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Living with dying

Practical matters

Many people discussed practical matters, such as sorting papers, making a will, planning their own funeral and burial, donating organs for research, adapting the house, or moving to another location.

Several people emphasised the importance of making a will, especially those who had experienced the difficulties of people having died without a clear will. A woman whose father died of motor neurone disease said that the family had had various difficulties because of the way in which his will had been written, and advised others to take care making their will.

 

Warns that making a will needs special care' because her family had some difficulties.

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Warns that making a will needs special care' because her family had some difficulties.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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After his death we experienced a number of difficulties with the way in which my father's will had been written. I would like to pass on some of the information I gleaned, in case it helps someone else. 

Some companies do not allow second or subsequent wives to benefit from their deceased husband's company pension, even if the first wife has died. Unmarried partners are not your next of kin. Your will should take care of your children. Don't think the law will automatically do that, which you had always hoped. Make it clear.

People prepared for their death in other ways. One man had made very detailed notes to enable his wife and daughters to understand their financial affairs. A woman whose children were still at college was anxious to ensure that they would be financially secure until they finished their education. A man who had mesothelioma was determined to survive, but he transferred the house and other assets into his wife's name in case he died.

 

He made sure his will was up -to date and left notes on family financial affairs.

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He made sure his will was up -to date and left notes on family financial affairs.

Age at interview: 66
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 66
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I wanted to make sure that both my wife and I had up to date wills in place. I wanted to make sure you know, as so often happens, wives don't get involved in the financial aspects very much. 

My wife does to some extent, I mean, numerically she's very good, she deals with accounts quite often, she's familiar with that side but she doesn't understand all the financial dealings of the family and I wanted to get that down on paper so that she will have a good understanding with my daughters of what the arrangements are.

I also had felt it was essential to get across to my wife and daughters the seriousness of the illness, you know, to the point of saying that well it's a serious operation. The cancer, the tumour can come back again. I feel sure that they know sufficient about these things to understand that I felt for my own benefit as much as theirs that they got that message.

A man with prostate cancer talked about an “inbuilt need to leave things squared up and tidy”. He had written letters to various people, made a will, and generally tied up “loose ends”. Having done that he felt better. Another man sold his precious books. He wanted to make sure someone bought them who would appreciate them. He also sold his shotguns because he didn't think he would be able to use them again.

A man with prostate cancer had made a very simple will, which would be tax efficient for his wife and children. He had also made suggestions for his funeral, and had nominated someone to make a eulogy.

 

He has made a will and made suggestions for his funeral.

He has made a will and made suggestions for his funeral.

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 57
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What other decisions do you need to think about?

Oh well, obviously making the Will. Making sure that there is tax efficient provision for my wife and for my children and that everything is set in such a way that unlike my mother whose father's Will took eighteen years to go through probate - which is extraordinary. No I don't want any of that nonsense. Its just going to be very simple, straightforward and no arguments and this is what it will be. 

And I've also talked with my children about that, what my wishes are. My younger brother is my executor. I've told him what my wishes are. Yeah. So. I've also suggested something about the funeral arrangements. Personally I'm quite happy to be charred in the oven and flushed down the loo. I think maybe something more appropriate has to be done about that in terms of a memorial service and maybe somebody will want to say something and I've suggested who might want to make a eulogy. That sort of thing, yeah, practical things.

Some people wanted to sort out emotional matters. They took the opportunity to settle disputes or write letters to their families explaining how much they meant to them. One man described such a letter, which took several days to write, as the most difficult letter he'd ever written. A woman with lung disease had tried to prepare her children for her death. She had written letters, telling them that they shouldn't feel guilty when she died, that it was alright to feel angry, and that they should allow themselves to cry (see 'Talking to children' and 'Thoughts about suicide, assisted dying and euthanasia'). 

People who talked about their funerals usually wanted to have celebrations and bright clothes rather than gloom and mourning. A man described how he had found out about a humanist service (see Natural Death Centre and British Humanist Association). A woman with ovarian cancer described a lovely party she had held which she saw as a pre-funeral event that she could attend.

A few people discussed their burial plans. One man planned to be buried with his wife, while another person hoped that her ashes would be scattered in the sea 'with the dolphins'. A man who had originally thought he would like a natural burial had decided since becoming ill that he would prefer a local cemetery.

 

Knowing that his remains will be placed next to those of his wife comforts him.

Knowing that his remains will be placed next to those of his wife comforts him.

Age at interview: 72
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 71
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There's this fear of death that a lot of people have got and you've not got that same attitude?

No. I would hope when my time comes that I won't be in a lot of pain. That's the only thing and I think modern medical science has moved far enough down that field to be able to help in that respect. No, I haven't but I think one of the things that has influenced me since my wife died is the fact that, this may sound a bit morbid actually, I know when my time comes my remains will be put with my wife's. I couldn't ask for more.

And that really would make you feel good?

Yes, 

Yes, I can understand that, that that could really be important, couldn't it? 

Yes, very important to me 

Yes.

My wife and I... I suppose I can honestly say we were made for one another. 

Yes, you're soul mates?

