Tackling your Death Documents

*** Time for this post?  Reading… 3 minutes. Completing documents… unknown and worth every minute. Dancing… as long as you want!

Quick! Do your near and dear know where your mother was born? Or your father’s full name exactly as it is on his birth certificate?

They should…because the funeral home will ask for these details (unless you’ve prearranged your funeral and already given them the information).

Do your kids know if you or your spouse ever received Family Allowances or the Child Tax Credit?

They should know that too…because the government will want the answer when your family applies for the Canada Pension Plan Death Benefit.

Who knew?!!

Not me, until I began getting all my paperwork ducks in a row.

Apparently, funeral homes are required to submit information about your lineage when registering your death with the provincial government. I have no idea why the federal government needs to know about Family Allowance cheques I received half a century ago…and I didn’t ask.

But you can be sure I wrote down the answers to those tricky questions and gave them to my kids.

Here’s a blank copy with space to fill in your answers to questions that might be tricky for others. Click on the thumbnail below for a PDF version or here to download the Word File.

Preventing overwhelm…

We all know there are documents we should have in place before we die—not just one, but about half a dozen. Where to start?!! 

First thing…

Here’s a checklist.

Print it and put a checkmark beside the documents you’ve already completed.

Then

Look at the unchecked items and focus on the one closest to the top. Beside that item, write down the first thing you’ll do to get it underway. Give your yourself a completion date for that first step. Then do it.

If you feel stuck, review my blogs on the various documents.

Cost of a basic will
Wills…getting down to business
Wills…without the mumbo jumbo
Power of Attorney (at the end of this blog)
Personal Directive
Supported Decision-Making
Paper Trail
Last Wishes

Rinse and repeat…

You may find that you have more than one document on the go at the same time because you’re waiting for something—your appointment with the lawyer, a chance to get to your safety deposit box and check on an item in there, an opportunity to discuss your personal directive with your children before arranging to have your signature witnessed, etc.

The key is to keep things moving and tick off items as they are completed. When you check off the last one, do a happy dance!

Snoopy Happy Dance from David Innes on Vimeo.

The Last of your Death Documents

***Time for this post?  Reading…10 minutes. Listening…2 minutes. Implementing…one bit at a time.

I’ve recently written about Wills, Power of Attorney, and Personal Directives. All are essential because they cover differing aspects of managing our affairs before and after death.

These documents are not necessarily quick and easy to make. It would be understandable if you’re feeling that it’s an onerous task to put things in order for your eventual demise!

Sorry! There are three more documents to consider—your Last Wishes Letter, Paper Trail, and a Supported Decision-Making Authorization. These aren’t legally required, but will ease things for you and your family in a variety of ways.

This post gives you the essential information you need to make each of them happen. They don’t all need to be done at once, but after reading this you will have in the back of your mind what is required to get each of them completed when you are ready to do it.

Supported Decision-Making…

Here’s how the Alberta government describes supported decision-making

Even if an adult is capable of making decisions, there may be times when they need someone to help make non-financial decisions. This is called supported decision-making.

A supporter’s help is often needed when the adult is ill, has mild disabilities, doesn’t speak English well, or is facing a complex decision.

A supporter helps communicate the adult’s questions, concerns and decisions by talking to their service providers, who could include doctors, pharmacists, care centres, and employers.

A supporter has the legal authority to access the adult’s personal information like medical records and to help the adult think through decisions.

Click on the image below for a printable version of a supported decision-making form. As you will see, it allows you to appoint up to three people to provide support for you when you need it.

Witnessing the form

This form is a do-it-yourself process but it requires witnessing. The witness does not need to know or approve of what is in the document. He or she is there to simply watch you sign. The instruction sheet the came with my form says the “witness cannot be one of your supporters.” It is also understood that a witness must be the age of majority.

That’s how it is in Alberta, Canada. Elsewhere, you might find something similar. It’s worth checking. This kind of assistance can make your elder-hood easier.

Last Wishes Letter. Why?

Your Will is all business. It ensures distribution of your material possessions and financial assets after you’ve died. But there is no “touchy-feely” quality to it. A Will does not provide any means of specifying how you want your body handled after you’ve left it, who you would like notified of your passing, and how you want to be memorialized.

