Herald on Sunday
PREPARE TO MEET YOUR MAKER
Even with the best wills in the world, many people leave behind a mess when they shuffle off this mortal coil. Paul Little explores how to get your affairs in order.
She recommends getting rid of things people might not want their family to find, such as love letters.
You’re dead. What’s the worst that could happen? After all, before you ceased to be, you made a will, told your family what kind of send-off to give you — “Nothing fancy. Just put me in a hole in the ground” — and chose the music.
Then there’s the question of who gets the heirlooms. The simplest solution is to give it all away before you go — no one can challenge that. And it avoids one worst-case scenario where a relative took advantage of an elderly person’s fading memory and offer to “pick something you’d like and I’ll put a sticker on it with your name”.
By the time the elderly person died the young relative had managed to get his name on just about everything of value in the house, to the chagrin of the rest of his generation.
Sudden deaths, when people have had no time to prepare, are the worst. Sure, it’s natural Mum would have some sex toys in the bedside drawer. But so many?
Even with the best wills in the world, many of us still leave behind a big old mess.
Fortunately, cark-it forces have met the new challenges. Funeral directors have modernised, other professions have adapted to meet changing needs and niche services have arisen to cater for the modern way of death. LAST WORDS
If you’ve tried to perform oncesimple acts such as changing banks lately, you will know that in an electronic world such a basic task is a cyber nightmare. It’s even harder when you’re dead.
Lifelot is like a PA for dead people, founded by Angela Calver, who was motivated to do so when her father died.
She thought she was prepared: “We knew he was going to die. I’d organised the funeral he wanted. I’d written him a letter and read it to him to thank him for my childhood and all that.”
But there was much more to it. For instance, her father had changed electricity companies without telling anyone.
“I had to get copies of death certificates and copies of the will and go to the provider, only to find out he wasn’t a customer,” she says. “There’s so much more to life now, more numbers, more online accounts, more life administration.”
Her father’s demise “woke me up to the fact that if I died I’d leave a mess for people. For instance, I have a child with dyspraxia, so there are loads of reports from various people about him and his care plan and his education plan.”
Hence Lifelot, which attempts to pre-empt all possible complications. Sign up and you get a medical delegate and a life delegate.
“When you pass, we ask for a copy of the confirmation of death form the doctor fills out, then we open your account or unlock it for your life delegate in read-only access.”
It’s very comprehensive. “We have a space that lets you say what are the heirlooms and who you want them to go to”.
And you can store your alarm codes, your accountant’s and lawyer’s details, your online shopping passwords — Lifelot has checklists for every conceivable digital activity and more.
Computer passwords and PIN numbers are all kept safely encrypted with multiple security levels.
Funeral directors are for many people the frontline of the final frontier and have to deal with an extraordinary number of details
that won’t have been foreseen.
Requests can include anything from the likes of buying Dad a suit to be buried in, to asking whether a family member can do Mum’s hair and nails.
When it comes to appropriate clothing, “We always say, ‘whatever he was most comfortable in’,” says fourth-generation funeral director Neil Little* of Davis Funerals.
“But if they’ve been in a rest home that might be trackies and an old polo.” Hence the last-minute suit purchase.
Requests to cremate the (euthanised) cat or dog along with their late owner are also common, and generally met favourably.
Some funeral directors even go that little bit further: “We had a staff member adopt a pet from a family home once,” says Little. “None of the relatives wanted it.”
Many people, he says, are also not clear about the legal aspects of death.
“People think that if they have been given power of attorney they can make decisions — but in fact power of attorney ceases when someone dies,” says Little.
New technology has also given rise to a variety of new requests. “DNA sampling is something we have been asked for,” adds Little. “It’s obviously the family’s last chance to get it — for whatever reason.”
More common, and possibly more problematic, are the basics — even deciding who will arrange the funeral, which can be fraught in cases of second marriages or recent relationships.
“People need to decide who will have the say and then, often who is going to pay,” says Little.
“The biggest one is still the ashes, because people haven’t thought about what they’ll do with them. But even the photo to go on the service sheet can be a big deal if people haven’t really thought about it.”
Little says the whole process can be bewildering, especially for people who’ve never dealt with death before and are dealing with their first experience of grief at the same time.
“I still worry about the whole process sometimes. We’ve got better at suggesting people give themselves some breathing space. We’ve prepared a guide to what’s involved.
