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Experience July/August 2023

The Death Box and What It Can Mean for Your Peace of Mind

Joan M Burda


  • As part of estate planning, it's important to consider creating a "death box" or a comprehensive repository of essential documents and instructions.
  • This can help ease the decedent's concerns about the secure disposition of their estate and also reduce the burden on their loved ones after their passing.
The Death Box and What It Can Mean for Your Peace of Mind Arnese

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Estate planning involves more than the traditional legal documents. There’s a real need to compile those documents and other information in one place to help the people who help us at the end of our lives and afterwards.

A so-called death box evokes a morbid picture shrouded in despair and fear, but it’s a useful and important part of the estate planning process. It’s too often overlooked by everyone, but it’s an important part of end-of-life planning.

Call it what you will

Many estate planning lawyers provide clients with checklists and recommendations of actions beyond their trust or will to make things easier at and after the end of life. Few people follow up on those recommendations. No one likes to think about dying—we prefer to see it as some far off, into the future, Scarlett O’Hara “I’ll think about it tomorrow” situation.

Until it smacks you in the face and, often, it’s too late to do anything.

So what do you put in your death box and where do you keep it?

First, forget the name. Call it whatever you want, whatever makes the concept more palatable. I kinda like death box. It’s straightforward and concise and leaves no room for confusion. But the name is unimportant; it’s the contents we need to work on.

Think of the process as preparing guidance for family, executors, friends, and others for what comes either after death or when you’re no longer able to handle your affairs or tell others what you want. This means you can’t keep the box secret or hide it where no one can find it.

Your plans, boxed in

Among the box’s crucial elements (or folder, drawer, or shoebox) are all your documents: legal, financial, medical, end of life, last letters, and instructions for funerals and assets. Too many people do nothing to prepare for the end of their life, let alone after death. This leaves a mess for our survivors to deal with, which then prompt (often less than kind) comments directed at the recently (and maybe no longer) dearly departed. As lawyers, we may also bear the brunt of “Why didn’t you talk about these things with (fill in the blank)?” inquiries.

Life is complicated, and we often make it more so with digital accounts and assets, social media, websites, hidden agendas, and an abundance of passwords and logins. Our wills and trusts are often drafted from templates and don’t include the information loved ones, trustees, and executors need to carry out our intentions. Likewise, while death is a certainty for us all, none of us know what condition we’ll be in preceding our death or when everything will come crashing down.

I’ve had law students say, “We’re too young to make a will or worry about any of this”—and then they learn a classmate died over the weekend. Or I’ve had clients who refuse to sign their documents because, they say, if they do so, they’ll immediately die.

There isn’t a lot of rational behavior involved when it comes to talking about—or avoiding talking about—death. End-of-life planning gives us the chance to be rational, deliberative, and helpful. It’s time to take the fear out of the inevitable and concentrate on the control such planning gives us over the matter.

The death box protocol allows us, while we’re healthy and have our wits about us, to compile what people will need after we die or while we’re on the way and can no longer manage things for ourselves.

Many clients want to include their funeral wishes in their will, which is never a good idea. As I explain to clients, you don’t do that because the will is read after the funeral and you want to avoid an “Oops, she didn’t want to be cremated” scenario.

With modern technology, people have abandoned all pretense of privacy or confidentiality. When it comes to wills, final wishes, and end-of-life situations, however, Fort Knox has nothing on people who don’t want anyone to know what they’ve decided.

People forget that well-kept secrets may never be discovered, intentions aren’t always followed, and all that work putting things together is for naught.

My 94-year-old mother had a notebook in which she described, in considerable detail, her wishes for her wake, funeral, and subsequent inurnment. Problem was, I didn’t find it until 18 months after she died.

Still, her kids had a pretty good idea of what would work—but we failed to include some of the selected readings and a couple of songs. Otherwise, we were on it, but that was just dumb luck.