The solution is for you to create a Last Wishes Letter. This is not a legal document, but rather a means of “speaking” to your family. In fact, you may want to literally speak to them by going over it with them while you’re still alive.

Getting down to it…

The contents of your Last Wishes Letter are entirely up to you. The following guidelines will help you get started.

~~ Your body…

Think about things like funeral, cremation, or body donation? Do you care where the ashes are spread? Open or closed casket? Do you have a preferred funeral home? Have you pre-paid for services? Is there a family burial plot? Do you want your funeral at home? What would that involve?

~~ Memorialization…

Do you envision a large funeral service in a religious building? A memorial service at the funeral home? What music do you want…or not want? Is your community of friends scattered across the country or the world, making either of those options impractical? What are the key facts you’d like included in your obituary? Have you written your own obituary to ensure accuracy of details? Do you want a tree planted in your name? A plaque on a wall at the cemetery where your urn is buried or your ashes scattered? Do you care?

~~ Special items and clarifications…

Taffy & Dolly

Dolly is one of the antiques I will be passing on to my two granddaughters. She was a gift from Santa Claus in the early 1950s. Recently, my sister sent Taffy, same vintage, to live at my house. Taffy is a gift, as long as she stays in my family. However, if my granddaughters don’t want her at inheritance time, Karen has asked that Taffy be returned…a fair and important request.

Why is this important? If Karen’s request is overlooked, that could cause hard feelings which might become irreparable. Most of us can think of examples from our own families where something like this has happened.

So here’s what I did… I printed the above photo on a letter-sized sheet of paper, leaving room around it for notations. I clearly indicated which doll was which, identifying the one that belongs to my sister. Then I wrote the details of our arrangement on the page. I have sent a copy to Karen, gave a copy to both my kids, and put the original page in my death documents file. I think I’ve covered all the bases and left no room for hard feelings!

Most of us have things that we’ve promised to people—a cherished item, a sum of money, forgiveness of a loan, or who knows what else. If you want to make sure things happen as you intended, then put the details in writing and share copies with everyone who should know about it.

~~ A personal message…

What you say, or don’t say, in your Last Wishes Letter is entirely up to you. “Goodbye. I love you. I am so proud of who you’ve become” is enough.

But if you want to say more and don’t know where to start, do a web search for “legacy letters” or “ethical wills.” You’ll find many websites to help you. I particularly like this description by Bill Zimmerman

Every parent or adult should consider passing down to a beloved child a written legacy, or letters, focusing on all the important things which they have learned in their lives. Such legacy letters strengthen that child’s ability to survive in life and deal with all the good and bad things to be experienced in years to come. These legacy letters might include family values, lessons learned, memories, and hopes or dreams for that child. Such legacy notes also convey the wisdom that a parent or relative has acquired and which would be helpful for a child to know.

Legacy letters let you determine how you want to be remembered.

…you can start your own legacy letter by answering three short questions:

  1. How do you want to be remembered?
  2. What’s something you’ve learned from your parents?
  3. What challenges have you overcome?


Click on the image above for a printable template for your Last Wishes Letter with spaces for jotting down some rough notes. When the rough outline is done, you can type it out, handwrite the whole thing, dictate your thoughts onto a video, or format it however you like. And, if you happen to die at the rough-note stage, your family will still have some idea of what you wanted them to know.

Paper Trail…

Like your Will, the Paper Trail is all business. It contains particulars about your legal and financial affairs, including location of documents such as land titles, birth certificate, divorce papers, and anything else that will help your executor more easily wind up your affairs. Your Paper Trail is also a good place to record pertinent health information such as healthcare numbers, where you get prescriptions filled, name of your health practitioners with contact information. This will be helpful for your agent if your Personal Directive must be brought into effect because of a deteriorated mental state.

Click on the image below for a printable fill-in-the-blanks version. To download the Word file of this Paper Trail document, click here.

It has been a lot to take in these past few weeks. You can’t do it all at once. Take a breath and start somewhere, with one small thing…

Please note: Laws vary between provinces, states, and countries. I’m using information from where I live to illustrate principles, but you will need to check the details in your jurisdiction. The Internet is a good place to start.

Personal Directive. Why bother?

*** Time for this post?  Reading… 12 minutes. Viewing…13 minutes well spent. Doing the work…take the time while you have it.

