Rebecca Lynn Scott can be reached at email@example.com.
Links, in a single convenient place:
Cake, formerly GYST, an excellent organizer for death planning: https://www.joincake.com/
Five Wishes, a simple advance directive form: http://fivewishes.org
State by state advance directive forms: http://www.caringinfo.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3289
Organ Donor FAQ: https://www.organdonor.gov/about/facts-terms/donation-faqs.html
Organ Donor signup: https://www.organdonor.gov/register.html
11 Myths About Whole Body Donation: https://www.everplans.com/articles/11-myths-about-whole-body-donation
Whole Body Organ Donation FAQ: https://www.sciencecare.com/whole-body-donation-faq
NOLO, legal help and software; extremely useful site: http://nolo.com
Information on the Crestone Project, an outdoor pyre cremation collective: http://informedfinalchoices.org/crestone/
State by state, how to designate someone to take charge of your body: https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/planning-paying-funeral
The Funeral Consumer Alliance, to help you figure out how all kinds of things about funeral planning, especially home funeral planning: http://funerals.org
The Home Funeral Alliance is also a good resource for planning home funerals: https://www.homefuneralalliance.org/
The Green Burial Council can give you information about green burial, in general and in your area: http://greenburialcouncil.org
Recompose in Seattle offer whole-body composting: https://www.recompose.life/
Modern Loss has excellent articles on funeral planning, and other aspects of death: http://modernloss.com
A downloadable copy of the summary of this workshop: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1LaYcHzgkahYUtlNLo0du8d41gL_AbHXs/view?usp=sharing
And now, the summary of the workshop.
Everybody Does It
A Death Preparedness Workshop for Pagans and Polytheists
Why is it important to prepare for death, even when we do not know that death is near? Because death can come for us at any time, five minutes from now or fifty years. If you don’t prepare practically, you might be incapacitated or die suddenly, and there will be no one who knows your wishes regarding your healthcare who can carry them out. You relatives could fight about what to do, and the fight could drag on for years. If you are incapacitated and dying, things may be done to your body that would would not want. You might die intestate (without a will), and leave your grieving loved ones to have to sort out what to do with your possessions at the worst possible time. If you have children and do not provide a guardian for them, they might go into foster care or to a relative who will not give them the care you would want to have. If you don't prepare spiritually, you might find your spirit in confusion, unsure of where to go. You might find some part of yourself stuck in this world when you don't want it to be. If you have not considered the effects of being incapacitated and on life support, or of organ donation, you might find your spirit having problems because of those things. And there is the question of who receives your ritual tools and sacred objects when you die. The first thing I recommend you do when you set out to deal with practical matters surrounding death is make an account on https://www.joincake.com/ (formerly GYST, Get Your Shit Together) and then use their tools to get the rest done. The first thing I recommend you do when you set out to deal with spiritual matters surrounding death is to make contact with all your Powers and begin a conversation with them about this.
What is a living will or advance directive? What are other legal tools available for the dying?
