July 1, 2021

2: In the First Days of Your Death

2: In the First Days of Your Death

Notes on what decisions will need to be made by your loved ones in the first few days after your death.
In this episode:
Final disposition
Social media

Notes on what decisions will need to be made by your loved ones in the first few days after your death.


In this episode:

  • Final disposition
  • Finances
  • Obituary
  • Social media

When my grandfather in the Philippines died, I happened to be visiting. It was the first time I experienced a traditional wake. His body was embalmed and displayed for several days while people traveled in for the funeral. Family and friends held vigil, staying there for hours or even continuously for days. It was amazing. People would arrive and typically go directly to the casket, murmuring prayers or just crying. Then they would turn and join the others in the room, exchanging greetings and stories about my lolo, my grandfather. After a while, they would get hungry or need to use the restroom (the C.R.) or their conversation would just naturally drift to catching up with each other. Some people would leave to smoke and then come back. Some people played cards. I had conversations with people who worked on his farm that I would never have spoken with otherwise and they showed me a different side of my grandfather. The cycle would just keep restarting whenever someone new arrived. We were there for hours and hours. It was incredible to have time to share the experience of his death, and move through it as a group. It felt like we had time to metabolize it. Ever since then, I’ve hoped that when I die, my friends and family could have that kind of a wake, an extended time to gather and move through the experience together.


Hello, and welcome to Dying Kindness, I'm Cianna Stewart, and I'm going to die someday. You will too. So let's all learn what we need to do and make some key decisions before we die, in order to be kinder to those we'll leave behind.

Today I’ll be talking about what others will need to know in the first few days after you die. If you missed episode 1, I talked about what’s needed in the first few hours. I suggest going back and listening to that if you haven’t yet. You can also get all this info - and much more - on my website, DyingKindness.com. 


For now, let’s pick up where we left off last time, with imagining that you died in a hospital. Your loved ones are there and they are going to be asked: What did you want done with your body? I have to say up front that there are so many options and each one warrants its own episode. Today I’ll be doing more of an overview of the kinds of things you need to think about, more broad categories than specific options.


When you die, your loved ones will be faced with a branching tree of questions that they’ll be pressured to answer right away: Will they use a funeral home or did they have other plans? Did you want to be buried or cremated? If buried, a traditional burial or a green burial? Where? Has that already been arranged? If cremated, did you want your ashes interred or scattered? Did you want something other than traditional burial or cremation? For all options, did you want a funeral with an open casket? Where should the funeral be held? What kind of services did you want? Did you even want a funeral? How about a celebration of life? A memorial service? A drunken wake? And, lastly, how much will be spent on all this? And who’s paying for it?


Phew! Now imagine getting that barrage of questions (and more) while your mind is already filled to the brim with shock or grief or stress. 


If you haven’t been through this process for someone you love, I can tell you that it can get quite overwhelming. Answering any one of these questions can open up even more choices that need to be made. I think it’s important for each of us to keep our loved ones in mind throughout this process, to remember that any decisions we can make now will help them out when we die.


So how can you help? Let’s start with the end of the end, where you want your body to end up, what's euphemistically often called your “final resting place.” Like so many decisions, it’s best to start at the end because that will guide much of what comes before.


For the past few hundred years, it’s been common practice throughout most of the United States to bury a body. Historically, these burials often took place in church graveyards or on private property in a family cemetery. The first non-sectarian dedicated cemetery was established in 1796 in New Haven, Connecticut, and placing cemeteries outside of town started happening in the mid-1800s. These private cemeteries really started taking off with the Civil War since there were so many casualties. Another now-common practice also got established because of the Civil War: Embalming. That was the first time there was a large-scale demand for preserving bodies long enough to get them home from wherever that person died.


I mention this history just to say that much of what we think of in the United States as “traditional” today is really just one or two hundred years old. All our practices around death are constantly evolving. This decision is deeply personal - and it’s also rooted in family, religious, and cultural expectations. And don’t forget there’s an element of chance in all this - not only does your desired technology have to be invented and legal where you are, you would need to die in a way that supports your choice.


So back to your “final disposition”: Where do you imagine ending up? In a family burial plot? In a green cemetery surrounded by trees? Scattered over your favorite body of water? Contributing to medical research? Shot into outer space?


Your final disposition can affect what type of funeral or memorial service you’ll have. And that will determine if they need to secure a casket and what kind. It could be one of those big fancy polished wood ones with satin lining you often see in movies and TV. If it’s possible based on how you die, will you want an open casket? If you’re concerned about the environment, do you want a casket that's like a basket woven from willow or seagrass? Or maybe you want a shroud or to be surrounded by kindling on a pyre?