A Personal Directive (Advance Directive, Health Care Directive, Living Will) is an important piece of your paperwork. It’s the legal document in which you state your wishes for your personal care and medical treatment…or non-treatment. It only comes into effect if you are found to lack capacity to make personal decisions for yourself.

You need a Personal Directive as well as your Power of Attorney. Although both of them come into effect when you’ve lost your mental capacity to decide for yourself, the Power of Attorney can only address your financial matters. So a Personal Directive is necessary to give authority to someone you trust to make your personal decisions.

It’s about directing how you want your life to conclude…

Jim McDermott is a medical doctor who has seen plenty of life and death. In a compelling TEDx talk, he reminds us of the importance of initiating conversations about how we wish to pass when the time comes. He encourages us to think and act on our own convictions while we can, putting our wishes in writing so they are known by all who will be caring for us.

As Dr. McDermott says, you go to the trouble of documenting your wishes for…
  1. Yourself… so you go in the best possible way.
  2. Your loved ones… to clarify your wishes and prevent emotionally upsetting disputes about what is best.
  3. Your doctors…to free them from their ethic of prolonging life at all cost.
  4. Your wallet…to prevent unproductive expenditures on treatments that make very little difference in the long run.

Making an Advance Care Plan…

Putting your wishes in writing isn’t easy—he’s right about that!

For me, my Personal Directive was challenging because it took a while to find helpful information about how to do it. Not because there wasn’t information, but because it was written by medical people and government officials. The resulting booklets were confusingly clinical. They did nothing to help me think about what life might bring when I’m old and frail…or what I think should happen in such circumstances. Nor did they help me gain a sense of when I would be ready to say “enough is enough.”

Dying with Dignity…

Then I discovered Dying with Dignity Canada, an organization committed to improving our quality of dying, protecting end-of-life rights, and helping Canadians avoid unwanted suffering.

Dying with Dignity has a booklet that is incredibly useful. It walks you through the thinking process by asking a series of questions about what you would want in various scenarios. Here’s an example:

You have congestive heart failure. You are always short of breath. Your swollen ankles make walking difficult. But your mind is still sharp and you enjoy time with family and friends. One day you have a severe heart attack and your heart stops beating. Do you want 911 called and CPR started?

[  ]  Yes

[  ]  No

[  ]  I am uncertain

Their questions helped clarify my thinking. But they take it one step further, and recommend also using the questions to initiate conversation with those who will be in charge of decisions about you. To do this, they suggest giving a blank copy of the questionnaire to your agents and family members to answer the way they think you did. Comparing their answers to yours shows the discrepancies, giving you a chance to discuss and clarify your wishes. In so many cases, this sort of conversation is the missing piece in end-of-life preparations. The questionnaire process facilitates it beautifully.

You can find their planning document at the Dying with Dignity website. If you live in Canada, scroll to the bottom to find the version tailored to your province’s legal requirements. If you live elsewhere in the world, pick any province and use the booklet for the thinking process. Then do some research to learn about the legalities and appropriate forms where you live.

Some practical information…

  • A Living Will or Personal Directive does not apply to your financial decisions. It only applies to personal decisions—those about where you will live and what sort of medical care you will agree to have in various circumstances.
  • You make your Personal Directive while you are still mentally sound. In it, you specify what you want to happen to you in the time before death, and appoint someone, known as your agent, to speak on your behalf when you cannot.
  • It is a legal document that comes into effect when you have been deemed incapable of acting on your own behalf.
  • When making your Personal Directive, be sure to check the legal requirements where you live. In Alberta, a Personal Directive is optional and voluntary. However, when one is made, it must meet certain prescribed conditions to be legally valid.
  • To be legally binding, a Personal Directive must be signed, dated, and witnessed. A lawyer can do it for you, but that is not necessary as long as you research the legal requirements and follow them carefully.
  • Your Personal Directive is not written in stone. You can change your mind and write a new directive at any time. Since it does not require assistance of a lawyer, it won’t cost anything except your trouble in arranging for someone to witness your signature.