From-the-heart additions

Once you have the legal, financial, medical, advance directive, and any other important documents in place, it’s time to look at the more personal, from-the-heart, sort of materials.

Growing up, we were herded to funeral homes for wakes. Too often, as kids, we had no idea who died—nor did we care. There were two primary functions at funeral homes for us—punch and cookies downstairs, where we were only too happy to be banished, and getting out of the room before the priest showed up so we wouldn’t be stuck praying the rosary. We always had someone watching the door and a pretty good idea of when he’d show up.

On the other hand, my earliest memories are that everyone seemed to have a good time at a wake.

Today, wakes seem to have passed along with The Greatest Generation. But even then, the only ones showing up are immediate family and their friends. Our parents’ friends are at their own wakes.

Consider a farewell party rather than a wake and include in your death box instructions for what you want at the party. I consider this a modern-day evolution of the stereotypical Irish wake, without the body standing in the corner holding a drink. (That’s how my Irish great-grandmother described them to me!)

Funerals, which so often seem to be held on rainy days, are also changing. Many people choose cremation, but climate change and concern for the environment are making people think about more energy-efficient processes.

Green funerals are big right now, and choosing this means no embalming or the other usual accoutrements associated with traditional funerals. Another alternative involves human composting, which is becoming a thing. Rumor has it that, in Colorado, you can buy the composting container at Home Depot.

Six states allow human composting: California, Colorado, New York (the most recent), Oregon, Vermont, and Washington (the first). It also seems easier to transport a decedent to a jurisdiction that allows these alternative protocols.

A twist on a ‘dead letter’

The Letter Project [] is part of Stanford Medicine and provides templates for people who want to leave a written something to whomever. This includes your doctor, who needs to know your life goals and values and the medical interventions you do and don’t want at the end of your life. The project includes letter formats for people who are healthy and those who’ve received a terminal diagnosis.

Remember, these are templates. They can serve as a guide if you want to say something but are unsure of what to write.

Another resource that provides helpful forms is Compassion and Choices []. It has an expansive library of forms covering myriad situations and providing suggestions on how to say what you want people to hear.

A personal favorite is the form about moving me from a hospital that won’t honor my wishes to one that will. This is becoming more of a concern considering the growing number of hospitals and health care facilities affiliating with the Catholic church, which require adherence to Catholic dogma that can cancel out a doctor’s recommendation, a patient’s wishes, or a necessary procedure.

As a volunteer lawyer for Hospice of the Western Reserve in Cleveland, I regularly interact with people who are at the end of their lives. Aside from the legal documents I’m asked to prepare, I raise the issue of writing letters to friends and family that reflect the feelings the patient has for them. When I’m talking to a parent, I mention how important that letter would be to their children.

If children are young, I suggest letters or cards that address significant events in their lives—graduation from high school or college, the day the child gets married or has their first child. Too many people find these suggestions morbid, but sometimes I hear from the families and am told how much that letter from mom or grandpa meant when they received it.

I think these show an ongoing concern and let the kids know that mom, dad, grandpa, and grandma are with them, thought of them, and loved them. Entrusting those letters to someone who’ll pass them along on specific occasions seems to provide some solace for the writer and comfort for those left behind.

A gift to yourself and others

Telling future caregivers, executors, trustees, and others who need to know how you want things handled will be appreciated. We have a right to express our wishes and should do it with enough specificity to leave no question as to our intentions

It’s the roadmap our caregivers, surviving spouses, family members, and friends can follow to carry out what we want. The death box contents can take the guesswork out of wondering what you want and forestall the “I wish we’d talked about it” lament.

Rather than looking at this prospect as defeatist or depressing, consider it as having the final say and letting people off the hook for making decisions. When faced with the “Why are you doing that?” question, caregivers and executors will be able to say, “This is what she wanted. Weird, isn’t it?”

Death is the one thing we all share. Planning for it, in whatever way you think is best, is always right. There’s no correct or incorrect way to do this.

And who among us doesn’t want to have the last word?