The Business of Dying


Look around your house. Look at the piles of unanswered letters, the bills and parking tickets left simmering until a brighter tomorrow, the files you brought home from the office and haven’t touched, the part for the water heater glowering in the junk drawer. Look at your kids, the baby cereal caked behind their ears or the seedlings of blond beard on their cheeks, the baby’s crooked Gary Cooper smile or the teenager’s practiced shrug. If you were to die tomorrow, someone would walk into this life and live it for you. What would you have them do?

Most of us live as if this moment will never come, as if we will die decades hence, surrounded by great grandchildren and the smell of strawberry jam bubbling on the stove, will die quickly and decently, focused on the light.

Why do we live this way? Because it is easier, perhaps; because the pain of leaving our work undone, our children unraised is overwhelming; because we are superstitious, believing that to plan for death is to invite it; because it is hard to believe something could happen to us.

But things happen to people all the time, people with unpaid bills, people with children–things happen to people like ourselves.

People die suddenly, or unexpectedly become incapable of managing the business of their lives. Quickly or insidiously, trauma or disease can cloud the mind, making medical choices or financial decisions impossible.

When this happens, private lives become public. Not just friends and family but strangers track through them, sifting through the papers and letters, deciding where the children should live and with whom. Single parents and gay or lesbian parents are especially vulnerable, since their families may go unrecognized by the institutions that manage death.

While nothing can reduce life’s uncertainty, planning can preserve our privacy and allow our choices to outlive us. Whether we are anticipating death’s arrival or savoring excellent health, each of us needs a plan. Planning is “an act of courage, an act of realism, an act of acceptance of what our lives are going to bring us,” as Wendy Baxter, director of client services for the Santa Cruz AIDS Project (SCAP), puts it.

Health Care Decisions. Everyone needs to sign a durable power of attorney for health care, selecting a person who can represent you if you are unable to participate in decisions about your care, explains Elaine Cashman, social services coordinator for Hospice. Durable power of attorney for health care forms are available from hospitals, legal services, and some stationery stores.

With a durable power of attorney for health care, someone can consent to or refuse medical procedures on your behalf, responding flexibly to your situation. Living wills are statements of your desires about life support but still require judgment: What constitutes a terminal illness? What constitutes “meaningful contact with others”? You need a living person, not just a living will, to sort out these complexities.

While doctors usually turn to family members for guidance, durable powers of attorney for health care are especially important when family members disagree, or have contradictory memories of what you said you wanted, Cashman notes. Baxter points out that durable powers of attorney for health care can be written so that the person appointed can act as next of kin, so a hospital doesn’t exclude people you count as family from visiting you.

Financial Decisions. Imagine this: you have just emerged from emergency surgery, too traumatized or drugged to sign your name. The rent is due, you don’t have friends who can front an extra rent payment, and your landlord would just as soon have you out. This kind of trouble could be just next door, as nearby as a bicycle accident.

To anticipate the problem, you need a trust arrangement and/or a durable power of attorney for assets, designating someone to pay your bills and make financial decisions if you become incapacitated. It’s a durable, not a general, power of attorney you should set up, according to the American Association of Retired Persons, because a general power of attorney expires if you die or become incapacitated.

A power of attorney can be as limited or as comprehensive as you want it to be; for these and for living trusts–also useful planning devices–you should see a lawyer. Your powers of attorney, both for health care and for assets, must be available to the people who might need it–not locked in a safe deposit box or lost in a file cabinet.

Should you not survive that bicycle accident, you will need a will. Otherwise, the brother you can’t stand will get your vintage Fender, not your guitar-playing best friend; your kid with the suspended driver’s license will get the truck you spent so much time on.

Jill Wilson, a local attorney who specializes in estate planning, says that she first asks clients to list their assets, to learn where they will go if they die intestate (without a will). She reminds people who think they have no assets worth considering to take their life insurance into account, as well as the possibility of inheriting from their own parents. Whether you write your own will (informed by careful research) or have a lawyer draw one up, you should keep it up-dated. As Wilson says, “as your life changes, change your will.”

Note that the California State Bar has a standard will form that might be useful, at:

Even if you have no intention of dying, make sure people near you know what you want–just in case. Do you want to be told that you’re dying? Precisely what kinds of life support would you want under what circumstances? Would you want to die at home or in a hospital? Would you want a priest or other spiritual worker present? Baxter recommends signing a cremation pre-authorization form, if cremation is what you want; she also suggests signing up with the Monterey Bay Funeral and Memorial Society, and specifying your own arrangements.

Kids.  If you have children, your will should nominate a “Guardian of the Person,” who would serve as a surrogate parent were you to die, Wilson recommends; you should also name a back-up person or two. In the absence of such a guardian, the responsibility will fall to family members who may not be suitable. Again, your choice of a guardian may change as your children do: keep updating the will.

The person who raises the children need not be the same one who manages money for them, says Wilson; many people aren’t good at both, and having two people involved provides a check-and- balance system, she says. Preferably, you should set up a trust, naming a trustee to manage the children’s assets until they are responsible; if you don’t, the court will select a guardian of their estates, and the children will get the money at 18—not always the best time.

Like the business of living, the business of dying is embedded in technology, in bureaucracy, and in legality. But our image of dying has not caught up. We envision a quiet deathbed, a darkened room, a bent figure sewing a shroud; we envision a few well-chosen last words for those we love, buoyed by the smell of burning sage.

Checkbooks are not in this picture, nor are intensive care units, with their fluorescent lights and incessant alarms like toy sirens. Attached to respirators like hooked fish, we cannot speak our minds; our last words are said by others, and they are said on the telephone.

If nostalgic images or terror or procrastination keep us from tending to this business, we are likely to find ourselves in a story we would not have written–our children raised by people we did not choose, our life and death decisions made by relatives we no longer trust. Without documents, the people who love us will be stranded in the country of the unacknowledged, unable to help.


 The image above is from:


Santa Cruz Magazine appreciates Jill Wilson’s assistance with this column. Wilson is an attorney in Santa Cruz whose practice focuses on estate planning, trusts and wills. The author can vouch that this information was correct at the time it was originally published; anyone engaging in estate planning should consult an attorney and do their own research to obtain the most current and accurate information.