Article written by: Jo Warren
How do I want to be remembered anyway? For what I’ve done, or for what I haven’t done?
We hear so much talk about honouring life. How come nobody ever says, ‘Hey, let’s hear it for death!’? Isn’t it obvious that life and death are inseparable? If we try to avoid the black parts, we’d end up painting happy faces on all that Yin Yang jewellery. And how happy would that be?
Perhaps I see things from a different perspective than most people. That’s because I work in a funeral home, a place where you can learn a lot of interesting things in a very short amount of time.
One of the things that surprised me (apart from the huge number of bad jokes), was the dawning realization that many people put a great deal of effort into living a decent and accomplished life, but when they die, they leave behind a messy pile of difficult decisions, complicated paperwork, and unnecessary emotional distress for their families to mop up afterwards.
Take John Smith for example. I didn’t know Mr. Smith when he was alive, but I sure got to know him after he died.
Our first introduction occurred when I noticed his ‘memory board’ at the funeral home. Propped on easels at his visitation were three large sheets of cardboard pasted with dozens of photographs of Mr. Smith at various ages and stages of his productive and seemingly successful life.
There were pictures of bald baby John snuggled in his mother’s arms; little John wearing the tiny peaked cap of a dutiful boy scout; and a more impressive peaked cap told me that he had served as an officer in the armed forces. My eyes moved to John pictured arm-in-arm with his beautiful bride, and to a photo of a good father trudging through deep snow pulling three toddlers on the same sled.
Here was middle-aged John looking just like Robert Preston in the Music Man, a shiny tuba strapped to his chest, obviously a valued member of the community marching band. Posed photographs bore witness to his terms of office as president of the Lions Club, chairman of the parish council, and as reigning king of the backyard barbeque.
Mounted in the centre of his life story was a charming photo of John and his wife cutting a cake topped with a big gold ’50,’ the laughing couple totally oblivious to what lay waiting in their future.
I stopped to consider what my own memory board might look like. How would I be remembered? Did I have a choice? Would my storyboard include that picture of me taken when I was fifty-two wobbling on a snowboard in a bad outfit? Would my children remember their mother as a fearless hero, or as a brainless idiot? I’d prefer to be remembered for my good qualities rather than bad outfits, but is it possible to control what other people think? If my own storyboard looked half as good as Mr. Smith’s, I would rest in peace before I died.
At the funeral home, my job is to contact families after a death to help them cancel pensions, apply for benefits, and work through a complete estate checklist. A few days after her husband’s funeral, I phoned Myra Smith, John’s widow, to book an appointment.
When I arrived at her home, she looked exhausted. She told me she hadn’t been sleeping because she was so worried about the paperwork, and to add to her troubles, she had lost the hearing in one ear on the day her husband died. Her doctor told her it is not unusual for people to suffer a negative physical response to high stress.
For five months, Myra had felt helpless as she watched her loving husband turn into her dying husband, a deceased husband, and finally into a legal responsibility.
Although she was in her late seventies, Myra had taken the bus to visit John in the hospital every day, often carrying a plate of ethnic home cooking to encourage her husband’s appetite. She knew her children would visit more often if they could, but they all had busy lives, or lived out-of-town.
She told me that after John had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, he refused to talk about dying, let alone a funeral. Myra had a lot of questions about her own future, but she didn’t think it was right to push a sick man into having uncomfortable conversations.
When her husband died, she picked a funeral home from the Yellow Pages. Distraught and disoriented from grief, she sat down with a funeral director to make the many necessary decisions alone.
When she was asked if Mr. Smith was to be buried or cremated, she didn’t know. She had always assumed they’d be buried side by side, but now she wasn’t so sure. Years ago, she had heard her husband joking with a neighbour, ‘When I die, just toss me on the barbie, and put my ashes in a coffee can.’
It took Myra three hours to complete the funeral arrangements. If she was uncertain about a decision, she added things to prevent guilt and regret later on. She naturally expected it to cost more than her father’s funeral ten years earlier, but she was shocked to discover that her husband’s arrangements cost twice that amount, and she still had cemetery expenses to think about.
Once the funeral was over, and out-of-town visitors went home, Myra was faced with a mountain of estate details. This is when I met her. Now I’m not an expert in financial or legal issues, but it didn’t take Perry Mason to recognize the muddle she was in.
A will had been written, but nobody could find the original copy; the lawyer had retired and neglected to provide forwarding information. Documents, receipts, and correspondence were stacked in piles around the house, their marriage certificate being the needle in the haystack.