  • In Alberta, a witness MAY NOT be the person you named as your agent, the spouse or partner of the person you named as your agent, your own spouse/partner, or anyone under the age of 18 (the age of majority).
  • The witness is not required to read your document or approve its contents. The witness is there to actually see you sign the paper. That means you must complete the document except for your signature before meeting with the witness. You sign first, and then the witness signs. If ever asked, your witness would be able to swear that he or she saw you sign the document.
  • Before meeting with the witness, make several copies of the unsigned but complete directive form. Both you and the witness sign each of the copies. this means that you and your agents each have a document with original signatures, which will be helpful when they need to use it.
  • Once your Personal Directive is signed and witnessed, you may want to make copies and send them to your family. This is not legally required but will help ensure there are no misunderstandings about what you want. You may also wish to leave copies with your doctor, lawyer, and/or clergyman.

Another angle to consider…

Dementia presents a unique situation because it can take 5 to 20 years for the end of life to arrive. You might want to give thought to the kind of medical care you would want at various stages if you were to develop worsening dementia.

I recently discovered an excellent health directive for dementia with clear and direct explanations. It was developed by Dr. Barak Gaster, a medical doctor who teaches resident physicians in the clinic at the Memory and Brain Wellness Center, University of Washington. He knows a lot about the ramifications of dementia.

His Dementia Directive Form  is available free. I have just made my choices, signed and dated it, and attached it to my main Personal Directive. If you don’t yet have your Personal Directive completed, at least do the dementia directive and file it with copies of your Will and Power of Attorney. (More about what to do with all your documents at another time.)

For more about Dr. Gaster and why he thinks this is important, check out this article in the New York Times. In part, he says…

The standard advance directives tend to focus on things like a ‘permanent coma’ or a ‘persistent vegetative state,’” Dr. Gaster said. “Most of the time, they apply to a person with less than six months to live. Although it’s a terminal disease, dementia often intensifies slowly, over many years. The point at which dementia patients can no longer direct their own care isn’t predictable or obvious.

That just gives you the flavour of what a dementia directive is about. It’s worth considering.

PS I just printed the graphic with the stars and attached it to the front of my directive because I felt the document was still lacking in the spirit of what I want. I think this does it! If you’d like to print the page I used, click on the image below.

PPS Laws vary between provinces, states, and countries. I’m using information from where I live to illustrate principles, but you will need to check the details in your jurisdiction. The Internet is a good place to start.

The Ultimate Gift

**Time for this post?  Reading…10 minutes. Thinking time…none to lots.

There are only a few ways for your survivors to deal with your body when you’ve left it. A body can be kept intact and buried. It can be disintegrated—by fire or by alkaline water (the latter permitted in only some jurisdictions at this time). And…

There is a third way—donation to medical education.

I had never thought of doing this until last summer when I began researching conscious dying. Two things I learned from widely different sources came together and, suddenly, body donation seemed like a possibility.

In her TEDx talk, Rochelle Martin gave us four action steps. The last one was to choose in death what we value in life. That hovered in the back of my mind…

Then I was reading about body donation and learned that it’s a widely held myth that donated bodies are used for research and therefore must somehow be medically unique. Truth is, cadavers are used primarily for education—a practical way that medical students can learn how the body works and practice surgical techniques before being faced with a real live patient.

This knowledge, coupled with the fact that I’ve always valued practical education, got me looking further to see what’s involved in body donation and if I would qualify.

Exploring the possibility…

I figured my best bet for finding information was at a local university with a medical school. The University of Calgary website does indeed have all the information I needed to assess whether body donation is for me.

Then, for purposes of more general research on the topic, I searched five other Canadian universities to get a sense of the similarities and differences in body donation programs across the country.

What I learned…

“Body Donation Program” is the usual term, but both the University of Alberta and Newfoundland’s Memorial University refer to theirs as the Anatomical Gifts Program, and the University of Western Ontario calls it a Body Bequeathal Program,

They all deal with bodies from a limited geographic area because of the urgency for transferring bodies quickly, usually within 48 to 72 hours. Bodies for donation must not be embalmed.

Programs typically cover the cost of body transportation to their facility if it is within their prescribed area, and they deal with the body when it has served its purpose. At the University of Western Ontario,

Body bequeathal is the donation of one’s whole body after death. …the entire body is used for study and once the learning is complete, the cremated remains are returned to the family or interred by Western University in London, Ontario.

Respect and appreciation for the gift…

They all emphasize respect and value for bodies that are donated. This statement from the University of Alberta Anatomical Gifts Program is typical:

Anatomical gifts are used for teaching courses in human anatomy to medical, dental and allied health professional students. The course helps to familiarize students with anatomical relationships in the body that are essential for understanding the progression and treatment of human diseases.

