For many people, the holidays are a time to come together with family and friends, including those we don’t see often during the rest of the year. We share life updates, swap stories, reminisce about times gone by, and detail our plans and hopes for the future. It’s safe to say most of us don’t think or talk much about death and dying any time of year—let alone during the holidays—but maybe we should. Many view death as a difficult and uncomfortable subject to broach, but it doesn’t have to be. The gatherings that take place during the holidays present an opportunity to have some tough but important conversations with those we care about regarding end-of-life and funeral wishes. Here are some tips for starting a dialogue this holiday season.
According to a 2018 survey by the Conversation Project, a non-profit with a goal of having every person’s wishes for end-of-life care expressed and respected, 92% of Americans believe it’s important to discuss their end-of-life care wishes but only 32% report having had such a conversation. 95% of respondents indicated they are willing to talk about this and 53% even said they’d be relieved to discuss it. If most people are receptive to talking about death and dying, why have so few actually done so? For many, the problem lies in not knowing how to begin the conversation. Advocates for pre-planning often suggest having the conversation at the dinner table. By using a casual space where your family naturally gathers and talks, you take away some of the formality so everyone feels comfortable and safe to be truly honest and open. Though death and mortality can be sad subjects, talking about them doesn’t have to bring down the mood of your holiday gathering. Even if you anticipate you or a loved one will be upset by the conversation, it may be surprisingly liberating and provide a sense of peace. If we have a plan for what happens when we die, we can focus on enjoying life and spending time with family and friends.
What you talk about and how you bring it up is up to you and largely dependent on who you’re talking to and what you feel is most relevant and important to cover. Maybe you want to focus on what a person wants done (or not done) should they become incapacitated or terminally ill. How do they feel about life-sustaining measures? Do they have a will or named a power of attorney? Are there any religious or cultural considerations they want made? Perhaps you’re particularly interested in their wishes for what happens after they die. Do they want a big funeral? Should there be a visitation? What about cremation versus burial? Their answers often lead to more questions for an individual’s loved ones, like how much will these things cost? Where will the money come from? Who will make sure their plans and wishes are followed and respected? There are some excellent resources available to prepare you for and guide you through discussing these topics with loved ones. Death Over Dinner, Dying Matters, and the aforementioned Conversation Project are organizations that offer helpful information, guides, and tips that help you plan your talk in advance and make the process simpler.
After having a productive conversation, you or a loved one may feel compelled to explore establishing concrete legal and financial plans. There are many tools available that allow you to do this. One example is preneed trusts. A preneed trust is a financial agreement used to pay ahead for anticipatory costs associated with funeral, cremation, and burial services. Not only can this alleviate fear regarding high unexpected costs for your funeral, but it enables you to formally establish the details of your desired services. The money you put into the trust remains yours while it’s in there, and it will only be used for your death expenses—nothing else. You’re able to select and pay for things like cemetery properties (plots, mausoleums, crypts, etc.), grave markers, caskets or urns, and other funeral and burial services in addition to choosing which companies and vendors to work with. Not only does this help ease the financial burden placed on surviving loved ones, but it also gives you a sense of peace knowing that your wishes will be followed to the letter. There are regulations and taxes associated with preneed trusts that vary from state to state, so it’s important that you talk with an experienced accountant or other licensed deathcare professional to determine the best option for you.
About MKS&H: McLean, Koehler, Sparks & Hammond (MKS&H) is a professional service firm with offices in Hunt Valley and Frederick. MKS&H helps owners and organizational leaders become more successful by putting complex financial data into truly meaningful context. But deeper than dollars and data, our focus is on developing an understanding of you, your culture, and your business goals. This approach enables our clients to achieve their greatest potential.