Death Comes to Dinner
The holiday season approaches, when the living gather in their warm, fleshy social units to eat, drink, and have awkward conversations with relatives. This year, instead of letting that one particular relation pontificate about politics, conspiracies, or political conspiracies, I suggest steering the conversation to a cheerier topic: DEATH.
Even if you’re not a teenage goth who delights in weaponizing morbid trivia, talking about death with your family is important. The subject is one that many people choose to ignore as hard as they can—a strategy which works with very few things. No matter how uncomfortable it may be, refusing to discuss the inevitable with your loved ones only makes it harder for them to navigate when the time comes. Especially if it comes unexpectedly.
If you know what kind of final disposition you want—or absolutely don’t want—tell your relatives. If you’re in a financial position to make prepaid arrangements, consider doing so. As I’ve mentioned previously, the intersection of death and capitalism is an ugly one, and adds far more stress than anyone needs to an already difficult situation. (As a reminder, in most cases funerals take place before a will goes to probate, so assuming money will be there when you need it isn’t always safe.)
I can’t tell you how to broach this subject with people who can’t bear to think about it. You’ll have to navigate that for yourself. I can only warn you that death, while natural and unavoidable, is more complicated than you might expect, and communication goes a long way. As of yet, no one teaches us the kind of necromancy we need to summon Grandma’s ghost in the arrangement conference so she can tell her heirs to stop squabbling and get on with it already.
Another important thing to consider is the legal right of disposition, and to whom that will fall when you die. If you’re married, your spouse will have control of your disposition–even if you are estranged or separated. Not all states recognize common-law marriage, but even in those that do, a legal spouse to whom you haven’t spoken in a decade will still have right of disposition when you die, not the person you’ve been living with for the last eight years. My mortuary instructors were full of stories involving “and then it turned out he’d had another wife the whole time.” So if you’ve been juggling a secret identity or three, or just amiably wandered away from a marriage and didn’t bother with the paperwork, know that this will complicate things for you in death, as I’m assuming it also did in life.
In the absence of a legal spouse, disposition falls first to adult children, then parents, and then siblings, cousins, great-aunts, etc. Power of attorney ends with death. Being the executor of a relative’s will does not grant you right of disposition. In a perfect world, families would come together in support when someone dies, and never bicker, backstab, or leverage a situation for personal gain. If you are one of the myriad of us who does not live in that perfect world, consider the dynamics and plan accordingly.
If you’re estranged from your family, or believe that they wouldn’t respect your wishes after your death—be that identity, lifestyle, or religious beliefs or lack thereof—you may want to give your final disposition to someone who will. The financial burden of a funeral complicates this, of course. This is why we can’t have nice things.
I don’t know the legal minutiae of granting rights of disposition. For this, you need a lawyer. If you have concerns about what will happen when you die, talk to your nearest and dearest first, and then consider codifying things formally, if necessary.
Editor’s note: A gentle reminder that our necromancer is licensed in the state of Texas; the law on what happens after a person dies probably differs greatly across the world—another reason why it’s good to talk it out and learn what will work best for you, in your location.
If you have questions—or gifts—for the dead, wrap them in black paper and set them under a tree for the scavengers before the longest night of the year. Or use our submission form.
Amanda Downum is the author of The Necromancer Chronicles, Dreams of Shreds & Tatters, and the World Fantasy Award-nominated collection Still So Strange. Not content with armchair necromancy, she is also a licensed mortician. She lives in Austin, TX with an invisible cat. You can summon her at a crossroads at midnight on the night of a new moon, or find her on Twitter as @stillsostrange.