Anatomical donations are regarded by the medical community as precious gifts to medical education. Donors and their families can be assured their contribution is greatly appreciated by both students and faculty. All anatomical donations are treated with utmost respect.

And the donor’s identity is not revealed, as the program brochure from McGill University explains:

Body donation is an anonymous gesture. Personal identification of the body is used by and accessible to only the Director and Administrator of the Body Donor Program. Researchers, technicians, and students working with the bodies do not have access to identification information.

Donation parameters…

None of the universities will accept bodies which have had organs removed. The University of Calgary says:

Our program strongly supports all individuals who chose to donate their organs, and we encourage all those interested to register for both programs. At the time of death the acceptance decision will be made by each program based on eligibility criteria. The removal of internal organs and tissues (excluding cornea & sclera from the eyes) makes your body unsuitable for our educational needs.

Even if they have accepted a signed statement of intent to donate, all programs reserve the right to make a final determination about the suitability of a body depending on its condition at time of death. The following list of exclusions from the University of British Columbia is similar to most. They will not take a body with:

– Infectious diseases (e.g. HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B or C)

– Severe antibiotic resistant infections (e.g. MRSA, VRE)

– Obesity

– Extensive bodily trauma/open wounds/recent surgery

– Suicide or traumatic death

– Autopsy or Coroner’s case

– Delay in notification of death

– Most organ donations (except corneal transplant)

– Other conditions at the discretion of the body program

Spoiler alert: This means you must have a Plan B for body disposition.

Exploring body donation for yourself…

As you can see, general principles are the same but details will differ between institutions. If you’re considering body donation, here are some guidelines for checking it out.

  1. Do a web search for the closest university that has a medical school, Insert your university name in the blank:   _________________ body donation.
  2. Read through their information pages. Pay particular attention to eligibility requirements such as minimum age and body size.
  3. If you meet these criteria, look for details about their application process—application form, consent form, family notification form, etc.
  4. If you decide to go ahead, discuss your intention with your family. Some universities will not take the donation if your family contests it, even if you had filled out the form.
  5. Complete the appropriate forms and submit them as directed. Remember that you can rescind this bequest at any time.
  6. Investigate alternative body disposal arrangements in case the condition of your body at death makes it unsuitable for donation. In that case, your family is responsible for body disposition.
  7. Put all your actions and decisions in writing and give them to your next of kin and the executor of your will. Several of the universities recommend that you also advise your family doctor that to you have made arrangements for body donation.

Disposition of our body is a personal decision for each of us. We all have deep-seated reasons why one method or another is unappealing or downright repulsive. There is no right and wrong here. The point is that we need to be aware of the options so we can choose what suits us best given what’s available where we live. It’s an important step toward dying in peace.

Eco-friendly Cremation

**Time for this post? Reading…10 minutes. Viewing…24 minutes. Assimilation…up to you.

Last week I wrote about green burial, and what options are available where I live. Today we’ll take a look at cremation from a similar perspective.

Cremation is inherently more environmentally friendly than burial because it does not require land and doesn’t leave toxic formaldehyde leaching into the soil.

Even so, cremation is not a perfect solution.  It is done at temperatures of 1400-1800°F for 45-90 minutes. This consumes large quantities of fuel, releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. There are toxic emissions from lacquers and glues in the containers that are incinerated with the body. Toxic mercury vapours from amalgam fillings also come out of the smokestack. According to sevenponds.com Continue reading

Natural Burial

**Time for this post?  Reading…10  minutes. Listening…2 minutes. Investigating…up to you.

I taught a course in consumer issues for many years. Early on, I recognized that there’s a difference between information and access. In other words, it’s one thing to know about something you’d like to have, it’s another to be able to get it.

This is true with natural burials, as I discovered when I began asking about what’s available where I live. What follows is not a definitive treatise on green burial. It’s a working paper to give some direction to your own thinking and investigating if a natural funeral appeals to you.

I live in Calgary, a Canadian city of 1.2 million people. I gathered information from staff at one of the city-run cemeteries as well as an alternative funeral director. I also did some reading to discover the key aspects of a green burial. Here’s what I learned.

The greenest of green…

The Natural Burial Association describes it like this: Continue reading