En español | I grew up in a funeral home and was often in the room as my father, the funeral director, would meet with grieving families.
When I was little, my job was to pick up blossoms that fell from flower arrangements. At 16, I was the only kid I knew who could drive a hearse. In my late teens, I met with families, worked at funerals and helped with follow-up calls to check on bereaved families.
I saw firsthand how unprepared most people are to write an obituary, advise friends and family of a death, or plan a funeral or memorial service.
Just as the coronavirus is prompting many people to rush to make their wills, it also can be an opportunity to think about what you'd want to happen if your family needed to arrange for a funeral. It's a hard topic, but it doesn't have to be morbid. It can be meaningful for you to make your wishes known, and when the time comes it can be a great relief to your family members that you did this for them.
Here's what you can do now to spare your loved ones the added grief of not knowing your full life story or your final wishes for burial or a service.
Gather the following items and place them in a file folder, whether a physical one or a digital file. Make sure your family members know where to find it when the time comes.
Would your spouse or child pick the photo you would choose of yourself for the newspaper or memorial service program? Pick a photo you like, preferably one with high resolution.
Nobody knows your story better than you; don't leave it to your family to get the facts right. As we age, even our spouses won't always remember what year we graduated from high school, our job titles or other details of our stories. You don't have to write the full obituary, but at least leave the family the key points for which you'd like to be remembered.
Talk about where your final resting place might be, and buy the plot now so your family won't have to guess. If you wish to rest in a place with restrictions, such as Arlington National Cemetery, check ahead to see if you qualify.
My husband, Bill, recounts how his parents used to have a friendly argument about their final resting place. Each wanted to be buried in his or her own place of birth, Ohio and Missouri. Don't leave such an important decision to grieving family members to figure out.
Although many gatherings for funerals are not possible under current restrictions, people are holding online events and may be able to hold memorial services at some point. What would you like loving friends, family, colleagues to hear about you when they gather to celebrate your life? I've sat through or worked at numerous funerals and recall many a service that didn't begin to reflect the personality or, very likely, the wishes of the deceased. Sometimes I'd say to myself, “Am I at the right service?"
For example, if you are not a religious person, would you want your memorial service to take place in a church with multiple Bible verses? Funerals and memorial services are in large part to comfort the living, but make your wishes known so the event will reflect your unique life. One of the most memorable services I recall ended with two of the deceased person's favorite treats, chocolate sundaes and cookies, being passed out to mourners as they left.
Who would be a good eulogist? It's nice to choose people who know you in different ways so more of your interesting life can be reflected. Would your chosen people be confident speakers? You don't want them to melt at the sight of the microphone. Note songs or hymns to be played and favorite passages, poems or readings.
Having a list of friends, family members and others to be contacted upon your death will save your family time and certain anguish. Why not put that list together now — knowing you can also use it for happy notifications such as marriages, births or graduations.
These steps can be done alone or together with loved ones. It need not be a maudlin task — it can actually be some of the most meaningful, rewarding time you can spend together. The folder of information you create will be a gift to those who love you most, at one of the most difficult times of their lives.
Once you've collected this information you can tuck it away with your life insurance, will and any other important documents and hope that no one needs to look at the folder for a long time.
Lynda Clugston Webster is the founder and owner of the Webster Group, a Washington-based global event design and production company. Her family owned three funeral homes in rural Illinois.