Figuring Out Final Wishes and Helpful Tips

In an unusual coincidence, two different friends are holding memorial services today for a parent who passed away. One friend’s father died young at age 68 in Illinois and they returned to California with his ashes this weekend. The other friend’s mother died four days ago at age 100 and her service is in Pennsylvania.

I talked to my 87-year-old mother Ginny a long time ago about where she would like her permanent resting place to be. I had always assumed that she would want to be buried next to my father, but that was not her preference as she wants to be cremated. In fact, if that had been her wish, I’m not sure whether we could have honored it. With his sudden death at age 50, a distant relative had to offer a family plot to us.

{And before the story continues, this feels like a good time to share one paragraph about my dad for readers already familiar with my narrative nonfiction. Since my father’s death is not connected to the themes of this blog, I won’t be taking that side road to explain a lot of details about his life and death. It’s difficult, however, to build context for some stories without sharing more history. So l will say this: my father was exceptionally smart, he was fun, a sensitive soul and he was an alcoholic. His addiction permeated our home and I know that fact tortured him. And ultimately, the addiction killed him. I was 17 at the time of his death and I still wish he could have stuck around to watch me grow up, become a mother and meet my husband of 31 years. I think they would have gotten along; and he would have been a fun-loving grandfather. Fate just went a different way. I am the way I am, in part, because I lost my dad.}

So once I learned that mom wanted to be cremated, she offered that maybe we could spread her ashes in Lake Michigan? She had fond memories of spending summers at the Indiana Dunes with her older cousin during her teen years.

After a long time, however, she changed her mind. She visited us in Chicago one September, and we drove to Saugatuck, Michigan for a long weekend. Granted, it wasn’t Indiana, but there were still beautiful dunes, and we had fun taking a boat ride, visiting the town and walking briefly on the beach.  The evenings were cool and we sat by a fire pit with other guests. I do not know for sure, but after our beach walk and testing the water with her toe, I believe she began to think about how cold Lake Michigan can be. A few months later, she announced that she was no longer interested in Lake Michigan and that maybe (legalities aside) she could have her ashes spread on a resort’s private property where she spent summers as a young girl.

Again, though, her thinking evolved. Her current wish is to be taken by boat into the Gulf of Mexico and have her ashes spread there. During that final trip, she would like Dixieland jazz music playing. We are happy to accommodate this request.

As you can see, this “difficult” conversation happened to be easy for us. I suspect that’s partly because I’m blunt and somewhere in there, I thought this topic should be addressed and so I did it. And once exposed, we could openly continue the conversation as wishes evolved.

After researching information though, I learned many things. Some elderly parents don’t have this talk with adult children at all, rather, they make funeral arrangements directly through a lawyer or a funeral director. Or, they may only tell their final wishes to a trusted friend instead of their children. There are as many reasons for this as there are families.

And I also learned something important – that either she or I should actually write down her final wishes. And Hailey should be there.  We should have an organized family meeting to ensure that everyone hears the same thing. And to get it in writing.

 Although the following excerpt is written for loved ones making their plans, it is helpful. It’s taken from How to Make You Funeral Wishes Known to Your Loved Ones:

The best way to let your loved ones know about your funeral wishes is to write down a list of specific instructions in a document that is separate from your will or trust... (Why?).. Because usually by the time your will or trust is located and read, your loved ones will have already made all of the decisions about the disposition of your remains (burial or cremation) and memorial.

This separate writing should include whether:

 – you want a funeral or memorial service and where

– you want a gathering of friends and family and where

– you want to be cremated, and, if so, where

– you would like your ashes to be stored or disposed of

– if you want to be buried and where…

…In this day and age pretty much anything can be found on the internet, and this includes websites such as Parting Wishes, My Last Song – Lifebox, and Funeral Inspirations, which can be used for documenting and storing your funeral wishes as well as your will or trust and other estate planning documents.”

Julie Garber

And here’s one last thought. By having this conversation, your burden will be eased by not second-guessing what a parent might have wanted. That’s motivating.

Have you had this conversation with a parent? What was your experience like? Have you witnessed unique final wishes? Please feel free to comment below.  

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