The business of death - lessons learned

June 25 2011

So while this will not be a morbid blog entry, I wanted to capture some thoughts and lessons learned in the past month of dealing with my father's death. Hopefully what I have gone thru will help others.

1. Paperwork is either your saving grace or your worse nightmare.

My father passed away in the state of Florida, which has some of the strictest laws on death, so some of this might not apply. But I found that every person needs four legal documents when they die. They are:

     1. Last Will and Testament
     2. Living Will with life support directions
     3. Personal Instructions for Burial
     4. Power of Attorney

I think everyone understands why the will matters. The Living Will is important if a person does not want to be kept on life support. The Living Will, once given to the hospital or doctor, literally acts as a trump card. Without that, the next of kin has to make the decision. I never felt any pressure to make the decision to not keep my father on life support - he made that for himself. The Personal Instructions document is not legally enforceable in most states, but it really helps provide guidance at a time when stress and emotion put pressure on you. And last, the Power of Attorney might be the most important of these. Everyone asked for this - car insurance, banks, etc. Every person should have all four documents. Make sure they are done legally. The Will and Living Will need to be signed by witnesses and the Will must be notarized. Every State (and country outside the US) have different requirements. Check them. In Florida, the Power of Attorney is the key document to have in your hand if someone is on life support.

2. Salespeople at cemeteries are the new low of low

I thought that car salespeople and the door to door encyclopedia salesperson were the lowest form of pushers. As someone who is a salesperson himself, I can't stand people who take advantage of others to close a deal. What I witnessed directly by sales people at the cemetery set a new low. It's not what they are selling, it's how. First, They you pick the location. Casket, plot, etc. You decide that and fill out the paperwork and pay. Second, you decide on the form of burial. Embalming or Cremation. You decide that and then fill out the paperwork and pay. Oh, you want more than the last name, here is the cost per letter on the headstone. Fill out that paperwork and pay. But wait, you want the casket put in the ground or the ashes interned? More money. And you want death certificates? More money. Ugh. Oh, and at any time you want to complain about the prices, they put a brochure in front of you that states all of their prices and how the state requires you get the approved prices. And you have to sign that. Sigh.

My issue was not the cost of the services. It was the method of sales that was used. Lay out everyone and let me know a ball park up front. What bothered me most is that once they realized that my father's family (his parent's, his mother's parents, his great uncle, his first wife, and space for his second wife and daughter) were at the cemetery, they new they had us. They could play the game because the emotion dictated the use of the facility. That emotional sales pitch just made my stomach turn. But it was far worse that I really had no other options that really stuck it to me.

3. Emotional Attachment to things can make you do silly things

In the moment of my father's death, I wanted to keep everything in his house. EVERYTHING. I mean I wanted to keep his underwear. Luckily, there was a two week period between my father's death and cleaning out his house. That really allowed me to separate the grief from the reality. So this past week, we got down to the business of cleaning the house. And the following formula was used:

     A. Anything that was family history related was saved. I have china and photos from six generations ago.
     B. Photos were kept. I am going to get everything scanned and then either hang or store these so they are protected.
     C. Anything that my siblings or uncle wanted, it was kept. Regardless of value.
     D. Practical items that could be immediately used were kept. My father had a bread maker that I loved. It made the trip to Chicago.
     E. Everything else was had to go.

Our first thought was that Salvation Army or Amvet or Goodwill would get the items. Trying to get any of those three to come out to the house was more effort than I expect. They also wanted everything boxed up and put on the curb. In a week where a memorial was taking place, all the paperwork was being handles, that was not going to happen. So we looked for an estate sales website to get some help. I found Mike Tudor Estate Sales and Mike and his team became the saviors of the week. Not only would they sell everything in the house, but they would do it this weekend! On Thursday, Mike came in with his team and got to work. By noon, the house looked totally different. They bring in other pieces to make the sale the best it can be. His team cleans, organizes, and sorts. What doesn't sell at my Dad's house goes to another sale. What doesn't sell there is donated. And they clean the house when the leave. Let me tell you how this changed the tone and emotion of the week. For anyone who's parents who have lots of stuff (Dad was a collector and minor hoarder, but he was very clean and organized), I would highly recommend this path.

4. Documents, Lists, and Storage

One of the major things about dying is locating all of the documents that your next of kin needs afterwards. My father had a single portfolio with everything, but I still struggled. In the days of technology, I am going to be doing the following for myself, my mother, and the rest of my family:

1. Locate all of the following: birth certificate, social security card, wedding certificate (if married), driver's license, passport, bank accounts, savings accounts, credit cards, life insurance, retirement, health insurance, car insurance, car title, parent's info (date of birth, date of death (if deceased), full name, location of birth, location of death), place of work, work contact, work history. all schooling information (location, years, degrees), safety deposit boxes location and key location (if applicable), address book with family and friends in case of emergency or death, investments (stock, etc). medical info such as doctors along with the Will, Living Will, Personal Instructions, and Power of Attorney.

2. Make a copy or scan everything into a data packet. Create a table of contents on the front. Give versions of these to your spouse and whomever would be next of kin.

3. Gather user name and passwords for all sites (email, social networking, banking, insurance, etc. Make an record of all of them.

4.Take the originals of the items in #1 and the info from #3 and put it somewhere safe. Safety Deposit box or fireproof lockbox or safe. Let people know this is there.

5. Update this info on your birth date every year.

5. Remember that even with death, your life must go on

The time between my father's heart attack and his death (5 days) was a period when time stopped. I don't remember anything except the trips to the hospital and the cemetery. Since then, while trying to get back to normal, there is a tendency to push your own life aside to deal with the death. You can't do that. You can't pause our own life while completing the final chapter of your lost love one. It is ok to be sad, emotional, and miss them. It is not OK to stop your life for them. The loved one would not want that.

I hope my experiences can help those of you that read my blog for any future experiences you go thru. I know I am going to put my documentation in order in case something were to happen to me.