Angjolie Mei, founder of The Life Celebrant, stresses the importance of deciding on your final farewell details early so that your loved ones can carry out your wishes with certainty.
An old man who was dying of cancer once came to me, with two of his three sons, to discuss his funeral. In fluent Mandarin, he calmly described how he wanted his funeral to be conducted while his sons diligently took notes.
He made it clear to them that he did not want a wake to be held as he did not have many close friends. He did not want to be embalmed and would instead prefer a simple funeral followed by a cremation straightaway. He did not want to wear shoes in the casket because he felt that as he was born without shoes, he should leave the same way. He wanted his ashes to be scattered in nature.
Sometimes his sons asked questions, pertinent ones: “Who do you want us to contact when you die, Pa?” He provided a list of numbers.
When he died, we — his sons and the funeral provider — knew exactly what we had to do. Nobody had to search for anything or second-guess the deceased, and it was a peaceful process.
Planning for the end of our lives, in this case our funerals, is a proactive gesture which really lightens the load on our loved ones.
When we die, whether it be a sudden death or death from illness, we want to spare our family members the hassle of struggling to make decisions and do administrative work regarding the funeral, while grieving.
Just imagine: How would they source and select a funeral service provider? Would they have a nice photo of you for your funeral portrait? Would they know what garments you would want or do not want to wear on your final journey? Would they be able to guess whether you want a wake which celebrates your life, or whether you want to go quietly? What music or special touches you would want at your wake and funeral? And would they know who are the best people to present eulogies?
I find that, often, those who are dying of illness are quite ready to discuss their funeral details. It is the family members who may not be ready for it.
This happened with a French lady, a teacher, who decided to pre-plan her funeral in 2015 as she was already frail and sickly. She died recently in 2020. Her only son was not ready to join in our conversation. But what brought him great comfort was that after she died, he was able to listen to a recording of her voice which she had prepared, and which he had known nothing about. This was part of her emotional legacy.
For family members who are able to join in these pre-planning conversations, however, it is clear from the example of the cancer patient that the process can bring tremendous relief and closure; not just in ironing out the funeral details but in communicating that to the family members.
In the case of the patient, one of his sons did not want his ashes to be scattered in nature. The son might have preferred his father’s ashes to be placed in an urn. But while the patient was still alive, he made a firm stance and the son deferred to his father’s wishes.
Of course, apart from the funeral, there are other aspects of our life we should take care of before we go, in order to ease the burden on our family members.
Finally, don’t postpone planning for end-of-life. While death can result from illness, it can also come about very suddenly and it is best to be well-prepared.
The big three must-dos
1. Emotional will. This comprises letters or video recordings of ourselves which convey our last words to our family members and friends.
2. Financial will. Without one detailing your asset distribution and debt list, many processes would take a long time and your family will have to jump through bureaucratic hoops.
3. Living will. Advance Care Planning, Lasting Power of Attorney and Advance Medical Directive are all essential to ensure that your wishes regarding future health and personal care, key decisions and life-sustaining treatments are all covered.