Human life is complicated, and that makes human death tortuous. Toss in the spectrum gender and sexuality, and you’ve created a uniquely Byzantine intrigue where, more often than not, the observation of one’s wishes are a matter of courtesy rather than law. Even if all surviving parties are amicable, confusion and heartache can still be the result if there’s any ambiguity clouding the situation. Below are a couple of durable and inexpensive methods for preserving your autonomy, postmortem.
1.) Ditch the will. Contrary to popular belief, a will is probably the last place you should list your funeral wishes. Not to say that wills aren’t important, but they’re often not read or accessible until after the services are performed. So, a good rule of thumb is to never rely on a will for anything to do with body disposition (i.e. what happens to you). Instead, create a Letter of Intent.
Though it isn’t legally binding, a Letter of Intent is a personal, comprehensive (re: exhausting) letter expressing your desires and special requests. It may include information regarding burial or cremation, or a specific bequest of collectibles or personal items. While it does not typically have legal authority, it can help to clear up confusion regarding your personal preferences, which is always a plus when wrangling opinionated family members.
Here is an example Letter of Intent created by a law firm specializing in estate planning.
2.) Buddy up. Find someone you trust and appoint them as your ‘funeral agent.’ This can be done by completing an Appointment of Agent to Control Disposition of Remains form.
Similar to a Healthcare Proxy or a Living Will, the Appointment of Agent form is short, sweet, and to the point, with more powerful protections than the former. The rights of the funeral agent supersede the rights of all others, including the spouse and other relatives such as children and parents. This is where specific instructions about a viewing, makeup and dress preferences, and specific funeral home and cemetery could be added.
Buyer beware, most states will honor an agent appointment, but there are some that still don’t have specific laws in place. Check out The Funeral Consumers Alliance’s state-by-state list regarding Personal Preference Laws for Body Disposition to see if your state makes the cut. If it doesn’t, don’t worry. They recommend some helpful workarounds for you.
For those states that do, appointment forms can be found on your state’s Department of Health website, like this one for New York.
However, I strongly recommend the amended versions created by Poul Lemasters, funeral director/embalmer, lawyer, and advisor to the International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association, who specializes in legal counsel to the death-care industry. They’re $10 a piece, but it includes added language to make the power of the agent broader and more clearly defined regarding the planning of funeral arrangements and providing information for death certificates.
Download Appointment of Agent forms by state: