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Hey, It's Your Funeral

You Don't Have to Be at Death's Door to Do A Little Planning for Your Final Farewell

Susan Daughtry Fawcett, an Episcopal priest in Vienna, says preparing for death is
Susan Daughtry Fawcett, an Episcopal priest in Vienna, says preparing for death is "a huge gift to your family." (By Dennis Drenner For The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2008; Page N01

If you watch cable television regularly, you may catch "Beetlejuice" on TBS or TNT. You remember: Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis play a young couple who perish when their car veers off a covered bridge into a creek bed. They are transformed into ghosts and deposited back in their home, where they are confronted with a copy of "The Handbook for the Recently Deceased." Handy!

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But what about a handbook on this side of the mortality line? What about a guide for the not-yet-deceased-but-could-go-at-any-minute-without-warning? And we can go any minute. Choking on our roast beef, driving to or from work or simply dropping dead. Unlike the Baldwin and Davis characters, we can't haunt or communicate with our friends and families. So they are left to deal with a mess of personal effects and life's half-completed projects, e-mail and bank accounts with unknown passwords, and doubts about what to do with our bodies and legacies. In the wake of our deaths, we leave an incomplete puzzle whose pieces may be forever missing.

If you find that scenario less than appealing, there are simple things you can do to get things in order just in case. But many people don't know where to start -- or don't even want to start.

"Regardless of how educated or experienced most people are, most of us don't know much of anything truthful about death, dying, funerals and how to go about doing it," says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonsectarian nonprofit advocacy group based in South Burlington, Vt.

Slocum started working for the alliance at the decidedly above-ground age of 28, a full 50 years away from the average American death. Why? The funeral industry is fascinating, he says. It's an understudied segment of the economy, sometimes rife with fraud and always bound to intense emotions. Dealing with some particulars before you die will make it that much easier for family and friends to navigate the stressful waters of bereavement.

"Young people think they're never going to die," Slocum says. "I'm 33, and I could walk in front of a bus tomorrow, but my family knows exactly what I'd like."

Planning your last affairs is not necessarily a happy task to think about, but sometimes circumstances throw your mortality into sharp relief. In the summer of 2004, Susan Daughtry Fawcett, then 23, was working as a chaplain in the emergency ward of Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg. It was a hard summer punctuated by tragedies, despair and the grace required to work through both. Because of that experience, she sat down and planned her funeral, picked hymns and readings, and left a list of songs that should be put on CDs for close friends. Now she regularly sees her parishioners dealing with the loose ends that unfurl upon a loved one's death.

"Having thought about these things ahead of time is incredibly helpful," says Fawcett, an Episcopal priest in Vienna. "It's a huge gift to your family." More important, she says, we all might benefit from a little more understanding of our own mortality, since the idea of death is normally confined to hospital rooms and nursing homes.

Well, death can't hide from us. Here, we talk about the bare bones of the big checkout: what you need to do today to get your affairs in order (even if you're a vigorous 24-year-old), how to make sure that your funeral wishes are carried out, and what some of our readers are thinking about their send-offs.

Create an end-of-life planning kit. Include everything personal about you, from the simple (name and Social Security number) to the more complex (your pet's veterinarian, your funeral wishes, whether you want to be an organ donor, the locations of important documents).

A fill-in-the-blank 20-page kit titled "Before I Go, You Should Know" is available for $10 through the Funeral Consumers Alliance ( http://www.funerals.org). It comes in a transparent blue case with state-specific forms for a living will, which gives instructions on how you should be cared for in the event of your incapacitation, and durable power of attorney, which designates a person in charge of pulling (or not pulling) the plug. These are arguably the most important official documents to have completed at any point in your life, and it can be rendered official without a lawyer. All you need are witnesses and, depending on your state, a quick notarization.

"Whether you get it from us or make your own, I don't care," Slocum says. "As long as you do it."

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