A living will, or advance healthcare directive, is a legal document by which you can make your wishes known regarding what happens if you are incapacitated and unable to make decisions for yourself regarding your care. It describes at what point you wish to be allowed to die naturally, what measures you do or do not want taken to keep you alive, pain management, and more. Also useful are a Medical Power of Attorney, which designates a specific person to make decisions for you in the event you are incapacitated (good for settling family disagreements), and, if that's desired, a Do Not Resuscitate order (DNR). Before you fill these out, you should stop and consider where you believe life begins, and where it ends. If you believe that life begins with the first breath and ends with the last, you may not wish to be placed on a ventilator. You should also consider if there are treatments that you feel might damage your soul. If you feel that being on life support after brain death might hurt you, leave you confused or unable to move on, then you should probably let people know that. It's important to understand that, while telling people your wishes verbally is a good thing, it's not legally enforceable, and grieving people may make other decisions for you. Such a difficult time may also bring out family tensions, especially between spouses and other relatives, and this may be reflected in disagreements about what should be done. One simple and easy to fill out form that acts as a living will is Five Wishes, which can be found at http://fivewishes.org . In addition to the above documents, if you receive a terminal diagnosis, your state will probably have some equivalent to what my state calls a Physician's Order for Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST). This, whatever name it goes by, is a collective document that encompasses all the above information and puts it in one place, generally a neon-colored piece of paper. Copies will be kept next to you and in obvious places such as the refrigerator so that paramedics can see them. If you have or receive such a diagnosis, talk to your doctor about one of these. I'll take a moment here to discuss Death with Dignity, also known as medical aid in dying or assisted suicide. As of now, in the US, that option is available in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Hawaii, Vermont, Montana, Maine, New Jersey, California, and in the District of Columbia. Internationally, Canada, Colombia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Switzerland have provision for some form of assisted suicide. In the US, generally this takes the form of a person with a diagnosis of three months or less to live having the option to take a draught that will first put them to sleep and then allow them to peacefully and painlessly die. This draught is usually a two-part recipe that can be mixed ahead of time by a volunteer, but the dying person must be able to voluntarily swallow it or, in some places, inject it into a feeding tube, by themselves. There are generally multiple safeguards around the process to ensure that people are not pressured into what should be a completely uncoerced and consensual choice. In places that do not have assisted suicide available, there are other options, the most legal being refusing all food and water. Again, before you take this step, carefully consider your beliefs and possible taboos around it. I strongly suggest that, while you consider all of the things I talk about today, you establish contact with your beloved ancestors (whether of blood, or heart, or spirit, or tradition), even if you never have before, and ask their advice on these matters. Also ask your patron deities for theirs, and any relevant spirit allies. You may also wish to talk to spiritual advisers whom you trust.
Should you donate your organs or body?
As I mentioned before, this is a place to carefully consider your beliefs, especially about how entwined body and soul are. Some pagans believe that the soul cannot freely cross to the next life unless all parts of it receive proper disposition. Some believe that it is an absolute moral responsibility to donate organs. Where do you fall? If you're going to donate organs, or donate your cadaver to science, make absolutely sure that not only is this on your driver's license or whatever your locality uses to identify organ donors, but that either your next of kin or the person who holds your power of attorney knows your exact wishes. Write them down in a letter, maybe, so that they can refer to it if necessary. There are state and national registries of organ donors. Whatever your decision, go look yourself up in them and make sure you are correctly recorded (or not). You can find more information on the practicalities of organ and cadaver donation at the following sites:
Who needs a will?
Answer: you do. If you have stuff, and you want it to go to somebody specific, you need a will. This includes intellectual property like creative works and patents. If you have minor children, then you really need a will, because you need to specify whom you want to take them and how you want your money to support them. A few common misconceptions about wills:
You need a lawyer to make a will.
No. There are all kinds of DIY will kits and software and online services that allow you to quickly and easily make a basic will, if your needs are not complicated. There are several links on https://www.joincake.com/ and you can find some good stuff on http://nolo.com .
Your will is permanent and cannot be changed.
Not only is this not true, but you should make a new will every ten years, or whenever a major change in your life happens, such as marriage, divorce, birth of a child, death of a beneficiary, buying real estate, or anything else that significantly affects what's in it now.
You don't need a will if you don't own real estate or have a lot of money, or if you aren't old or sick.
If you own a car, you need a will. If you own a business, you need a will. If you are a creative person, you need a will. If you have minor children, you need a will. If you have stuff, and you want it to go to specific people, you need a will.
You don't need a will because you can just tell people what you want.
If you die intestate – without a will – your estate will have to go through probate and a court will have to decide what to do with your property. It will probably be a lengthy and expensive process. Your spoken wishes are not enough, and a court does not have to abide by them. If you have children, a court will assign them a guardian regardless of your spoken wishes. If you have a will, your estate may still have to go through probate, but it will probably be a significantly faster and less expensive process. You can be sure that, absent some challenge, your possessions and funds will go to who you want, and that the guardian for any children you may have will be who you want. If you are a creative or inventive person, you can leave your output in the public domain or to a trusted person who can keep it in print.
So yeah, wills for (almost) everybody. Things that do not belong in wills: Funeral wishes and disposition of your body. Very likely your will won't even be looked at until long after your funeral. Care of pets, for the same reason. Who gets small items.
