Have you thought about your last wishes?
Most people are uncomfortable talking about death and dying. But, unfortunately, death is going to catch up to all of us someday. Some of us will have a warning that death is approaching, and some won’t.
With that being said, it is always best to be prepared.
Have you thought about what to ask for when you die?
What to Ask for When You Die
There are a wide range of questions to consider.
- What should be included in your last wishes?
- How do you want the days leading up your death to look?
- What do you want to happen to your body?
- How do you want to be remembered and celebrated?
- What do you want to say to your loved ones?
Plus, you probably have practical questions about the process. Are your final wishes legally binding? Who will you entrust with your final paperwork? How do you make these know, and how is all this different from a will?
Take the time to have your final affairs in order and to keep them in a safe place. It is important to let someone know where your important papers are so when you pass, they can find them.
Continue to read, and we will answer these questions and more for you.
What Are Last Wishes?
Your last wishes are requests, which are separate from a will. Last wishes are what someone wants to have done after they die. This mostly has to do with funeral arrangements and final disposition (burial or cremation, etc).
However, as more people think through the impact of their final days, it is increasingly common to include instructions about the time leading up to death. Who you would like to see, where you want to be (at home vs a care facility), what your surroundings will be like, and so on. Some of this information can be included in an advance directive as well (see below)
Are last wishes legally binding?
Final wishes are not legally binding. However, if your family members agree to respect your last wishes, the executor has the moral responsibility to follow through.
Can you include last wishes in your will?
It wouldn’t make much sense to include last wishes in your will. The will is typically read after the funeral. By the time the will is read, it won’t matter anymore who you would have wanted to speak at your funeral, where you wanted to be buried, etc.
Therefore, it is best to have your final wishes separate from your will.
How are last wishes different from a living will or advance directive?
An advance directive is a formal instruction you would prepare in advance of poor health. This document identifies your healthcare wishes.
A living will is a class of advance directives and becomes effective when a person is terminally ill.
The main difference is that those two documents are legally binding. A final wishes document is not.
Your final wishes document goes beyond the legal and medical decisions to address things like how you would like to be remembered, the legacy you want to leave behind, what you would like to say to your loved ones, and practical household considerations.
How do you actually make a last wishes document?
It’s really quite simple. Open your word processor, digital notebook, or grab a physical sheet of paper and start writing.
Put down the date and your name. Title the document “[Your full name] Last Wishes”. Address it to the most important people in your life.
Then write out what you want to say. We’ll cover the details that you might include below, but ultimately it’s up to you what you want your final wishes to be.
It can be as short as a few sentences, or as long as fifty pages. You can briefly spell out some important decisions (“I want to be buried at St. Paul’s in a simple pine casket”) and be done in about ten minutes, or you can detail every element of the service along with lengthy messages to each member of your family over the next few weeks.
When you’re done, print it out and show your family, or at least let them know where it is. Then have a good conversation about it.
What Should You Include In a Final Wishes Document?
Your family can better follow your last wishes if you have written them down. Having written or typed last wishes helps your family to honor your desires.
Please leave your last wishes in a place someone can find them. Or better yet, tell your next of kin where everything is located. Discuss this list with your next of kin or executor; it will give you peace of mind knowing they will follow your directives.
It is best to include:
- Funeral plans and preferences
- Body disposition details
- Personal information including the location of your will, life insurance, assets and debts, etc
- Obituary information that helps tell your life story
- Messages to your loved ones
- Requests for your final days
Funeral plans and preferences
It is important to have your funeral plans and preferences in order. Your family will thank you for planning ahead.
Things that you should include in your plans and preferences are listed below.
- Death certificate information (full legal name, SSN, DOB, birthplace, race, gender, address, military service, education, marital status and spouse information, parents’ names, mother’s maiden name, occupation and workplace)
- Funeral and/or burial arrangements
- Who should give the eulogy, songs you want played or sung, who to choose as pallbearers, your favorite flowers, etc
- Disposition of your body or cremated remains
- Casket, vault, or urn selection
- Cemetery and marker selection
- Obituary information and a picture for the obituary (which can also be used for funeral programs)
- Location of important papers and messages to your family
- Organ donation details
- Donations for a special cause or to help cover costs
For help with these things, see our Funeral Planning Guide.
What happens to your body
Are you donating your body to science, or are you an organ donor? Do you prefer burial or cremation? Is there a special location you would like your remains scattered? Did you pre-purchase a plot in a cemetery?
These are important things to think about, and it will be incredibly helpful if your family knows what you wanted to do. Many times your loved ones will stress about whether you may have preferred one thing or another.
