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.

9 Responses to “The business of death - lessons learned”

  1. 1) Carl Tyler says:

    It may be morbid, but it is very helpful. As someone who has been fortunate to have never had to do this yet, I find it very informative.

    In someways, I'm very grateful to my parents, as they have both already gone through the legal process of donating their bodies to science when they die, so a lot of this process we won't have to deal with, plots, caskets etc.

    I'm sure I speak for many, when I say thanks for posting this John, we can all appreciate that it probably wasn't easy too.

  2. 2) Rob McDonagh says:

    Carl has covered it perfectly, this is me nodding...

  3. 3) Richard Schwartz says:

    Thanks, John. Such an important subject, though rarely talked about. We bought plots for ourselves when we bought one for my mom, but as you've pointed out, that's just one of so many details.

  4. 4) Erik Brooks says:

    Same as the above. It's extremely thoughtful of you to post this, John.

  5. 5) Steph says:

    A couple of years ago I asked my parents to buy plots for themselves and get this part of the process in order. I know that the paperwork has been in order for years, but the thought of sitting with a slimy funeral home director trying to upsell me on "silk lining" on a coffin makes me want to throw up. After they picked their plots and paid for them it is something that we now talk about openly, even though at 57 and 62, god willing their death is a long way off, I know and have visited their future resting place. I found a tomb stone the other day that I liked. I sent the family a pictureand am waiting to hear if they like it. Opening the doors to communication has helped immensely.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. You family is lucky to have you dealing with a lot if this stuff on their behalf. Now I have to put my affairs in order, so I am as little a burden as possible when I leave this life. Steph

  6. 6) Kathy Brown says:

    John, I echo others when I say thank you for posting this. I will say in regards to the lowest of the low salespeople at cemetaries, having the burial instructions (as you suggested) is invaluable. Also helpful is having a family member or friend who is a bit more distanced carry out those instructions. I was able to do this for a family several years ago. Luckily I knew exactly what the deceased wanted, so when the cemetary guy tried to guilt me into upgrading this and that, I could say no without any guilt.

  7. 7) John D Head says:

    thanks everyone. Writing this was therapeutic. Helped me get out some of the anger, frustration, and stress. I am glad others found it useful.

  8. 8) Eric Mack says:

    John thank you for sharing. A great way to bring value to others in the midst of your grief.

    As you talked about the cemetery sales process, I was reminded of the time my brother an law and I accompanied my wife and her mother to help them select a casket for her father. I gritted my teeth through most of the sales pitch but when he got to the part about the 25 year warranty on the hardware I became quietly livid. It was all I could do not to burst out and ask why not a lifetime warranty - it would have been just as valuable.

    I think the key lesson in what you have shared - apart from honoring your loved ones and letting them know they are loved - is to be prepared and ask the tough questions up front so you won't be alone making difficult decisions later.

    Thanks for sharing.


  9. 9) Kevin Mort says:

    As others have said, thank you for taking the time to write this.

    I have to say in reading it my mind goes back to March 2000, when I lost my dad, and everything we went through.

    Luckily dad was organized and we had time to discuss things with him beforehand. I hesitate to say his final days were "planned" - but he had the forethought to know they were near and wrapped up most of the loose ends with us, what few of them there were. The PoA was certainly a key item we needed.

    What the events of that time did was bring into focus what most of us don't spend much time thinking about. The arrangements cost my mom on the order of $10,000. This included the casket, preparation, etc. at the funeral home. It didn't include the burial site, which is at a small church in the Maryland countryside where some other members and friends of the family are buried. Interestingly it also prompted my aunt & uncle on his side to pick out a plot at that time too, just to have it taken care of.

    Sometime over an adult beverage I can recall the 5 month story if you're interested.

    As for the "stuff" he left behind. There have been a few conditions on those, certain things I have said under no circumstances are they to be disposed of:

    1. His tools.

    2. The collector car (1970 Dodge Coronet Superbee)

    The first, his brother tried to get his hands on. No dice. The second, mom and I are going on about a bit. But dad never got to enjoy it, and I want to share it with my son some day.

    The events of those months are forever burned in my memory. It took me well over a year to feel anything close to "normal" but really those feelings are never far from the surface, as you can probably tell in my verbose writing here. It changed me forever, as I suspect it has you.

    So thank you again. It is never easy to write on such things, but the information is endlessly useful to those who read it.

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