Some hospitals, especially teaching hospitals, will perform autopsies free of charge on persons who died there; others will charge several thousand dollars for the service.  It is possible to have a body transported from the hospital of death to a facility which does autopsies for hire; this may run in the three to five thousand dollar range.

Pets.  What happens to your pets if you die?  Who gets them?  Don’t leave them to someone seriously allergic to them (even if you hate the human, don’t do that to the pet).  Make sure your family or trusted neighbor knows how to take care of them — and knows that they’re supposed to — until their new forever-parent comes to take custody of them.  Make sure your family or trusted neighbors have keys to your house so they can do so.

Religious considerations. If the deceased was a follower of a religion and you wish to honor their beliefs in their funerary arrangements, make sure you understand the requirements.  Embalming or cremation may or may not be permitted.  In Islam, for example, they’re not.

Islam is a good example for me to use here, because it has a number of other requirements which would surprise the average non-Muslim American or European.  The person’s body, not embalmed, should be washed by family members of the same gender, wrapped in a plain cloth, and buried with the grave and body oriented so that the person lays on their right side and faces Mecca — and all this should happen preferably in a day or two at most!  (And this can be particularly painful and difficult for the family if the Muslim is very far from home, say on another continent, because these requirements mean they should be buried near where they die, not where they lived.)

So if your loved one is of a religion you do not understand well, and particularly if they lack a solid community of their co-religionists in their area, you have an even greater need to discuss plans with them in advance and do some research to know what can be done.

But depending on the religion and the general community, you may still have many decisions left to you.

Handling of the remains. Do you (or did your loved one) want to be buried?  Have their organs donated? Their whole body donated to a medical or forensic school or research facility?  Did they want to be cremated?  If so, what should be done with the ashes?  Put in an urn on your mantle?  Buried?  Scattered?  If so, where?  Is that legal in the location desired?

There are other options available: environment-friendly “green burial”; there’s having precious stones made from the cremated remains; and then there’s the traditional Tibetan and Zoroastrian ways of disposing of the remains (allowing vultures to devour the flesh), which is not even legal in most of the Western world.  Do some research.

Limitations due to cause and manner of death.  Depending on how the person died, you may not be able to fulfill all their wishes (especially organ donations or viewings).  If the person died in a suspected crime, there may be an autopsy or other legal impediments which hold up the proceedings.  In such extreme situations, you may have to decide to hold the funeral service, wake, etc. in the absence of the actual body.  You probably don’t want to wait too long to have the funeral, as it’s very helpful for everyone’s sense of closure and grieving process, but if waiting a few extra days will allow you to have the body, perhaps in your community that’s the right thing to do.

Delays due to family distance. If there is no religious requirement for a quick burial (as there is in Islam), and there are family who have to travel from far, you may want to see what you can do about waiting another few days.  If viewings need to be held for a prolonged period, discuss feasibility with the funeral director.

Funeral and burial clothing.  If there is a religious requirement, that makes the decisions easier: the plain (often white) Islamic burial shroud (kafan), the Jewish tallit (prayer shawl), etc. but you should still ensure that the garment is either already purchased or is readily available with the money the family is likely to have immediately at the time of death.

If there is flexibility, you should know what the deceased wishes to be buried (and viewed, if there’s a viewing) in.  We did not know, and so we chose one of my mother’s finest white dresses.  I’m comfortable with the choice, but again, it would have been one less thing for us to fret about that week.  My wife’s family did not have to make this decision when her grandmother died; she had a terminal illness, and had chosen two specific outfits, and said she was to be buried in one or the other, depending on what the season was when she passed.

Funeral jewelry.  Jewelry is similar to clothing, but with one extra complication: The person may wish to be wearing certain jewelry while being viewed, but they may want the jewelry removed at the end of the viewing and given to loved ones, or they may want some piece of jewelry (most often, an engagement or wedding ring) to be with them when they are laid to rest.  Work this out clearly in advance, and make sure the jewelry is in an easy-to-find place when the sad day comes.

Any other objects to be buried with the deceased.  Maybe they have a favorite teddy bear from their childhood (or, heaven forbid, they still are a child).  Maybe they have a favorite photo of a loved one, or some other small token they would like to take with them, to the extent that anyone can take anything “with” them.

Objects donated by friends.  Friends may ask if they can tuck something into the coffin as well.  You should have a pretty clear and, if possible, consistent set of guidelines for this.  Perhaps you deny all such requests.  Perhaps you permit only family, or some representative of the congregation leaving something on behalf of everyone.

