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We all die eventually — and in preparing for our own deaths, we can find comfort, make it easier for our loved ones to focus on grieving rather than bureaucracy, and ensure our wishes are honored. What should we plan before we die?

Humans begin to understand death, in all its irreversible infamy, between the ages of about three and seven [1]. Grasping the undeniable reality that we'll all die theoretically is, however, quite different from making peace with our own mortality — and being prepared for it in all the ways there are to be prepared for death. 

I have, in my work as a carer for the elderly, seen more than my fair share of dying. I've learned that some people are extremely well-prepared to die, like the 90-something friend who planned her own death to the very last details, asking me to write everything down and making her own funeral arrangements. Being in your 90s doesn't necessarily mean you're ready, though, and I've also worked with an energetic and vital elder who was looking forward to so much more before having his life tragically cut short in an operation gone wrong. 

Carers and dying people have their own perceptions of what a "good death" means — research shows that people prefer the thought of dying in their sleep, suddenly, without pain, and with dignity, while carers have more pragmatic views. They see "good symptom control", family involvement, peacefulness and a lack of distress as highly desirable features of dying. [2]

Whatever your personal views, a death you are prepared for is one you have more control over and one that will allow your loved ones to focus on their grieving processes rather than on bureaucracy. What should you know about preparing for death — whether you are in your 20s or over 90?

Your Death Might Not Be Fast: What Then?

The so-called "ideal" death experience is really a non-experience — people suddenly dying in their sleep don't consciously realize they're done living. It's one thing to hope for that, but quite another to expect it. The World Health Organization reveals that many of the leading causes of death, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, diabetes, and various forms of dementia included [3], are protracted. It is not unlikely that you will see your own death coming, and that you'll need care during that stage of life. It's also not unlikely that you'll reach a point in your life where you're still breathing, but incapable of making decisions about your own health. 

Living wills, also called advance healthcare directives, might have fallen out of favor in more recent times [4], both due to their limited scope and failure to complete them on the part of many people, but they can still be pretty useful. By completing a living will, you can both appoint a medical power of attorney who will make healthcare decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated, and specify the kind of medical care you would and would not want. Making one is a decision anyone, regardless of age, should seriously consider. 

A living will can likewise help you prepare for palliative or hospice care if you fall seriously ill. Palliative care focuses on extending the life of a person with a terminal or life-limiting condition in a supportive manner — symptom control and emotional wellbeing should both be key parts of palliative care. Hospice care, meanwhile, aims to support the physical and mental wellbeing of a dying person in a specialist hospice center, hospital, as an outpatient, or at home. [5] By looking into what your insurance provides, the kind of insurance you would need to receive the kind of care you need, and letting your loved ones in on your wishes in the event of your impending death, you can prepare for a situation you may later face.

Your Funeral And Beyond: What Will Happen To Your Body?

Most people have visceral, philosophical, or spiritual opinions on what they'd like to happen to their body after death.

In its most basic form, most people in the west know there's a choice between burial and cremation — and though cremation is on the rise in more than a few countries, many people still prefer to be buried [6]. Should you choose cremation or burial? Or consider donating your body to science?

Cremation may be the first choice in your particular cultural context. If it isn't, you may prefer it because you cremation offers you more freedom in deciding where your remains will end up (your loved ones may scatter them in a variety of places), and also because cremation is cheaper. 

The National Funeral Directors' Association shares that the number of cremations actually surpassed the number of burials in the US in 2017 — but only just. Reservations include the fact that some folks see the burning aspect of cremation as unsavory, but research also makes it clear that few Americans associate cremation with a memorial service and a funeral with a viewing [7] — which are very important to many people. You can, however, have both these things if you choose cremation.

Should you prefer burial, green-minded people should know that it has a more dramatic environmental impact than cremation [8]. There are, however, ways to make a burial more environmentally friendly as well, notably so-called "natural burial", in which no harmful chemicals are used to preserve the body and a biodegradable coffin or shroud is used. [9] Burial appeals to people for religious as well as cultural reasons, and many like the idea that their body remains intact. For loved ones, the knowledge that they can come to a grave to visit their departed, in the peaceful environment of a cemetery, can also be enormously comforting. 

Donating your whole body to science, either for research or teaching purposes, is another option, most often chosen by those without a religious affiliation who wish to help medical science [10]. Financially, donating your body to science can cut costs, and philosophically, some people find comfort in the knowledge that they can still make a contribution after their deaths. People who want to help others in a different way may save or improve numerous different lives by obtaining an organ donor card. 

Whatever your personal preferences, thinking about whether you should choose cremation, burial, or donating your body to science in advance increases your chances of having them honored. Speaking to a religious leader, inquiring about donating your body to science, investigating burial sites, and even thinking about what you'd like a gravestone to say are all things anyone can do at any time. 

Emotional Stuff

If you know you're dying but have a while to prepare, you'll have plenty of emotional stuff of your own to work through. Some people use this time to share regrets, forgiveness, and deep feelings with their loved ones and other relevant people in a very conscious process. This can help bring closure to the kinds of existential questions you'd not like to leave the world without resolving, as well as equipping those you leave behind with messages they can carry forever. 

Another aspect you may want to consider is that the death of a relative is notorious for kindling family strife, especially among siblings whose parent has recently passed away or is currently dying. Research shows that the presence of a living will doesn't necessarily decrease the risk of such conflict — but appointing someone other than a spouse or child as a healthcare proxy does ease tensions. [11] This is something you may consider. 

Finally, many folks who see their deaths coming make a bucket list of things they really want to do before they die. This can be a great thing to do even if you aren't ill or anticipating dying any time soon — life is for living, and you won't regret doing so to the fullest! Creating a bucket list can give you insights into your priorities in life and help you appreciate how short life may be and give you a nudge in the direction of enjoying it as much as you can now. Nobody is suggesting you live every day like you might snuff it tomorrow unless you actually have a good idea this could happen; this may cause financially irresponsible decisions. Still, having a good look at what's truly important to you can never be a bad thing.

Death And Taxes

Death and taxes might be said to be the only certainties, but your general financial "stuff" doesn't end when your life does. To make things easier for those you leave behind and to exercise a degree of control over things that are important to you, you should:

  • Have a will, and update it regularly, no matter how little you think you have. Depending on your jurisdiction, a will may specify to whom you wish to leave assets, who you would like to care for minor children you may have, and detail your funeral wishes. 
  • Appoint an executor who is trustworthy and unbiased — consider someone other than an immediate relative. 
  • Keep financial records and make them readily accessible. This should include records of bank accounts, credit cards, and any debts you may have.  
  • If you don't already have life insurance or funeral insurance, consider arranging it as soon as possible. 

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