Things that do belong in wills: Who is to care for minor children (make sure someone knows this is in your will so it can be consulted immediately). Who gets money. Who gets real estate. Who gets expensive jewelry. Who gets expensive art. Who gets your car. Who gets other items of monetary value (about $300+). Who gets to control your intellectual property, or whether you want that released to the public domain.
While you work on your will, I suggest that you examine your attachment to the things you are leaving to people. If you are having trouble writing down who gets what because you don't want to give it up, you may be having attachment problems. If so, try the following exercise. Make a list of the five or so things (objects or collections) that you most treasure, the things you're finding hard to give up. Spend time with each of these things, touching them, holding them, enjoying them however you do. Read your books, play with your model trains. Really be with them. Then, imagine that you are gone. The things are still there, but you're not, and the things you love are lonely without you. Think of someone you care about, who you know will love your things and take good care of them. Imagine wrapping up your things in big boxes, with wrapping paper and ribbons, and leaving them for your loved one to find. The last gift you will give them from this life. See if that helps. If not, consult a trusted spiritual adviser.
What's an ethical will, and should I write one?
The ethical will (zava'ah in Hebrew) is an ancient tradition that comes out of Judaism, but that can be used by anyone, as long as it is done with respect for Judaism and does not impinge on their practices. It is a document laying out the ethical principles by which a person has lived, so that they may be passed on to future generations. It would be an interesting idea to collect ethical wills from your local group or tradition into a single archive that can be browsed by living tradition members. Writing one is simple. Just sit down and, in as organized a fashion as you can manage, lay out the ethical and spiritual principles by which you have lived your life. It has no legal weight, so it needs no notary or witness. Should you write one? Only you can say, but if you feel you have a unique perspective, or if you are a leader in your community, perhaps you should try it.
What's a magical will?
This is a term I invented to mean a way to communicate who gets your religious and magical items, some of which might be things that only certain people can handle or keep. These are not normally going to be items to put in your will, so it's a good idea to have some means of communicating who should get them. If your next of kin or other person who will be sorting through your belongings already knows what to do with these things, then that's good. Write them a letter about who gets what things specifically, and update it regularly, such as once a year or whenever you get something new and important. If there are special instructions that go with the piece, make sure to say so. If you are worried that your next of kin won't hand these out properly, you can designate who gets all of your religious items in your will (although most lawyers will advise against that), and then write the letter to that person instead. For example, my wife will certainly respect my wishes, but won't have any idea how to handle any of my things, so I'll leave them all to a friend from my tradition, and leave her a letter on what to do with them. I won't need to put that in my will, though, I can just give my wife the name and address and let her go from there.
How do I leave instructions for funeral arrangements?
As I mentioned before, you do NOT put your funeral wishes in your will. It may be weeks or months before your will is processed or even looked at. Your funeral wishes need to be in a separate letter. In most places, you also cannot leave your body to anyone's care in your will, as a human body is not considered property. In some states, a letter will be at least partially legally binding on your relatives. In others, you can legally designate someone to take charge of your body and arrangements via various means, including a power of attorney. In still others, next of kin order applies,1 or whoever gets to the body first takes charge of it and is solely responsible for arrangements and can overrule others. And in at least one state, the only wish your kin must follow is that if you prepay for a cremation or a burial plot, they have to use that. I can help you find the laws for your state, or you can look them up on https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/planning-paying-funeral yourself. Pre-need funeral contracts (where you make and pay for all your arrangements ahead of time) can be, but are not necessarily, a good idea. You need to do a lot of research on the laws in your state, whether they favor vendors or consumers, and whether they require vendors to put some portion of what you pay into trust. The funeral industry is an industry, and not all funeral service providers are ethical, any more than all car salesmen are, but that doesn't mean that none of them are, either. Paying for a cemetery plot, or group of them for your family, is usually a good buy, though. If you want to leave money specifically to pay for your funeral, again, do not put this in your will. Instead, have what's called a Pay On Death (POD) bank account with the money in it, and at least one next of kin on as a cosigner. At