Funerary rites. What religious rites, if any, would the deceased like to be observed?  Should there be a viewing of the body?  Is the funeral to take place entirely at the funeral home, or at a house of worship?  If at a house of worship, is it available on short notice?  What hymns should be sung?  By whom?  If multiple clergypersons are available, is there a preference?  Flowers for the viewing?  For the service?  What pay is expected for singers and clergy?  If there are pallbearers, who are they?

Backups. If you’re planning your funeral arrangements, I also recommend nominating some backup pallbearers or clergy in the unlikely event urgent family or business matters prevent one of the designated ones from making it.  No, really.  It has happened.  If you care about who performs these tasks, give your family a few more options than are needed, just in case.

Funeral equipment.  Any preferences on the coffin, vault, or urn?

Cemetery and plot. If there is to be a burial, is the plot already selected?  Is it already purchased?  If not, has the cemetery at least been chosen?  If the cemetery has any restrictions on who may be buried there, does the person meet them, and if not, can that be rectified in time?  For example, in Catholicism there are a few sinful conditions, such as unrepented apostasy or heresy, which preclude a Church burial (and burial in a Catholic cemetery).

Are there family members still alive who will want to be buried next to or near the deceased?  If so, can plots for them be purchased or otherwise guaranteed as well?

Committal. Is there to be a committal ceremony at the cemetery, or just the funeral at the funeral home or church?  If the cemetery has a chapel, should the committal be there or at the graveside?

Grave marker.  What words or symbols should go on it?  A lot of cemeteries will permit markers with additional words like “Beloved wife and mother”, or verses from religious texts, or quotations, or  engraved or inlaid photographs of the deceased, or all manner of other possibilities.  I was astounded when we flipped through the book of options at the cemetery, even though the cemetery where she is buried is very restrictive in what markers are permitted.

What sort of floral, heraldic, geometric, or other embellishments or borders?

Be sure that your desires for your marker are both permitted by the cemetery, and affordable by your loved ones.  But in this one matter, as I described in a previous article, generally there is much more time available for the purchase, so you can factor in expected life insurance and inheritance if you’ve planned carefully; you probably don’t need to limit yourself to what they can afford the day you die.

Multiple-person markers.  Depending on what the cemetery permits and the family situation, maybe the person wishes to establish a couples’ marker on which their surviving spouse will someday also have their name inscribed.  (Sometimes the spouse’s name and birth year will be inscribed at the time of installation, with the death year added when it happens.)  Maybe they wish to establish an even bigger marker for more family than just the couple, or even a mausoleum in cemeteries which permit such.  Or maybe they are to be added to an existing marker or mausoleum.

Banqueting and festivities. Should there be a dignified, sober dinner for the mourners?  A friendly and homecooked luncheon with a mingling of tears of grief and laughter at joyful memories?  An epic blowout of Dionysian proportions?  (If you knew my mother, you probably could correctly guess that she chose the second of these options.)

Who’s paying for the space for such a banquet?  Many houses of worship will make themselves available free of charge for a banquet in honor of one of their own members, but not all, so check.  Or did they ask for the revelry to take place in someone’s home?

And who’s paying for the food and drink?  Again, in many faith communities, such a question would be unthinkable — the congregation will all come together and produce favorite dishes and treats for the occasion, from their own individual resources.  But it’s best to understand that in advance and not just assume the family can tactfully rely upon the community.

Arrangements after the day of the funeral, perhaps indefinitely.  In some religions, there are specific rituals to be observed by family and friends at certain milestones of time. Many Muslims observe mourning until arba’een (forty days after the death). Jews observe shiva (“seven”) days of mourning after the funeral, and several more occasions thereafter, including an annual observation of the death in perpetuity.  If you do not share your loved one’s faith, you may decide your responsibilities end with the day of the funeral, but if you do not so decide, you may have more research ahead of you.

Disclaimer: I AM NOT A LAWYER.  NONE OF WHAT I SAY HERE SHOULD BE CONSTRUED AS LEGAL ADVICE.  A LICENSED LAWYER SHOULD BE CONSULTED ON ALL LEGAL MATTERS PERTAINING TO ESTATES. The purpose of this article is to tell you some things I learned in the process of dealing with my mom’s estate, which you may want to think about in planning your own estate or dealing with a loved one’s estate.  Furthermore, details of some of these matters differ from state to state, so if you’re not in Pennsylvania, things may be different.  Consult your lawyer on all matters.