Did you know that instead of being buried in a traditional cemetery or having your ashes scattered in a place that was meaningful to you, you can now be buried in a vineyard run by the Catholic church that makes award-winning California wine? Or turned into a tree? And in a few years you might be able to be a light-generating decomposing bio-mass hanging under a bridge after you die?
The choices are endless, and that is becoming a bit of a legal problem. Back when there were very few burial options available, most families had a pretty good idea what their loved one’s burial plans were. Today, with so many options available, and with people living much more transient lives, families are getting into ugly legal battles over where they want their beloved’s remains to rest.
The solution to this problem is simple. People should tell their loved ones what they would like done with their body after death. A lot of people don’t do this though, and understandably so. Death is a difficult subject to talk about. However, when putting together an estate plan it is a necessary topic.
Since they have death on their mind, many people bring up their burial plans while we are working on putting together their will and other estate planning documents. When this happens, I explain that writing down your burial wishes and talking about them with the people you expect to carry them out is a great idea, but putting that information in your estate plan is not.
When someone dies, their loved ones typically don’t rush to the file cabinet to locate and read through all the estate planning documents they can get their hands on. Most families don’t start sorting through paperwork and doing estate administration until after memorial and burial services are over. This means if their loved ones funeral and burial instructions were stored with their estate planning documents, and they hadn’t talked with their loved ones about their wishes, things might have been done really differently than the deceased person would have wanted.
For example, a client who had served in the military wanted to be cremated in his military uniform and laid to rest with full military honors at the same cemetery as many of his military companions. His family had no idea this is what he wanted. After he died, his adult children bought a large family plot where they all could be buried when the time came. Later, they came across notes detailing their father’s burial wishes, and they were really upset. They were sad their father had never told them what he wanted, and they were heartsick that they would be reminded of that every time a new family member was buried in the family plot. Some family members wanted to exhume their father and bury him as he had wished, and others found this idea abhorrent. It caused a real rift between relatives at a time when they should have been drawn together to console one another and grieve.
The best way to ensure that your burial wishes are carried out is to talk with your loved ones about them. If you can’t bring yourself to have that conversation, at least take a few minutes to write down your plans and tell the person or people you expect to carry them out where they can find the necessary information when the time comes.