your death, all they need to do is bring your death certificate to the bank, and they will be given immediate access to those funds. A life insurance policy to cover funeral costs is also not a bad idea, although it can take time to pay out. Once you've figured out who will take charge of your body, sit down and write an outline of what you'd like in a funeral service. This can be as detailed or as vague as you like. You can choose to have your funeral in a funeral home, or a church or chapel if you have access to one you like, but you can also have a home funeral, in every state in the US, although some places make it harder that others. Make sure that you include what wishes you have for disposition of your body. When you're done, make several copies, and make sure to give one to the person who will take charge of your body. Let's talk briefly about what you can and can't have in your funeral and disposition. These things only apply to the US, I simply don't have the time to research every other nation. You can't have a fireship, because that constitutes dumping in coastal waters (technically, you're not supposed to spread ashes at a beach, either, for the same reason, but people do it anyway). You can't have an outdoor pyre (unless you own property in Crestone, CO; check out http://informedfinalchoices.org/crestone/ ). You can't have your bones cleaned and left to someone (it's illegal to own human remains in most places). You can be either buried or cremated. You can have a green burial, with no embalming, no vault, no casket. You can have a tree planted on your green grave. In Washington State, you can have your body composted, and the compost given to your loved ones or to a park. You can be buried at sea, although there are very specific restrictions on this. In some states, you can have "water cremation", properly known as alkaline hydrolysis, a greener alternative to cremation that still leaves brittle bones that can be processed into "ashes". You can have any number of things done with your ashes if you are cremated or water cremated, including but not limited to interment (burial), placement in a niche in a columbarium, scattered in various places, made into a diamond, made into an artificial reef for coral to grow on, shot into space... and much more. You may or may not be able to have your unembalmed body transported from one state to another, sadly. Local laws vary, and the laws of states your body passes through can apply. If you're struggling with all this, because death, especially one's own, is sad and scary, try this meditation. Begin by sinking deeply into your body, inhabiting it fully. Feel every part of yourself. Start with your toes, wiggle them, feel them. Move up. Feel your internal organs as you pass through your abdomen and chest, as many as you can remember. When you reach your shoulders, travel down to your fingers and feel those fully, and move back up your arms slowly. If there is a body part, even an appendix or wisdom tooth, that is gone, feel that absence as well. When you reach your head, pay particular attention to each part: tongue, teeth, jaw, ears, nose, sinuses, back of the head, top of the head. Feel your own brain. Once you are fully seated within your body, once you can feel the aliveness of every part of it, imagine that life leaving your body. Do not picture any particular death, not the one you want nor the one you are afraid of. Simply feel life leaving your body. Imagine your toes as dead, and let them go limp. Travel back up your body as you did before, letting each body part go dead. Say farewell to each part as you go, and know that you will leave it behind forever. When you have taken leave of every part of your body, picture yourself leaving that body behind, and floating above it. Turn to look at it, and give the whole a loving farewell. Picture watching your own funeral, and seeing your loved ones say goodbye. If you feel grief, allow yourself to experience it fully. If you feel fear, allow yourself to experience it fully. Anything you might feel, experience it fully. See your funeral as clearly as you can. See who's there, what they say and do, what rituals they perform. See yourself using this as a farewell from you to them, as well as the reverse.
Remember that, if you are concerned with family to whom you aren't out, you can have a secular or Unitarian Universalist memorial service for them, and have your coven, church, or group of co-religionists have a ritual more to your own liking.
Putting it all together
As you create the documents and letters and so forth we've talked about, make several copies of each. One should go in a firesafe or in two layers of waterproof bags in your freezer, physical copies but also optionally a thumb drive with scans of the documents. Two should go to trusted friends or family members, including one to your legal next of kin. If you have a lawyer, one should go to them. If you have a safe deposit box, one goes in there. Keep an electronic copy on your computer, and consider getting an account with a service that will maintain an offsite backup, even if it’s just Dropbox. Make sure the important people in your life know where to find these things. You might also wish to include letters to individuals you care about in at least one of these locations.
When you're done with all of this... relax and celebrate. Do something that makes you feel alive. Go out to dinner, or go dancing, or drink wine, or have great sex. Remind yourself that you are alive, and that that's good.