Putting your affairs in order

What does ‘putting my affairs in order’ mean? What can I do now to make things as easy as possible for my loved ones when the time comes?

Faced with sorting through a loved one’s possessions can be a sobering task. When I visit bereaved families to organise a funeral they are generally still wading through the paperwork and I am often told “I had no idea how many bits of paper I would need to find! When this is over, I’m going to put my affairs in order.” Perhaps this is something you would like to do to? But, where should you start? What needs doing? Are you worried about the costs of your funeral? Will your family arrange the funeral themselves? And, is thinking about the funeral all there is to do? What else needs doing?

This blog raises some questions for you to think about in terms of your own death. The Natural Death Centre also provides independent advice about arranging funerals – including about organising them yourself. I have included links to more specific sources of help below.

A key question to ask yourself is, how much can you really face doing? There are some easy things to ask yourself and to share with your loved ones:

  • Do you want to be buried or cremated? Or would you like to leave your body to science or medical education? If you want to be buried, would you prefer to be buried in a churchyard, a secular graveyard, or a natural burial ground? If you want to be cremated, what would you like to happen to your ashes? They can be interred in a garden of remembrance or scattered somewhere that is of significance to you. Perhaps you would rather be cremated with no ceremony (this is called a direct cremation and companies which provide this are changing rapidly). A wake or memorial in more informal surroundings later may suit your loved ones’ better, particularly following a direct cremation or if you have donated your body.

  • What kind of service or ceremony would you prefer? Is your funeral to be a sombre memorial? or a celebration of your life? Do you want a religious funeral? In which case your local church and parish priest will help. Or do you want no religion? Are you completely secular, or are you more spiritual? Do you have some sense of a greater purpose? perhaps a one-ness with nature? or a feeling that you will see loved ones again? Perhaps a humanist, Civil or Independent celebrant will be more what is required (see also section at the end on preparing your own funeral for ways to find a celebrant).

Talking these questions over with your loved ones or a celebrant can help you clarify your thinking.

There can also be the fun of selecting music: a mini Desert Island Discs. Typically, funerals have three pieces of music: a piece of music played as mourners enter the chapel or crematorium; another piece played around the time of the committal, usually a reflective piece; and a piece to play as people leave, often something more up-lifting. These are the sorts of thing you are likely to change your mind about frequently so, make a note somewhere easily found.

While people have often discussed musical choices with their loved ones, few choose poems or readings but there is no reason why you shouldn’t. Again, make a note somewhere safe.

You could even write a letter or message for the celebrant to read – or that might feel like a step too far! Kathryn Mannix1 provides a template for writing a letter to be read after your death which you might find helpful – it consists of a series of prompts, each the start of a paragraph:

Date …;

Dear …;

I want you to know that I have always appreciated …;

What I particularly love about you is …;

I hope you have forgiven me for …;

Please don’t worry about …;

When you think about me, I hope you will remember …;

For your future, what I wish for you is …;

Thank you for being such an important part of my life.

Love from …

Then there are more hidden tasks and decisions. These can make a huge difference to those you leave behind:

  • Writing a will makes life easier, even a simple will can save your loved ones having to second-guess what you would have wanted (and money!). If you die without a will the government will make decisions about who gets what and your estate is likely to have to pay more tax. You can buy a will-writing kit online or from a stationer’s, some charities provide a will-writing service in exchange for a small bequest, or you can pay a solicitor to produce the will for you. Think carefully about who you ask to be your executor (the person who carries out the wishes in your will), especially if your affairs are complicated or if there may be friction. It might be worth including a solicitor as an executor; they will have to be paid but they know what they are doing and are impartial! There are economical ways to write a will too:

  • Thinking about your digital death. A growing problem for people is dealing with their loved one’s on-line life: facebook, instagam and twitter accounts, websites and blogs as well as on-line banking, paypal accounts etc. Companies have very strict rules about who they will deal with. Who knows your passwords? Your answers to security questions? This is still a relatively new phenomenon and lawyers, institutions, companies and individuals are still working out how to manage. A search for ‘digital death’ brings up a lot of things including Apps and Websites where you can lodge your pins, passwords and security answers. You can provide your executors with reading rights to this information. Or you could have a book and write it all down. Whatever you do, this is important to think about.

  • Planning a ‘best interests decision’. If you become unable (through illness or accident) to make your wishes for your own treatment known, then your family can be left in a very difficult position. Medical professionals will be naturally cautious and likely to work to prolong life – whatever the quality of that life is likely to be. You might want to consider writing an Advance Decision to Refuse Treatment (usually called an advance decision) – writing one ahead of time may seem unnecessary but, if you have an accident then it is too late ... Just telling your loved ones probably won’t be enough. So, difficult as it may be, putting something in writing is important. One way to formulate your decision is to use a form. Compassion in dying have advice and a form you can use, but even a letter in which you set out what you would want in case of an accident is better than nothing. You might also want to consider getting an organ donation card or to sign the register.

  • Giving someone the ability to make decisions for you by writing a lasting or enduring power of attorney. This can be most suitable for people who know their health and decision-making capacities are deteriorating. The Office for the Public Guardian have separate forms for decisions about health and money so you can separate how decisions might be made about different aspects of your life. They can be written before they are needed and only registered when the time is right. But, you have to be of sound mind to sign these forms so doing them in good time is important.

  • Finally, you can prepare your own funeral ahead of time This is called 'pre-need' or 'advanced planning' … a celebrant can help you do this. I have some advice about this on my own website but you can find a local celebrant to help you – a funeral director might be able to help or look on websites such as the Institute of Civil Funerals, the Association of Independent Celebrants or the British Humanist Association. The Natural Death website has other sources of help.

It can feel daunting and unsettling to think about our own deaths but, making some plans may help things feel less difficult and lifting the taboo with those who will have to carry out your wishes can save a lot of heart-ache. Remember, whatever you do, you don’t need to do it all at once. Good luck!

1Mannix, K. 2017. With the end in mind: Death and dying in an age of denial London: William Collins

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