Thinking about death — both our own and our loved ones — can feel frightening and can lead us to avoid the topic and realities of passing over altogether. However, planning our own transition can be a profoundly healing and preparatory experience. Just as importantly, having a plan in place takes the pressure off our loved ones during their own grieving period. If you’re still feeling anxious, just remember that death is natural. It’s something that we all must face and the sooner we step through fear, the less scary it becomes. Equally, there are so many uncertainties to death — by leaning into the elements you can control what is actually going to provide grounding and peace, for you, and those you leave behind. This guide provides an outline to make difficult conversations easier, gives you clarity and action plans on the logistical elements of death, and invites you to create your own meaningful and sovereign goodbye rituals and ceremonies.
The Conversations You Need To Have
Depending on your upbringing, death may be something that is readily spoken about or completely off limits. Regardless, it’s an important conversation that needs to be discussed clearly and with compassion. Here are some suggestions to gently but constructively communicate a difficult topic.
- Begin earlier than you think: You don’t need to wait until you’re sick or elderly to communicate your wishes regarding the medical, ceremonial, and legal aspects of your death. In fact, it’s easier to have a conversation before you are faced with the real prospect of death or are incapacitated.
- 1, 2, 3, say it: Funeral Director of Down to Earth Funerals, Caroline Schrenk, acknowledges it can feel fearful to bring up the topic of death. As much as we want to rehearse what we’re going to say to loved ones, sometimes it’s just best to spit it out. Caroline says, “Once it’s out there and said, it’s out there, and will begin to take care of itself.” The most important thing is to simply begin the conversation and speak from the heart.
- You’re not speaking it into reality: Caroline also says that some people feel that talking about death is going to “bring it on,” it’s not. Leave superstition at the door and feel safe in the knowledge that you have addressed the issue.
- Practice with a spouse or person you trust: Before you bring up death arrangements, be they for yourself or for someone you love, go through the conversation with a spouse or trusted loved one. Once you’ve said it to one person, it’ll be easier to navigate with the rest of your friends and family.
The Legal & Logistical
The legal side of death can initially feel transactional but it is extremely important for you and your loved ones. If you want your wishes to be actioned, it’s important that you have the right paperwork and people to execute the details. It also removes any conflict between family members that may have differing opinions.
- The paperwork: There are two forms you’ll want to fill out. Firstly, a living will lists your wishes for what should happen if you become unable to make decisions for yourself due to severe health conditions (for example, terminally ill or in a coma). The second, a durable power of attorney, appoints someone to act as your health care agent to enact your wishes including your funeral arrangements — this is different to a power of attorney that ends at your time of death.
- Make the documents available: Obviously, you’ll want to let the person you’re appointing as your health care agent know that they have been designated. Be specific in writing and in conversation; share your personal values; your current medical condition and decisions you may foresee in the future; specific concerns regarding life support or aggressive interventions, hospice or long-term care; your thoughts on death and dying; and the way you would want to spend the last month of your life. Although, you’ll want to give a copy to your agent, you may also want to share it with loved ones and even your physicians.
- What happens if I don’t fill in these forms: The responsibility will fall first to the spouse then the next of kin and so on. Some people do not wish their spouse, parents, or children to have to bear the burden of this emotionally heavy period and choose someone that they feel may be better equipped to execute on their wishes. Remember that this is not about the most important person in your life (although that may be the case) it’s about the person that seems appropriate and trusted to you. Also, you can always change your designated agent if necessary.
The Emotional Preparation
Facing your death is necessary and courageous, but for some, it comes with a host of deep feelings and existential questions that need to be navigated with a lot of grace and love. Some of the following can help make it less internally overwhelming.
- Find a death doula: Just as doulas help usher a soul into the world, so too are they able to help usher one out. As Caroline mentions in relation to the birth/death experience, “Women aren’t afraid of birth, they just want to know what will happen next. It’s the same with death, we just want someone there to help guide us through a completely unknown experience.” The number of death doulas has drastically increased in recent years, and many offer remote services if you are unable to find a doula in your area.
