The Aftermath

Catherine Horiuchi

AFTER LEAVING the hospital, our family met up at a favorite neighborhood restaurant.

“What’s next?” the teenagers asked.

“Now begins the parade of covered dishes,” I answered.

For the month after my husband’s death, when preparing food hardly seemed possible, friends and neighbors made sure our refrigerator and freezer bulged. The kids experienced a variety of main meals, side dishes and desserts. There was enough for us and our many helpers, and we experimented with time and labor-saving meal shortcuts. Prepackaged salad, anyone?

We also had support personnel. My sister-in-law was the first to arrive, dispatched ahead of my brother, who would come the following week to assist with the memorial service. For two months, half-a-dozen houseguests took on mundane tasks, each in their own way. The kids experienced myriad household models. By the end of this, a couple of months later, we were ready to be alone.

Questions of what would happen to my spouse’s things—including his bank accounts—began the day he died. One person asked about a charitable contribution he had made annually. Would I be making it again this year, possibly increasing the amount? Since it was January and he made the contribution each December, I replied that I would answer in 10 months. Another person said, “You have two cars. What will you do with the second car?” There was absolutely no immediate need to do anything with the second car, and I replied to that effect.

Two matters, however, required immediate handling. First, I needed to decide where to send my husband’s body. Did I want to work with a funeral home or handle matters myself? It’s possible, by arranging a cremation, picking up the ashes yourself and then going somewhere to scatter them, to reduce the cost to a few hundred dollars. At the other end of the spectrum, funerals can be as expensive as destination weddings.

Second, I needed a rough assessment of my financial situation. Did we have access to enough cash and credit to handle immediate expenses? How was I supposed to deal with his financial accounts?

I called a funeral home, as well as the lawyer who’d prepared our wills and other legal documents. A funeral director arranged for his body to be sent to a mortuary. I would meet with her the next day. I also set up an appointment with our lawyer. My sister-in-law accompanied me to both meetings.

I had already been in contact with my employer over the prior week. Bereavement leave is typically three-to-five days of paid leave for a death in the immediate family. Longer paid or unpaid leave is sometimes available, depending on a newly bereaved person’s position and the business demands of his or her workplace. The Family and Medical Leave Act does not cover bereavement, but can cover time off necessitated by your emotional state. Those qualifying can take up to 12 weeks of leave over a 12-month period.

The meeting with the funeral director came first. She laid out the possible choices and the prices for each. I toured the property. I had also considered a venue downtown. But this space seemed better for the service and reception we were planning, plus it offered free and ample parking. Working from an a la carte price list, I could limit expenses to only those items I felt were essential and reasonably priced. We selected a tentative time and date. The funeral director prepared a contract, but I didn’t immediately sign it. I told her I needed to review it and also discuss it with my attorney.

The attorney meeting was straightforward. I thanked him for his thoroughness in preparing our family’s legal documents. I said the advance medical directive had been an immense help at the hospital. I told him I would need his assistance managing the estate and paid him a base amount, which would grow much larger, depending on problems we might encounter. I talked about the proposed contract for the memorial service and asked if the cost appeared reasonable.

I also gave the attorney a rough estimate of our total worth and asked if he agreed it should be enough for the foreseeable future. I told him both of our cars had more than 160,000 miles on them and I felt I should replace one, as I no longer had someone to pick me up if the car broke down. In short, I reviewed the largest financial decisions for the next few weeks and checked my thinking.

I had no false sense of rationality. I knew I was in shock and needed to check my thinking at every turn. After the meeting, I reviewed my notes from the discussion and confirmed with my sister-in-law that I’d correctly stated my questions and fully understood the attorney’s responses.

I went back to the funeral director and signed the contract. Less than a week into my new life, I had spent nearly two months’ take-home pay. Still, we’d found easy ways to save money, and also delayed spending on a gravesite and marker, giving ourselves time to regroup.

As I think back on the immediate aftermath of my husband’s death, six lessons stand out:

  1. You don’t need to prepay funeral expenses, but it helps if you and loved ones discuss costs and options, while you’re young and healthy and it’s all only hypothetical. If you want to be frugal, give your relatives permission in advance for simple disposition of your remains. It’s best to do this in writing.
  2. National cemeteries offer burial plots for military families who meet eligibility requirements. The Department of Veterans Affairs will alternatively provide a headstone for an eligible veteran’s grave in a private cemetery. We belatedly checked and learned my husband didn’t qualify, despite his Vietnam-era service.
  3. You may have a lengthy delay before you can access your spouse’s financial accounts. It takes a while to get a death certificate, for instance. Wills, trusts, death certificates: You will need multiple copies of these important documents.
  4. Immediate expenses are likely to be higher than you expect. In addition to handling the disposition of the remains, writing and placing an obituary, and preparing a funeral, you might find yourself paying for airfares and hotels for one or more family members. Meanwhile, everyday household tasks may not be accomplished in your usual cost-effective way.
  5. Even with family and friends at hand, you might need to hire help during the months that follow. Your partner no longer will be there to do his or her share of the work. Your children may stop doing their chores, and will need extra help dealing with school administrators, teachers and friends. Someone else can clean the house or mow the lawn. A trusted friend can open and sort your mail, and then alert you to anything that’s important and time sensitive.
  6. Very few things require immediate action. Any large expenditure is best delayed until you’re in a better frame of mind, perhaps six or 12 months in the future.

Catherine Horiuchi is an associate professor in the University of San Francisco’s School of Management, where she teaches graduate courses in public policy, public finance and government technology. This is the second article in a series. The other parts: At the End and When It Rains.

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