“I say, ‘I can send you something to have a look at so when we sit down tomorrow you’ll have a better idea of what decisions need to be made — that has a list of the sorts of people you might need to notify and those sorts of things’.
“It’s good to have that. I often think if people were choosing furniture they’d probably be given more time to make their decision.”
Which is absolutely true, of course, but then that couch is going to be in the living room forever.
Deb Cairns of State of Grace Funerals is also a big believer in planning, even if better late than never. “I’ve just left a 101-year-old with eight kids who’s written everything out including the death notice and told me not to change a thing.”
She recommends getting rid of things people might not want their family to find, such as love letters.
“It can be a wrench to get rid of these things but are you willing to have other people find them after you’ve gone? Everyone is entitled to a private part of their lives, but children don’t think their parents have it. They might like to keep that privacy when they’re dead.”
When speaking to people who know they are in the process of dying, Cairns also encourages them to tie up loose emotional ends.
“If someone says, ‘My son won’t be coming; we haven’t spoken for 50 years,’ we would say, ‘This is a good time to make contact’.”
But even when the relative has died, it’s not necessarily too late for some healing to occur: “It can be the kids who haven’t talked to their parents for years,” says Cairns.
“They work hardest on coming to see the body and spending some time on their own with them. Ideally, having them at home to spend time with is best.”
Cairns might be on trend with her attitude to grief and emotional resolution, but she’s no fan of the vogue for online memorials.
“The digital online thing drives me nuts,” she says. “I like people to send cards. I went to someone’s house recently where the table was covered with handwritten cards, and you can’t compare the experience of that with a Facebook status.”
Grief at the prospect of a loved one’s passing is to be expected, but there are pre-mortem possibilities for easing the pain.
“There is a thing called anticipatory grief,” says Val Leveson, a counsellor at the Grief Centre.
“But how you think you will feel when the death happens is often not how you’re going to be. You might be thinking: ‘I’ll be glad when they’re dead’, and then you really do grieve when it hits you.”
And if you’re the one doing the dying, those around you can make it harder by using your end for their own ends.
“People can put a lot of pressure on the dying person,” says Leveson. “For example, they might be really tired and not want to see people, but feel they have to because this person wants them to look after their own emotional needs.”
In general, it’s good for people on both sides of the finish line to have a chance to say their goodbyes. However: “It can be awful if someone is dying and says: ‘I’ve always hated you’. I’ve heard that too.”
In cases of estrangement, when the dying person refuses to see the other party, “the estranged person has to deal with it later”.
The dying person is likely to be thinking: “Why in my last moments would I want to make that person feel better?”
Overall, says Leveson, “it’s about remembering that this is [the dying] person’s time and it is limited for them. It’s about being sensitive to that.”
Many of us have had the Facebook birthday reminders for people who died two years before, or been advised that someone who’s long been underground is a person you might like.
Even though they are apparently run by geniuses, social media have been slow to catch up with the fact that everyone dies — but they’re getting there.
“Facebook now lets you assign a legacy contact to your account,” says social media consultant Vaughan Davis.
“My legacy contact is a person who has power over my FB account. When I die, they can delete it, or convert it to a memorial page or download the whole thing, which saves all those photos people have that might only be on Facebook. And once it’s memorialised it stops friend requests.”
Facebook can afford it, of course. Twitter is running at a loss and staffed to match. “You can notify them and they will delete the account, if they believe you,” Davis says.
New technology has come up with other death-defying strategies.
“My favourite is Dead Man’s Switch,” says Davis. “When you die it sends pre-written emails to people.
“For instance, you might want to let Susan in accounts know you always thought she was great. Every month it emails you to check whether you’re alive. If it doesn’t hear from you it sends increasingly frequent emails and if it hasn’t heard from you for 60 days, your emails are sent.”
The effect that getting a mash note from a dead colleague might have on Susan in accounts is, of course, open to speculation.
MEETING YOUR MAKER
It’s a good idea to get any religious requirements sorted before someone else has to do it for you.
If not, you could end up like the family whose mother wanted a Catholic funeral even though she hadn’t attended mass for years.
When the eldest went to the local church to make arrangements, Father puffed himself up, stared down his nose and said he would be willing to grant this honour but only if all the children, none of whom was a practising Catholic, first took the sacrament of confession so they could have communion at the funeral. Otherwise, no dice.
They put respect for their mother’s wishes before their own preferences and a schism was avoided.
*Disclosure. Yes, he’s my brother.