Confessions of an Estate Planner: Part 10 Laying to Rest

      By Paul Radford

      When we lose the ones we love

      The end of a life for one person and the start of a new one for their beloved and those left behind is usually experienced with a whole host of raw emotions.  Shock, fear, sorrow, guilt, loss, melancholy, relief, anger, helplessness, hostility, bitterness, pain, nostalgia, resentment, despair, amongst others are often encountered (separately and all at once). 

      It never isn't emotional.

      Some deaths come at the end of a long life or a long illness and are expected.  That doesn’t make things any easier. 

      Others are untimely and come suddenly in that they are as a result of a diagnosis of an incurable disease with limited time to live, or an accident or homicide or suicide (which no one saw coming).  Or the deceased is very young or in the prime of their life.

      Everyone reacts differently and everyone reacts the same and often words just do not do justice and cannot describe everything that is happening of what is being felt.  What should be said or done?  What shouldn’t be said or done? 

      Often just being there is what counts and all that is needed.

      Everyone is affected in different ways and at different times.

      Soon after a loved one or dear friend has departed there is a funeral and a wake to prepare for and attend.  It usually is all a blur.  It can be stressful (apart from everything else).

      And then comes the after ……. and the thought of it.  It is very easy to sink into the quicksand of your thoughts. 

      The unknown future is a daunting prospect.

      Laying to rest

      Saying goodbye and with that remembering and respecting a loved one, takes many forms across the cultures and religions across the world.  There are many different rituals, practices and protocols.  Apart from dealing with a corpse in an appropriate way, funerals serve to bring people together to share the loss, celebrate a life, offer sympathy and support to each other. 

      In Bali, for example, funerals usually take place a year or so after someone has died and more often than not the bodies of several people (ceremoniously washed soon after death) will be cremated on the same day and the proceedings are more like a festival (the grieving period having well and truly ended).  After a feast the ashes and bones of the corpses are offered to the sea in a final ritual.

      Contrast this with Jewish funerals where cremation (and embalmment) is forbidden and the burial must take place as soon as possible (usually within 24 hours).  There are also very strict rituals and practices following a strong set of customs and beliefs based on the Torah (a part of the Hebrew Bible).

      In Tibet, Bhutan and some parts of China, India and Mongolia the funeral practice of choice is a Sky Burial (a very ancient practice which essentially involves leaving a corpse on a mountain top allowing it to decompose and/or be eaten by scavenging animals and birds). 

      In New Orleans funeral processions are led by big horn bands which play sad tunes first followed by upbeat jazz and blues numbers accompanied by furious dancing.

      The Mexicans take things to a whole new level with their Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday and celebrations.  The central theme is gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember the dead and help support their spiritual journey.  It is a day of celebration not a day of sadness.  Those partaking believe their deceased loved ones and friends are awake and celebrating with them.

      And the Ancient Egyptians certainly didn’t muck around building Pyramids to entomb their Pharaohs and consorts. 

      In Australia, most of us will have experienced Christian services and rituals developed over the centuries.  You may find it interesting to know that the common phrase used at funerals “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust etc” does not come from the Bible (rather an Anglican publication from 1549 known as the Book of Common Prayer).  

      Wakes are Celtic in origin.  Mourners would keep a watch over their dead until buried to make sure they did not “wake” up.  Over the centuries this practice developed into a time to mourn and celebrate together usually with a liberal supply of alcohol.  Wakes are an environment for tears, laughter, and memories. They allow everyone affected by the death the chance to mourn in the way that heals their own pain, and to do it in an atmosphere surrounded by others that loved and mourn the deceased in their own way as well.

      The undertaker

      Funeral Directors are naturally enough very supportive and mindful of all of the emotions, sensitivities and tensions.  Essentially, they will take control of everything for your loved ones who can be as involved or not involved as they wish or are able to. 

      Many are not aware that the executor of a deceased person is ultimately responsible for all decisions regarding a funeral.  Coffins and caskets, the hearse, pall bearers, burial or cremation (and dealing with and possession of the ashes) floral tributes, donations to a worthy cause, advertisements, legal notices, photos, the music, the eulogy (who will do it and what will they say), church or no church, a viewing or no viewing and the wake.

