When it comes to death, we are a nation in denial. We get the willies just saying the word. • "We tend to use euphemisms," points out Howard Winokuer, president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. "Think about it: They passed on; he's 6 feet under; he's gone to be with the Lord; he's pushing up daisies; he croaked; he bought the farm. There are so many words that people use because they can't say death and dying."
This reluctance to address mortality helps explain why so many people don't think about their death.
"We plan for most events," Winokuer says. "We plan for marriage; we plan for our education; in many cases, we plan for birth and having children, but somehow we don't plan for dealing with our dying."
There is a lot of planning people can do, everything from where they'll be buried to how they want their hair styled. Shaun Myers, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, says that most people who plan start by taking care of the obvious: setting up a way to pay (there are several options).
"It's also very important they have their basic preferences listed in some sort of memorial guide or funeral instructions that can be given to the family," says Myers, who also is a funeral home owner in Ogden, Utah, with 27 years in the business. "That helps the family to know the course of action to follow and helps the funeral director know some of the basic vital information (that) is needed for things such as a death certificate, obituary or making arrangements for a cremation or burial outside the state."
Here are some of the steps the experts suggest people take:
Where to start
Winokuer says the first thing a person should do is take care of two advance directives: a living will and a health care power of attorney. The former basically says that if there is no chance of a person living a meaningful, functional life, he or she should not be kept on life support. The health care power of attorney designates somebody to make decisions about a person's health care if that person is incapacitated and can no longer make those decisions. And it can't hurt to have your will in order.
It's your call
Figure out what you want your service to include. Burial or cremation? Who will officiate? Do you want visitation at the funeral chapel? A church or graveside service? Open casket? Who do you want to speak? Who will be the pallbearers? What about your outfit? Is there a song you would like performed?
Do your homework
Visit a funeral home and discuss what you have decided with a funeral director. Or go online and find a funeral instruction sheet or memorial guide (many funeral home and attorneys' Web sites have them). The forms ask for personal information as well as a person's memorial and funeral preferences. Give copies of the completed form to your funeral director, family members and attorney. You'll be amazed how much easier you're making things for everybody by filling in a few blanks.
"In some circumstances," Myers explains, "you have a grandchild making funeral arrangements for their grandparents, and they don't have a clue what their great-grandmother's maiden name might have been. So it's great to have that information because it eliminates having to go on a hunt in that time of need."
You might even want to put together a short biography; once you're gone, the grandkids won't be able to ask you what life was like in the 20th century.
Also, know what you're entitled to from the funeral director. Look at the National Funeral Director Association's Consumer Preneed Bill of Rights at nfda.org (enter "preneed bill of rights" in the search field).
Hold the bagpipes?
Yes, people overplan with frequent tinkering. Micromanaging (the color of the pallbearers' ties?) can be a problem too. As for bringing in bagpipes . . .
"Interestingly, the bagpipe issue is very important to Scottish people," Myers says. "They believe the spirit can't go home until bagpipes are played."
Okay, bagpipes if you must.
"Some people overplan, do things over and over again, but that's by far the minority. Most people like to have it done, they keep the documentation, then can tell their family it's taken care of."
The time to plan is not when you're sick but when you're healthy and clear-thinking and can discuss things with others. And there's no need to be afraid to talk to a funeral director. "They're really caring and sensitive and pretty wonderful people," Winokuer says. "Just the fact that they're doing that work shows they have a real sense of caring and service."