Yes, we could converse without talking... that as I say we've been... you know 44 years is a long time 

Well that's so good isn't it? 

And that's such a comforting thing to me. It's one of the things that helps me face the inevitable, yes.

Some people were keen to leave their bodies for medical research (see Human Tissue Authority) A man with multiple sclerosis had left his brain and spinal cord to a London hospital. A man who was dying of bladder cancer had been in touch with the professor of anatomy at the local medical school, who had told him that when the time came an undertaker would remove his body at no expense to his relatives.

 

Talks about the practicalities of leaving his body for anatomical science.

Talks about the practicalities of leaving his body for anatomical science.

Age at interview: 84
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 82
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Yes, we are doing a bit to try and put things in order for my wife. We've brought out a draft plan of a memorial service. I've left my body to anatomical science so there won't be a personal funeral but we might perhaps attend a general memorial service in London University. The anatomists there hold a service periodically for the relatives of all the people who've given their relatives bodies and we attended that once and we were very impressed. The professor of anatomy spoke in the pulpit and said how useful it was and so on and it was all discussed completely openly there, which I think, was very healthy.

If you wish to give your body to medical science, how do you go about arranging that?

There is a person in the Civil Service in London called the Inspector of Anatomy and one's GP can get in touch with him and say that this is what one wants to do. It depends where in the country you are, what actually happens. Here we're in a university town with a medical school. I've been directly in touch with the professor of anatomy and genetics here and I exchange correspondence with him from time to time.

If one lives in some remote part then the Inspector will see where there is an appropriate medical school then the people take complete charge. They send an undertaker to remove the body and the relatives don't have an expense for that and then in due course the medical school holds a sort of general funeral service for body parts and so you know it's all very tastefully done and more people ought to be encouraged to do this actually.

How does your family feel about that?

Well they've taken it in their stride.

 

She wants to leave parts of her body for research or exhibition, and have her ashes put in the...

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She wants to leave parts of her body for research or exhibition, and have her ashes put in the...

Age at interview: 58
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 49
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The other thing is I want to find out what to do with my body because I wanted to leave it. I have actually left it in my Will to anatomy, to go to be recycled, rather. I'd much rather my body's used for somebody to experiment with or fine but they won't... I don't think they want it with it's disease and especially if it's malignant, so now I have to find out if there is any other way that I can dispose of it that way. 

The oncologist said they may want, may be able to use some of my body tissues for Imperial Cancer so I've got to follow that up, and the other thing which most people are laughing at me, I went to see the Body Works where they do the plastinisation - now that appeals to me. I feel I would like to leave it to that, but I've got to ask my kids what they feel like first, I mean they've got to live with it haven't they? So that's something, and my husband.  

It's something that's not going to cause any problem. It's got to be easy for them because obviously it's going to be a sad time so I hope... I shall go into this during my next chemo, when I've got time, and see if I can come up with something. If not, it's where my kids want to bury me and whether it's helpful or whether it's cremated.  

They suggested I did a parachute jump and I want to do another one but they will cremate me and put my ashes in an urn and have the plane come over the end of the [town] pier and they'll drop me off into the sea, but I would like to be with the dolphins, so I don't know, I don't know what's going to happen, we'll see what happens at the time.

One man wanted to donate his body, but found it difficult to obtain information about the correct procedure.

Some people adapted their houses to make it easier for them to stay at home. They also altered their gardens to make them maintenance free. Others moved to a more convenient location, such as a ground floor flat. One man, with pancreatic cancer, worked hard repairing his house so that he could sell it and move to a smaller cottage or bungalow, where he thought his wife would find it easier to cope after his death.

 

He has been busy preparing to sell the house so that they can buy a small cottage or bungalow.

He has been busy preparing to sell the house so that they can buy a small cottage or bungalow.

Age at interview: 72
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 70
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I was just at the frame of mind as I say that I accepted it, you know that's it and started thinking about clearing the decks you know, selling this place.I immediately started work on doing all the jobs that needed doing so that we could sell this place and get a much smaller little bungalow or cottage. 

Somewhere where there wasn't the upkeep, you know, because this is a full time job for two people just to keep this garden and these houses maintained and you know I realised I wouldn't be able to do that for long so the thing was to get everything done that I could while I was fit so that then at least my wife could go and live near friends or her daughter if she was left alone.  

I couldn't imagine her staying down here on her own so all that I've been doing ever since is mending all the doors and windows but it's taken longer than I expected and of course some people suggest that it's that that's keeping me going and as soon as the job's done I'll keel over. 

Well the way that I explained to people when they ask about me taking these things they say, 'Well you know we didn't expect to see you still about, you know, you've done well', and I say well I was all ready to go but she said, 'no you're not my lad, don't you think you're sneaking off like that, leaving me with all this work."

Planning a funeral with other members of the family may provide an opportunity for the family to talk about death and to acknowledge what is happening. However, not everyone had found it easy to talk to their families about their death, and so had been unable to make plans for their funerals, or even in some cases, make a will. Sometimes they were waiting for the right moment, or putting off a painful task.

Last reviewed July 2017.

Last updated May 2010.

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