      In most cases an executor making these decisions will not be an issue (as the process will be consultative).   If a decision your executor may make could lead to unhappiness you can of course:-

      • review who your executor is; or
      • make your funeral arrangements before you die.

      Offence taken (rightly or wrongly) before and after a funeral will be remembered for generations.  No doubt many situations are delicate and sometimes things can go awry despite the best of intentions.  If there is “a scene” at a funeral it can often spawn litigation (discussed in other chapters) for years to come.

      The estate of the deceased is of course liable for the funeral and wake costs.  Dealing with a stranger namely the funeral director at a time of grief can be daunting and whilst the funeral director will take charge of a process your loved ones would rather not be involved in (in a professional and mindful way) they should be wary about the costs involved and whether or not they are getting value for money. 

      It can be very expensive indeed.

      Many people worry about not burdening their loved ones with the costs of a funeral.  Relying on this worry, insurance companies and funeral homes promote funeral insurance and pre-paid funeral plans or funeral bonds.   Either way there is no doubt this ends up costing way more than the funeral itself so a better option may be to simply set up a bank account and put money aside regularly on account of the cost. 

      What also commonly happens is that the arrangements set up are not discovered or are not paid out due to "a technicality" (the policy being a rort).

      There is no such thing as funeral insurance that is not a rort.  The Hayne Royal Commission recommended that all forms of funeral insurance now be subject to the same regulatory scheme and supervision as other ‘financial products’. 

      This has been a long time coming.

      In our strange world there are many things to worry about other than funeral costs.  Worrying about funeral costs to the point of signing up to expensive insurance and prepaid plans has always been curious to me as:-

      • most people will have enough money to cover the cost particularly if they have superannuation;
      • if there is no money to pay the State Government will pay (in the form of very basic funeral assistance).

      The minimum cost is usually about $4,000.00 for a basic cremation. 

      The sky then is the limit depending on what is necessary or required.  I alluded to some items above but the following are usually essential:-

      • Funeral Director fees
      • Transport
      • Coffin
      • Death certificate
      • Permits
      • Burial / cremation
      • Headstone and Cemetery plot
      • Other expenses, such as a celebrant or clergy, flowers, newspaper notices and of course, the wake.

      I did it my way

      In saying all of this, apart from the minimum things that must occur there are no rules about how a funeral is conducted.  Who could ever forget Pope John Paul II insisting (in his will) on a basic wooden casket.  I should say at this point wills are often not looked at until after a funeral so if you have certain wishes you should let your loved ones know beforehand in another way.

      For me I would rather let my loved ones work out what is best for them and I would encourage them not follow the standard so called rules of play (ie what is offered by the Funeral Director).   This mostly does not occur because your loved ones are not in the right headspace following your death and they tend to accept what is on offer (on the basis of 'that is how it is done' - just add your own slide show and music and press play).

      As you are sitting at a funeral service listening to Bette Midler's "You are the wind beneath my wings" …… you could be forgiven in thinking that many funerals these days are hypocritical, dull, impersonal and rushed.  It is not likely that anyone attending one of these types of funerals would ever offer something like "Shame about Bob …. Boring funeral too .…".  Who would ever complain?

      A good funeral is a life enhancing experience and what better parting gift for your loved ones but to put some plans in place and thought into it now or at least give them some ideas (rather than getting a version they accept because they are grieving and it is the only option presented). 

      Not that we all are comedians but who could ever forget Spike Milligan insisting that his Gravestone read “I told you I was sick”.  I am not suggesting everyone has to be different or do something 'wacky' to be remembered. 

      I am suggesting it is well worth putting some thought into.

      Donation of body parts

      The donation of organs and tissue can and does improve the lives of others.  Many kinds of body tissue can be donated after death including skin, tendons, bone, heart valves and eyes.

      About 1,500 Australians are presently waitlisted for a life saving organ transplant.  If you register your willingness to donate on the Australian Organ Donor Register there is a chance you may save or improve another life.  All you need is your Medicare number to register on line.  You can also record this on your driver's licence.

      Your wishes should be discussed openly with your family and recorded in writing.  

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