These decisions will guide whether your body will be embalmed or not, which is why your loved ones will need to get clear on all this right away. It will also determine if a funeral home would be involved at all and, if so, which one.


If you’re concerned that your loved ones might be prone to spending more (or less) on a casket or other services than you’d want them to, be direct here about your requests. You certainly can purchase something in advance, or you could leave some clear directions in your death binder, the binder that contains all your critical paperwork for death and dying.


And, speaking of spending: All this is going to cost something. As I mentioned, you can purchase things in advance, what is often referred to as “pre-need.” There’s been some controversy around this that I’ll discuss more in future episodes, but just know that it’s not always so straightforward to redeem what was purchased. Also, keep in mind that we don’t always know the directions our lives will take us and what we purchase at one time may no longer be right by the time we die. For example, when my mother died 40 years ago, my father purchased the plot right next to her for himself. But eventually he remarried and moved to a new city and they decided on cremation and he no longer wanted that plot. When he died, he left it to me - and it’s one of the stranger and more cumbersome things I’ve inherited since I don’t want to be buried in a cemetery. It’s all a mess.


If you do purchase things in advance, be sure to include a copy of that agreement in your death binder so it’s clear what you wanted and so that your investment doesn’t go to waste.


Other than pre-need, there are other ways to pay for all this including burial insurance or earmarking a savings account - of course, you’ll need to set it up so that the funds can be released right away upon your death to someone you designate. All the money stuff gets complicated, so I’m going to talk with some financial experts in the future to help you and me figure this out.


Some real talk here: If you’re someone who doesn’t have a lot of money and your family and friends also don’t have a lot of money, then please don’t make your final wishes include something that would cost a lot. The people who love you will likely do what they can to make it happen, even if that means incurring debt for themselves. This is not how you want to treat them. If they decide to go big spontaneously on their own because they loved you or whatever, well you can’t control that. But you don’t need to mandate it. In fact, you can make some decisions which will help keep the costs down and that would be very kind, like specifying that you want things to be simple, or you want an at-home funeral. We’ll go over those options in a future episode as well.


One thing that comes up in the first few days that many people my generation and younger don’t often think about: Publishing an obituary, death notice or death announcement. Traditionally, these happened in newspapers and now they are also published online. They are generally published very soon after someone dies because they can also include information about funeral services, or requested donations in lieu of services. I am a fan of the idea of writing an obituary for yourself in advance for a number of reasons that I’ll go into in a future episode. While you don’t have to go so far as writing out the whole thing, you might want to help your people out by jotting down some stuff that you’ve accomplished that you’re especially proud of in the hopes that they’ll include that in your obituary. Give them a highlights reel, if you will.


Finally, a very modern need that will come up in the first few days is access to your social media accounts. Many of us use social media to maintain friendships, and we are far more likely to learn of someone’s death through Facebook or Twitter or Ravelry or another social media than we would be through a newspaper. While most of these companies have put in place some policies about who can access accounts after someone dies, that can take time. If your loved ones want to post anything about you or manage what gets posted onto your account, it’s best if you give them log-in access. Now, I hope you’re already using a password manager. If not, add this to the list of reasons you need to get on that. While you’re alive, a password manager helps you create and keep changing complex passwords that are hard to hack, and you can give a single master code to someone which would enable them to access all your passwords after you’ve died. This can also be a huge help for accessing finances and other accounts that may be needed after you die. So if you haven’t started using a password manager yet, now’s the time.


OK that’s enough. To recap the things that will need to be decided and handled in the first days of your death:

  • What you want done with your body including whether or not a funeral home will be involved, if you want to be embalmed, and if you’ll be buried, cremated, or something else
  • How all of that will be paid for
  • Publication of an obituary or death notice
  • Informing people through social media


I’m sure some of you have noticed that we’ve now gone through two detailed episodes about what’s needed right after you die and I have yet to mention a Will. Truth is, even though writing a Will or setting up a Trust is often the first (and maybe the only) thing that most people think of when they hear the phrase “get your affairs in order,” it’s not actually needed for the first few days. It is, however, quite important, and I’ll be going into that on the next episode. I’ll also be talking more about handling financial accounts including final taxes, what you can do to help others deal with your stuff - both physical and digital, and a little bit about legacy.


Thank you for joining me on Dying Kindness. The music is by Blue Dot Sessions, and everything else was done by me. Please visit my website, DyingKindness.com, for more information about all of this and to leave any questions or comments. I really do want to know what you think. 


Until next time, I'm Cianna Stewart, and I'm going to die someday - but hopefully not before the next episode. 

[music ends]


A while back I thought I should create an anthology of poetry about death - and then I was excited to learn that a few years ago someone did! It’s called “Death Poems,” edited by Russ Kick.


Today’s death poem is from that anthology: “dying” by Lucille Clifton.