A friend of mine once told me she always makes her bed in the morning . . . in case she doesn’t make it home that night . . . or ever again. That way, people coming to the house after her demise won’t encounter a rumpled mess of a bed.
Her comment brought to mind one of Lewis Grizzard’s classic stories about his mama. Each time he had to travel, she would inquire as to whether or not he was wearing clean underdrawers (kindly read that in your best Southern accent), because he might be in an accident. He finally told her it didn’t matter. If he found himself face to face with a semi he wouldn’t have clean underdrawers for long. Which reminds me of another friend whose travel preparations include shaving her legs . . . so in case she’s in an accident . . .
How many of us have “rituals of protection” we go through before traveling? Or habits we’ve developed for reasons that defy reason? I’m certainly not saying there’s anything wrong with well-made beds or clean underdrawers or freshly shaved legs—as a matter of fact, I’m in favor of all three—but there are times when we get a little carried away in preparing for the great unknown . . . and other times we don’t do nearly enough.
For example, let’s talk about my good friend eBay. We have this love-hate relationship in which it tempts me with all kinds of goodies . . . which I don’t buy . . . at first. Now I have this glorious mix of family heirlooms and eBay finds. My daughter has repeatedly begged me to identify the heirlooms so at my demise they’ll know what to consider keeping (please note, I said consider, not absolutely will) and what can go away without the slightest shred of guilt. Of course, I know which is which. And I am currently the only one on the planet with this knowledge—so unless I find a simple way to pass that knowledge along, my children are going to say very ugly things about me when they start trying to empty the house.
But you know what? Family heirlooms versus eBay finds is nothing compared to the mess some families encounter when Death strikes. Even if there’s been some preparation time, they are often caught flat-footed and uninformed where the important stuff is concerned. Take family history, for instance. When my mother died my brother and I realized we had no clue where she was born. Her father had worked for TVA during their dam building years so she had literally lived all over this part of the country. By the time she was in tenth grade she’d been enrolled in ten different schools, some for over a year. But where did it all start? For reasons I won’t bore you with, we finally settled on Adamsville, Tennessee. It wasn’t until much later, when we were going through old pictures, that we came across a copy of her birth certificate which proved us right—and gave a totally different spelling of her first name.
Accurate biographical information is important but there are a few other things that are equally so and which can certainly present seemingly insurmountable obstacles if they aren’t settled before death. Insurance beneficiaries, for one. If your beneficiary has died, and you have no contingent (or replacement) beneficiary named, your family will most probably have to open a small estate to collect on that policy. Although not as involved as a full-blown estate, it still requires time and money and paperwork and headaches, all of which can be avoided with a simple form filed with the insurance company before you die.
But this issue isn’t limited to just life insurance. Do you have a retirement plan or other investment accounts? What about annuities, bank accounts, and savings accounts? Did you win the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes and someone else gets $5,000 a week for life after you don’t need that anymore? If the intended recipient of any of your valuable assets has departed for other worlds, you need to officially name a new recipient. Some of the things I’ve listed may not have actual beneficiaries, such as bank and savings accounts, but there are still ways you can grant access to those for select members of your family after you’re gone.
So, in summation I would like to state the following:
There’s no harm in having rituals you perform every morning or before every trip. Who knows? They may even help, if by doing nothing more than granting you peace of mind as you proceed. But there are also far greater details to which we should attend, not necessarily for our peace of mind—although that could be a definite fringe benefit—but for the folks we’ll someday leave behind.
About the author: Lisa Shackelford Thomas is a fourth generation member of a family that’s been in funeral service since 1926. She has been employed at Shackelford Funeral Directors in Savannah, Tennessee for over 40 years and currently serves as the manager there. Any opinions expressed here are hers and hers alone, and may or may not reflect the opinions of other Shackelford family members or staff.