We need to talk about death. More specifically, we need to talk about your death. I know, you don’t want to think about what may happen to you when you die. But by giving no thought to death now, you’ll be worse off later.
At Hebrew Free Burial Association, time and again we are confronted with individuals who died alone. These individuals lived alone, and many of them have lost touch with relatives. Some have outlived all of their family. In these situations, arranging for the deceased’s burial presents challenges.
When a person dies, someone needs to authorize the burial. Usually, the authorizing party is the next of kin, a spouse, a child, even a niece or a nephew. It’s straightforward and not too complicated. However, when there is no next of kin, or if the next of kin is unknown, the burial is often delayed. In some counties, arrangements must wait until the Public Administrator accesses the deceased’s apartment and searches for records indicating the person had family. At HFBA, we do our own research to find family members as well. There are times when a long-lost relative is found and is willing to authorize the burial. If no one is found, then the Public Administrator will give permission for HFBA to provide a burial for a Jewish person. But this delay isn’t necessary.
If someone plans for what will happen after their death, there are fewer complications. Some jurisdictions allow for an executor of an estate to authorize the funeral. If someone has family members, regardless of estrangement, keeping a list of these relatives with their contact information will help prevent delays. In addition, having a plan will enable the deceased to be buried as she or he wished to be, with loved ones. If the deceased has a grave, but no one knows about it, there’s little chance that it will be used. It’s important that the deed and grave location be included with one’s important papers.
When an individual who lived alone dies, his information dies with him. To file a death certificate, which is a prerequisite to arranging a funeral, the social security number is needed. If the individual was on Medicaid, there may be a death benefit payable from other agencies. There could be death benefits for veterans of the United States Armed Forces. All too often, HFBA has buried people without knowledge of their Hebrew name. By planning ahead, all of this vital information will be recorded and available to those arranging the funeral.
We need to remove the stigma associated with talking about death. Isolated individuals should be encouraged to pre-plan some if not all of their final needs. Even those with family, and those with adequate financial resources, need to have this conversation. Death is a traumatic time for loved ones. By having a plan, the family can focus on grieving rather than funeral and burial details that could have been arranged years earlier. Having a plan can preempt conflict between family members.
Community leaders should be encouraged to talk about death and the need to plan. Together we can ensure that when someone dies, he or she will be provided with a respectful funeral and burial, as quickly as possible.
Andrew Parver is director of operations at the Hebrew Free Burial Society.
By Andrew J. Parver