End of Life Etiquette

I get it, no one really wants to think about dying or make preparations to do so. It’s scary to think about and a little bit overwhelming, but if you don’t do it, you are just making it that much harder for your next of kin to deal with. And at a time when they are already going to be grieving terribly and not really capable of making clear decisions. I’m not going to go far as to say that doing all of this is clearly within the bounds of etiquette, but foisting tasks you find unpleasant onto others is surely impolite so we’re going to go with it.

Obviously, this all doesn’t have to be done at once. When you are young, single, and have few assets, it is pretty simple that everything just goes to your parents. As you acquire things and spouses and children, you should add additional documentation about your wishes. As your children become adults or it becomes clear that you won’t be having children and need to appoint a next of kin, you need to make sure your kids/key person is aware of where everything is and how to access it.

First- make a will. Once you have acquired enough stuff to leave behind, you should decide who you want to have it if you do not want the state to decide. Take the time to appoint an executor, who will be in charge of making sure everything gets done as you wish. Update it as your life changes.

When you have minor children, you need to appoint a caretaker for them in the event of your premature demise. You should probably also discuss it with that person so they don’t get *surprise* kids.

Decide what you want to happen if you become ill and incapacitated. If you have strong feelings on say, pulling the plug vs not, or especially as you get to the REALLY old stage, things like DNR (do not resuscitate) orders, make sure you state them clearly. Appoint someone who knows and respects your wishes to act as Power of Attorney and Medical Power of Attorney  and outline those wishes in a living will. Become an organ donor, if you wish.

Get organized! Make sure you have some kind of list or file of all your:

  • Credit cards and bank accounts
  • Insurance policies (especially life insurance!)
  • All pensions/IRAs/other retirement funds
  • All important documents: wills, living wills, powers of attorney, birth certificates, marriage certificates, social security cards, citizenship records, military records (Veterans can get some pretty nice stuff for their funeral), etc
  • Paperwork for major assets: your cars and house if you have them
  • Major debts- credit cards, mortgage, student loans so your executor can pay them off
  • Make copies of everything! If you die in a plane crash and all your credit cards go with you, how is your next of kin supposed to get the numbers?

If you have a lot of money and assets, talk to a financial planner about organizing a trust, or setting up special school accounts for grandkids and the like.

In the digital age, it’s also important that someone have access to all your social media accounts so they can close them or memorialize them. If you are part of an online community, wouldn’t it be nice if someone were able to tell them that you had died and not just stopped logging on? Of course, there is an app for that- If I Die sends out a message of your choosing if you die.

Plan what happens to your body and the kind of funeral you want to have. Do you want to donate your body to science? Become a crash test dummy? Do you wanted a traditional burial, cremation, natural burial? There are so many options these days! If you have strong feelings, you need to make them known. If you want a burial plot somewhere particular, you should purchase it in advance. Do you want special music played at the funeral? Special food served? Make sure someone knows!

With a little planning and foresight, a difficult time for your most cherished family and friends will be a little bit smoother and easier. And isn’t smoothing relationships part of what etiquette is all about?

How To Talk About Death

kermit-mickeyDeath is not common in western society the way it used to be. Infant mortality is relatively low, we have penicillin, and people die in hospitals, not at home. For many, this means that death is a rare occasion in their lives, which is a relief. But the flip side is that familiarity with death means an understanding of how to talk about it or offer sincere condolences. I still clam up when a friend loses someone close to them, unsure of quite how to offer support at a time when most people probably don’t know what they need. But here are a few things to think about when offering condolences.

1. Should I offer condolences?

In most instances, yes, you should, whether you’re the griever’s best friend, boss, or doorman. And if the griever brings it up first, you always should, even if you don’t know them very well.

2. When should I offer condolences?

If the griever tells you, immediately. If you hear it through another party (for instance, if your friend’s husband lets you know her aunt just died, because she’s not in any mood to be calling people), use your discretion based on your relationship. If it’s your best friend then obviously say something soon, but if you’re not as close, maybe give it a day or two, when it would make sense that news had gotten out.

3. How do I offer condolences?

If you can’t do it in person, I actually think text or email is much, much better than a phone call in most instances. When one’s grieving, the last thing most people want to do is get on the phone and interact with someone else, for multiple reasons. They may be making funeral arrangements, and don’t want to take time out of planning to hop on the phone with every relative or friend. They may need time alone, and don’t want to have to talk to anyone. Also these phone calls can quickly turn into the griever comforting those calling, explaining “no really, I’m ok, don’t worry” when they just want to grieve in peace.

An email or text on the other hand lets them know you’re there, but requires no response or effort from the griever (note: do not expect replies for these).

4. What should I say?

If you met the deceased, it’s always lovely to include a word or fond memory about them. If not, focus on the griever. You may say “I know how much he/she meant to you,” but a simple “I’m sorry for your loss” always works. This is also a good time to offer any services with something like “if there’s anything you need, please let me know.” If you’re closer, you can offer something specific, like house-sitting if they need to travel.

“I’m sorry for your loss” doesn’t sound like much. Often times I think I’m being too generic or uncaring when I send that message to a friend, but then I remember just how comforted I was with the flood of messages just like that the last time someone close to me died.

Tell us, what have you found comforting when a close one has died? What did people do that frustrated you?