Many of us are too afraid of death to carefully consider what happens to our bodies after we die. Unfortunately, failing to plan for that event can leave your wishes unattended to and your family grief struck and unsure how to honor your wishes. And the larger truth is that facing your death proactively creates a better life now.
There are many options for disposal of the body when you die, including burial, cremation, and donation to science. These are difficult decisions to consider, especially if you aren’t familiar with the standard body-handling practices used in our society today.
A humorous—and possibility lighthearted—way to learn about these practices is to read Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (New York, Norton, 2003), which explores the how and why of what happens to bodies when people die.
In Stiff, Roach takes us on a journey—albeit an unconventional one—to see what happens to human cadavers. From surgical practice to crash test dummies, donated—or unclaimed—bodies make significant contributions to many fields of research. But let’s say donating your body to science is not what you had in mind. Roach also touches on the other options we have such as traditional grave burials and cremation. And within those choices lie other choices such as the type of casket, where the body will be kept prior to funeral proceedings, and how ashes are distributed.
Stiff provides an entertaining and educational look at death and the practicalities surrounding it, which leads to the important issue of including your wishes in your estate plan. Most people don’t want to leave their loved ones with so many unanswered questions. Creating a comprehensive estate plan ahead of time is a way to ensure your family members are not left with such a burden.
You get to decide what will happen to your body after you die, but to ensure your family can carry out your wishes faithfully, you will want to work with a lawyer to clarify your choices in your estate plan.
You have many options including:
Donate your body to science. You can even specify a particular medical school, university program (called Willed Body Programs) or research organization you want to receive your body. Roach reviews many uses for human cadavers such as crash test dummies, surgical practice for medical students, ballistics testing, transplant experiments, and research on decomposition. You can also specify if you want to designate specific organs to go to science, Roach explains. This is something to consider for those with diseases or disorders that researchers can learn from.
Grave burial. You can specify where you want to be buried, how you want your body transported, what kind of casket you want, and how you want your burial proceedings to take place. You might need a permit if you want your body to cross state lines or travel internationally to arrive at your grave plot. If you haven’t already purchased a grave plot, now is a good time. You might also want to specify what you want printed on your gravestone.
Cremation. You can specify who will handle your cremation and who will receive your ashes. If you want your ashes brought to a particular place, used for a certain purpose (e.g. as fertilizer to grow a plant) or held in a special urn, those wishes should be clearly stated in your estate plan. While cremation can be economical for both the surviving family and the funeral director, Roach explains, many are not comfortable with the thought of their body being converted to ashes and bone fragments, and some religions even frown upon it. Consider your options, and discuss them with your family.
You might also want to include a provision regarding your funerary proceedings in your estate plan. The cost of funerals can be staggering, and the event itself can be a logistical nightmare for the family member struggling to grieve, honor your memory, and make significant decisions. Including specific provisions for your funeral can alleviate some of the burdens your loved ones will face.
When you die, your family will be left with many decisions and many tasks to carry out. It can be a confusing time leaving family members vulnerable financially or emotionally. Including specific instructions in your estate plan can ensure they are not left having to make difficult decisions at a time when they already have so much to deal with. Your family will also need the contact information for any organization(s) that will be involved in this process. Including provisions for details such as your grave plot, casket, funerary proceedings, and accounts you have set up to cover those costs can reduce the financial and emotional strain on your loved ones significantly.
Your estate plan should ensure your loved ones will be taken care of when you die. If you are ready to take the next step toward protecting your wishes and providing for your loved ones both emotionally and financially, start by sitting down with a Personal Family Lawyer®. A Personal Family Lawyer®, can walk you step by step through creating an estate plan that will protect what you value most.