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.

Herald on Sunday - - REVIEW -

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.

MOURN­ING RE­PORT

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.”

GOOD GRIEF

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.”

SO­CIAL DEATH

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.

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