Any funeral-related decision you can make now will be one less agonizing choice they have to make while grieving your loss.
- Burial or Cremation: Which Is Right for You?
- Here’s the Complete List of Everything You Can Do with Your Body After Death
- How to Arrange a Cremation
Practical details about personal information
When someone dies, all the little things that we humans store in our minds disappear. You may think it’s obvious where your will is, or what financial accounts need to be resolved, but your spouse or children may not.
So in your final wishes document, you’ll want to include things like:
- Location of the will and your attorney’s contact info, along with other important documents such as life insurance
- A list of your assets and debts, and any other open accounts that should be closed
- Important personal info that is not included in the will
- Passwords (we recommend using a password saver)
- Little things like the key to your storage unit, the key to a safety deposit box, and any incidentals you can think of
- Care instructions for any pets. Who is going to take care of them? Is there money set aside for their care?
Obituary information (your life story)
You should make sure to list the newspapers you would like your obituary to run in. Obituaries can get very expensive; therefore, it would be nice for you to have money set aside for that purpose.
These details will also be helpful for the person giving your eulogy.
Information to include in your obituary:
- Your survivors
- Pre-deceased by (parents, grandparents, etc.)
- Career information
- Community service
- Church affiliation
- Military service
- The location of the viewing, funeral service, and burial
- Dates and times of viewing, funeral service, and burial
Messages to your loved ones
You can leave a message to your loved ones, writing to them as a group or individually. Or, if you are feeling “techy,” how about leaving a video or a digital recording of your voice?
Your phone can record video or audio, and some services can store and deliver messages for you after you have died.
Ultimately, this is a very personal decision. Not everyone wants to leave a final message, nor may your family members want to receive one.
Even if you don’t leave a personal message, it will be helpful to communicate your desires regarding the education and upbringing of any minor children, a wish for your spouse to be happy and feel free to remarry, or wishes along the lines of, “Don’t buy me an expensive casket or headstone, just bury me simply and plant a tree for me in the backyard.”
And remember: You can tell your loved ones these things now, in person. They will appreciate it, and you may find it much easier than writing out letters or making recordings. You may even find that it helps deepen your relationships.
Requests for your final days
Often a diagnoses comes hand in hand with dietary restrictions and being cooped up in a hospital or care room. You follow the doctor’s instructions faithfully to maintain your health as best as possible, and to be around your family as much as you can.
But in the final days, there may be one last thing you want to do, see, or experience. Include it in your final wishes, and maybe you’ll be able to!
This might include:
- Dying at home rather than in a hospital or facility
- Favorite foods or drinks
- Seeing the sunrise or set
- A last visit to the beach or some other beloved location
- Saying goodbye to relatives, friends, and loved ones
- Seeing a beloved pet
- Making sure you have no “sorry’s” left to be said to anyone
- Requesting who you want at your bedside
There are actually professionals who are trained to help with these things, and to be there and advocate for your wishes during your final days. They are known as end of life doulas (or, more colloquially, “death doulas”) and this is a fast-growing profession that bridges the gap between family, doctors, and funeral directors.
Last Wishes… Or Bucket List?
Benjamin Franklin was right when he said, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” Unfortunately too many people say, “Someday, I am going to…” and, sadly, that day may never come.
We all have such busy lives. Because we’re so busy, sometimes living gets put on hold. In my line of work as a funeral director, I have seen way too many people regret putting work, finances, and misplaced priorities before life.
So I encourage you to take that vacation, eat that Cinnabon (within reason!), and take your kids to the zoo.
We’ve all heard of a bucket list. Here are some suggestions that might help you come up with some creative ideas of your own!
- Take a ride in a hot air balloon
- Swim in the ocean
- Road trip across the entire US
- Visit one of the eight wonders of the world
- Get in the best physical shape of your life
- Donate regularly to a charity (both money and time) and bring your family when you volunteer!
- Become fluent in a second language – or maybe a third
- Go skinny dipping with your significant other
- Go back to school and get a job in your dream profession
- Take your kids on the vacation of a lifetime. For example, Disneyland or Disneyworld, Bush Gardens, a Disney cruise, or off the grid!
- Conquer a life-long fear
- Write a book
- Take up a new hobby
This beautiful world offers us so much. None of us knows what tomorrow holds, so take advantage of it all while you can.
Discussing a loved one’s last wishes is so very important, but only 1% of us have had that conversation in-depth. So take the first difficult step and open up the discussion.
Read Next: How to Plan Your Own Funeral