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Why I Resisted My Father’s Funeral Wishes

Do your loved ones know your preferences? 3 reasons to put them in writing


Part of the Living to the End of Life Special Report

(This article appeared previously on Samada, a new website dedicated to end-of-life planning and caregiving issues.)

My father Hank passed away suddenly nearly a year ago at the age of 65. While he wasn’t in the greatest health, this was a huge shock to our family.

I have been outspoken my whole career about the need for all of us to have wills and advance directives. So naturally I hassled my Dad into creating his over a decade ago. And create them he did.

Hank was extremely clear about what he did and did not want for funeral arrangements. But what he wanted was extremely unconventional (at least for our family).

Not the Traditional Funeral Mass

Growing up in a big Catholic family in Philadelphia, a death meant traditional religious services. This included at least one viewing (sometimes two), a full Mass with sad organ music and then a graveside ceremony with a lunch afterward. My dad’s will clearly stated that he wanted none of that. My siblings and I knew this ahead of time, as he had shared his documents with us when they were created.

But it was still hard to follow his instructions when the time came.

My siblings discussed and wondered, “Are we really going to follow through on this?” Will my dad’s sisters and the rest of our family be able to handle an alternative approach to the Catholic grieving ritual? Could we? The three of us debated this for a good 15 minutes when my sister finally snapped us out of this haphazard selfish conversation. We could not — in good conscience — go against what he explicitly put in writing.

Don’t Leave It to the Kids

For years I have been adamant that every adult should have end-of-life-documents. Countless times I have heard from people, “My kids will just decide” or “My children will know best.” My response has always been: Are you sure they know what you want? And if they do know, will they be strong enough to advocate for your wishes if they are not popular with others?

Here are three things I learned about human nature (and myself) from my experience:

1. You may not know your loved one as well as you think. I knew my dad pretty well. Despite this, if he had not written down his wishes, I would not have known he would not want a traditional funeral and I don’t know if I would have remembered when I was in such a state of shock.

2. You may be at risk of succumbing to pressure from others. Even if you are strong-willed, you may feel pressure from others in the family and/or health care providers (in advance directive situations). Even though my aunts did not pressure my siblings and me at all, I know that I felt pressure to consider going against some of Hank’s wishes since they deviated from our family’s traditions.

3. You may personally be tempted to go off course. Even though Hank did have all of his wishes clearly in writing, I was startled how in an emotional moment, I considered not honoring all of his directions because they weren’t what I necessarily wanted. While we did ultimately honor his choices, even a strong advocate can have a weak moment.

Cremation, Coors and Tom Petty

If my family and I struggled this much when we had precise detailed information in front of us, what happens when the people that love you are not left written instructions? Chaos. Arguments. Confusion. Who needs that when you are trying to grieve and absorb a painful loss? I am so grateful to my dad for making that very sad and shocking day a little easier for all of us.

We didn’t have the big Catholic funeral. We had Hank cremated, just like he wanted. Then we had a memorial “party.” The event featured plenty of Coors Light and Dad’s favorite foods like pasta and meatballs. We played music from his eclectic iPod — everything from Tom Petty to Barbra Streisand.

A lot of people told us afterward that it’s exactly what they want when they die. And I told them to be sure to put it all in writing.

By Jennifer FitzPatrick
Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C, CSP (Certified Speaking Professional), a gerontology instructor at Johns Hopkins University is the author of Cruising through Caregiving: Reducing the Stress of Caring for Your Loved One. The founder of Jenerations Health, she helps health care organizations grow by empowering patients and caregivers. To download a free chapter of the book go to www.cruisingthroughcaregiving.com.

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