Although they had shared a joint bank account, Mr. Smith had also opened two personal accounts that would remain frozen until she produced the original will, or until she completed a lengthy legal process. Because her own monthly income was low, Myra was terrified about how she would pay funeral bills as well as living expenses as she waited for benefits and survivor’s pensions to be processed.
At a time when Myra only wanted to be left alone to grieve, she was trapped in an emotional pressure cooker where the heat just kept rising. She was mad at her husband for planning so poorly, but she was even angrier at herself for neglecting to take more responsibility in planning for her own well being.
Fond memories of John were being pushed aside by strong feelings of resentment and frustration that made her believe she was being disloyal to her husband. She hopes her affection for John would return to return to comfort her, but right now, her grief was full of questions about why he would leave her in such a pickle.
Estate planning has always been important, but in the past, life was simpler, and many decisions were based on trust and good faith. Today’s world is dominated by privacy acts, complex communication, paranoia about identity theft, and fear of litigation wherever you turn.
Neglecting to plan for this reality is an avoidance tactic similar to shoving dirty laundry under the bed because, hey, when you can’t see it, the problem disappears! You might get away with that when you’re thirteen, but if you’re old enough to pay taxes, it’s just plain old irresponsible.
Many people give the impression that, in their lives, ‘Family is First.’ But then you’ll hear them say something like, ‘It doesn’t matter what happens after I die because I won’t be around to see it.’ Really?
We don’t exist in a vacuum. My grandparents told me about their grandparents; I tell my grandchildren about their grandparents; and my grandchildren will tell their children about me. The details of my life will become blurred when I die, but the spirit in which I leave will be passed on to the people I love. Like the song, our love, (or lack of it) will go on and on and on.
How do I want to be remembered? For what I’ve done, or for what I haven’t done? My final act can be self-centered and negative, leaving a bitter-taste in my children’s memories, or I can leave the stage with a graceful bow, a gesture of love to reside in my children’s hearts to help them along the way.
Estate and funeral planning is not for wimps. It takes maturity, generosity, and some mighty muscle to plan, and pay for, rewards that we won’t reap ourselves.
The foundations of good planning are prevention and protection; we prevent our hard-earned assets from going the wrong direction, and we do our best to prevent unnecessary distress for the people we love the most. Thoughtful planning for people after we die could be considered the ultimate gift of love.
Too bad someone doesn’t open a Great Canadian Superstore for Estate and Funeral Planning to make our planning easier. Under one roof, we would spend the day attending seminars, sipping lattes, and browsing storefronts for the best deals in wills, funeral plans, and caskets. For our last stop, we would ask a financial advisor how to pay for it all and still have a few bucks leftover for a new snowboard.
While we wait for the superstore to be invented, we must roll up our sleeves and do our planning the hard way. We start by seeing a lawyer to make a will. A properly written will isn’t about how much money we have. It is a legal document that ensures that our assets go where we want them to go, makes things move faster, and reduces stress and arguments of family members.
When the will is done, we ask the lawyer to draw up two more documents: an Enduring Power of Attorney, and a Representation Agreement. These two legal documents are critically important should we become mentally incapable.
An Enduring Power of Attorney appoints someone we trust to make legal and financial decisions on our behalf; the Representation Agreement (Personal Directive, Living Will, etc.) gives someone we trust the power to make health-related decisions, such as resuscitation and levels of care, on our behalf. If someone has entered even the first stages of mental incapability, it becomes a very stressful, time-consuming, and expensive process to get these documents in place.
To plan your funeral, contact a local funeral home or establishment to ask what you can do ahead of time to prevent leaving your family in a lurch. This might take a bit of courage, especially for all you lifelong members of the popular ‘I’m-Not-Going-To-Die’ Club.
After working in a funeral home for ten years helping thousands of unhappy faces, I feel fully justified in ordering you to wipe that happy face off your Yin Yang necklace, and start facing the funeral music. How do you want to be remembered anyway? For what you’ve done? Or for what you haven’t done? Have I said that before?
Once you’ve completed your planning, be proud of yourself. By sidestepping the sticky mud of procrastination, you’ve defied the statistics! Your reward will be on earth enjoying the true meaning of peace of mind.
How do I want to be remembered anyway? Have I said that already? I might not be able to change the bad outfits on my memory board, but I can certainly honour my own life /death with a stylish exit.
Jo Warren, M.A., worked at a Calgary funeral home for ten years as a Family Care Counsellor, and as a Funeral Planning Advisor. In previous lives, she was a teacher and art therapist. She welcomes comments about her writing at [email protected].