Have you ever gone to a party, showing up with a bottle of wine as a gift for the hosts, and found they’re not ready yet? Maybe they are still cleaning up or putting the kids’ toys away, the food isn’t ready, or oh no, the bar’s not set up!
Two attributes that set a gracious host apart from an unprepared one are the ability to organize and communicate. Most experienced party throwers know it takes some planning to put together a successful event. Celebrations all have similar elements: deciding on a date, time and place, extending invitations to guests, planning unique features to make the occasion more meaningful for the celebrants, and constructing a menu.
Parties get a bit more complicated as you move up the chain of life cycle events: a birthday for a two-year-old is simpler than a Sweet 16 affair. As families grow, there are graduations, anniversaries, and weddings to plan and celebrate, each more involved than the next.
And then there are funerals. These are the parties no one wants to plan. Yet this is a life cycle event that every family will undertake for every member at some point. They have the same elements of party planning as any other get-together. But if brides and grooms planned their weddings the way most people plan their funerals, they’d be scrambling to pull every element together in three to five days. Talk about stress!
By doing some advance planning, using organization and communication, families can minimize the emotional and financial chaos that often takes hold when someone dies.
Why preplan a funeral or memorial service? There are three very good reasons.
1. You can reduce stress at a time of grief and minimize family conflict. Think about this:
If you don’t have information on hand needed for a death certificate, like a social security number, place of birth, veteran information, and mother’s maiden name, how are you going to get it when that person is dead? That’s one stress you can avoid by pulling facts together while everyone’s alive and well.
If family members have preplanned, or at least discussed a preference regarding burial, cremation, or other options, you can avoid the stress of wondering what they would have wanted.
Organization and communication can also help minimize family conflict. We’ve all heard of Bridezillas created by the stress of weddings. Funerals can create family feuds over the smallest items.
My friend Roger McManus experienced the death of both parents in very different ways. His dad had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and had planned extensively before he died – everything went smoothly. His mom, on the other hand, sat down on the couch to watch TV, fell asleep, and never woke up. She had absolutely no plans in place. The family started fighting over who got the cat, the good china – almost everything.
The experience with his mother’s death prompted Roger to create an organizer called From Here to Hereafter: Everything My Family Needs to Know. As Roger is a frequent flier, in chatting with his seatmates, the conversation invariably turns to funerals and the conflicts they provoke. His first question is usually, “So when did the fight start?”
2. You can save money, potentially thousands of dollars. Shopping around for the best price is the last thing you want to do when a loved one has died. On top of that, you might make purchasing decisions with your heart – rather than your head – and overspend out of guilt or remorse.
My friend Gary, who doesn’t want a fuss when he dies, wanted a cheap, simple, prepaid cremation, so everything would be taken care of when the time comes. I went with him on shopping excursions to several local funeral homes. His plain request resulted in a $750 price variation between providers for essentially the same services. The difference was due to overhead for the upscale funeral home setting of the highest priced provider.
We also found funeral directors can have a great sense of humor, when there’s no death imminent. When someone has recently died, or is about to die, the conversation has an appropriately somber tone. In addition to saving money, it’s a fascinating shopping trip and a much more upbeat experience.
3. With advance planning, you can create a really meaningful event that becomes a treasured memory. You don’t even have to wait until the person is dead to hold a celebration of their life. Living memorial services give the entire family a chance to speak words of love and admiration, or to make amends before it’s too late.
In one case, I coached a woman whose elderly father was fading fast. With organization and communication, she pulled the family together before Thanksgiving for an event not unlike a celebrity roast.
While the family wasn’t sure about the appropriateness of this event, her father really enjoyed being the center of attention. Those who did not approve initially came around to see it as a wonderful, memorable time. Her father died six weeks later. Everyone in the family who attended now treasures the warm memories of his living memorial service.
With just a bit of forethought and planning, the life cycle event formerly known as a funeral can be a warm celebration of life. It takes organization and communication to reduce stress at a time of grief, save money, and create a meaningful, memorable event.
When there’s a death in the family and friends come bearing casseroles, will you be the perfect picture of grace under fire? Or will you be the host who scrambles to put everything together at the last minute? The choice is yours.
Gail Rubin, “The Doyenne of Death,” speaks to groups about “Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die” and gets the conversation going. A member of the Association for Death Education and Counseling, she’s the author of the new book, A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die (www.AGoodGoodbye.com). She also writes The Family Plot Blog (http://TheFamilyPlot.wordpress.com).
Academy Guest Blogger
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
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San Diego, CA 92124