- Discuss it with a therapist: If a death doula doesn’t appeal (or even if it does), speaking to a licensed professional, especially those that are trained in existential theory or therapy, may help you find meaning and purpose in death, and in life.
- Lean on community: If you subscribe to religious or spiritual practices, it can be helpful to revisit their approach to death and afterlife. Read sacred texts, practice rituals, and seek counsel from your teachers and community members to help you come to terms with the gift of mortality.
The Physical Transition
When it comes to deciding what will happen to your body, there are many options to help you find something that feels aligned. You may already be a part of a religious community and do not need further guidance on this issue. For others that are more uncertain, below are some avenues to consider.
- Traditional burial: This option usually involves preservation of the body using embalming fluids and a casket burial that is placed in a cement vault underground. Some people appreciate having the physical remains in a permanent site that serves as a memorial they can return to for decades to come.
- Natural or green burial: If the idea of a burial appeals but you’d rather do something closer connected to nature, a green burial may be better. In this instance, there is no use of embalming fluids, the body is buried directly in the soil within an eco-friendly casket, container, or burial shroud, and the body naturally decomposes to become one with the earth.
- Donation to science: A lot of people find a sense of peace knowing their organs are going to aid in medical research or save another’s life. Donor programs usually cover the responsibilities and costs of final burial and cremation and your loved ones will still receive the remains.
- Flame cremation: A form of cremation that is less expensive than a traditional burial and is also considered more environmentally friendly, since there is no use of embalming chemicals or land. There are, however, carbon emissions from this process. Many people also choose this option as they’d like their ashes to be scattered somewhere meaningful to them, or stored in an urn by loved ones.
- Alkaline hydrolysis cremation: A greener form of cremation that does not use extreme heat or carbon emissions. Instead, it employs water and chemicals in a pressurized chamber to decompose the body. Many like the fact that it mirrors a more natural process of decomposition, without the carbon emissions of traditional cremation. Please note: this is not available everywhere.
The Ceremonial Passage
Although you don’t need to organize your own funeral (unless of course, you want to), you can leave behind some guidelines to your ceremony. Again, you may subscribe to a religious or spiritual tradition that already has a fairly ritualized procedure in place. However, there are always ways to personalize any passage to the afterlife. Caroline Schenck shares some ideas to help you create an end of life celebration that satisfies your wishes, while caring for those you love.
- The natural: If you feel a deep affinity to the natural world let it reflect in the way you pass. Instead of a funeral and wake, invite your loved ones to a memorial tree planting service, ask them to walk your favorite hike, or to gather together by the sea.
- The traditional: You don’t need to be religious to desire a more formalized memorial service that includes readings, music, and prayer. You also don’t need to hold your service in a chapel or church. Choose a space that makes sense from someone you love’s home, to a park, or event space.
- The yogic: As Caroline outlines on her platform, “Yoga actually means ‘union.’” After a death, we are forced to unite the two sides of ourselves, the person we were before the death and the person we become after the death of a loved one. A yoga or meditation class helps us reflect on this, and it is a way to incorporate the person who has passed away into your new life, and helps restore balance to our internal environment.”
- The celebration: There are many ways to celebrate the end of a life. In our podcast episode, Caroline mentioned a young son that honored his mother’s wishes by spending a day in Central Park drinking champagne and sharing stories about her with his friends. Other celebrations may include a weekend away to a farmhouse, an overseas trip, or uplifting music, or playful and humorous speeches and anecdotes. As Caroline reminds us, you can be happy and sad at the same time.
Finally, remember you’re giving your loved ones a gift by facing your own end of life.
No matter the level of pre-planning, the death of someone you love is extremely stressful. Providing them structure and removing the guesswork takes the burden off them having to “figure out” the way you’d want to be honored and allows them to grieve.