Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” In all the years that I’ve worked with clients to create a financial path for their long-term wishes in life and after they are gone, I’ve covered a huge spectrum of topics. Until now, I’ve never asked clients about their “right of sepulcher” (the right of sepulcher means the right to choose and control the burial, cremation, or other final disposition of a deceased person). I recognize that, for some, this topic may seem a tad morbid. The cautionary tales of contentious and messy celebrity funerals that follow (suggested by Amy F. Altman, an associate at Meltzer, Lippe, Goldstein and Breitstone) may provide you with some perspective and may help you consider how you and your loved ones feel about your right of sepulcher.
- Litigation surrounding the 2007 death of actor, model and TV personality Anna Nicole Smith made headline news for weeks as her mother and the guardian of her infant daughter battled for the right of sepulcher. Ultimately, the daughter’s guardian prevailed and Anna was buried in the Bahamas next to her late (and recently deceased) son.
- Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted Williams’ death in 2002 resulted in a spectacular rift between his children over the disposition of his remains. His eldest daughter argued that Williams’ will clearly stipulated cremation, BUT his son had been given power of attorney and his father’s health proxy and he wanted his father cryogenically preserved. Eventually, the son won out, largely because the daughter could not afford the cost of litigation.
- Legendary actor Mickey Rooney died in 2014. His estranged wife wanted him buried in a shared plot purchased before they had separated. Rooney’s conservator (court appointed guardian) had other ideas and a costly tug-of-war ensued. In the end, his wife capitulated, recognizing that burial in a Hollywood cemetery befitting Rooney’s status was appropriate.
These cases, regardless of age, underscore the importance and value of discussing with loved ones your preferences for disposition. The laws regarding rights of sepulcher vary widely by state. If permitted under state law, completing a “disposition of remains form” together with advanced directives seems an appropriate start. This will create clarity with respect to the sensitive issues surrounding burial.
As with all legal documents you need to first understand what it is that you really want, which can take a long time to fully grasp and may require delicate discussions with loved ones and personal introspection. Leaving aside what I consider the more important question regarding life support for now, you can first deal with the question, do you want to be cremated, or perhaps cryogenically preserved? Do you want to be an organ donor? Would you like your funeral to take place at home or at a funeral parlor? Do you want a formal service or commemorative event? Though you’ll be gone, these are all options that may well prove to be important (and costly if mishandled) to those you leave behind.
At times, I think that there is so much to do while we are alive that taking time to consider what will happen after we’re gone seems inconsequential and entirely unimportant, but this may not be the case for loved ones. Let me offer an example.
Recently, a client shared that over the course of a dinner conversation with his parents they casually revealed their preference to be cremated. This came as an enormous shock. “Never in a million years,” he said, “would I have predicted that this was my parents actual wish.” This is a man who has made every effort to ensure he is in touch with the real wishes of his aging parents. “I would have got it wrong,” he said, adding “a split second’s worth of conversation set me straight.” He felt like a huge weight was lifted from his shoulders.
The person to whom you give the right of sepulcher may gain much by having even a short conversation about your wishes, regardless of your age.
Edi Alvarez, CFP®
BS, BEd, MS