Looking ahead to end-of-life decisions is never easy. But having children, or close family members, sometimes tidies the to-do list. You choose a burial site where your kids can easily travel. There's an obvious loved one to handle all the decisions and paperwork.
So individuals who don't have children — or any close family nearby, or at all — may be tempted to think preplanning is irrelevant.
But it's not irrelevant, say end-of-life planning experts.
"Everyone leaves an imprint, whether it's a life partner or a sibling or a friend," said Fran Solomon, founder of support site HealGrief.org.
However, the planning is different.
"It's important for everyone to preplan, but especially people without children,"
said Rachel Zeldin, founder of Funerals360 (formerly ImSorrytoHear.com), which offers funeral planning tools and advice.
Zeldin started her end-of-life planning website after her uncle died — leaving no children, spouse or plans.
"I watched my mom struggle through planning this event and navigating how to plan a funeral," she said.
Those without children might face different challenges, but also added freedoms. For example, although they might need to search for someone to carry out their wishes, being on their own offers them the opportunity to focus solely on what they want, versus having to plan around others' lives and locations.
"For those who think people are going to come and visit (a grave), they want to be thoughtful about (considerations such as) where are the family and friends that are going to come visit," Solomon said. For others who are convinced their grave site will not be visited, she said the questions are, "Where is my legacy going to be left? Where am I going to want to be?'"
Find a point person:
As executive director for the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit focused on consumers' rights, Josh Slocum often receives question-laden calls from people without children.
First, he advises them to think of one person closest to them and designate that individual to carry out their wishes. It might be a sibling, cousin or nephew, but it also could be a neighbor you meet for lunch twice a year — and that's OK, he said, if it's the person you feel closest to and someone you trust.
Someone needs to be a point person, "the people who are going to get that phone call from the hospital, or the police or the nursing home," he said.
And don't assume that giving a funeral home money ahead of time equals preparedness.
"That's magical thinking," Slocum said.
Designate someone to help with your wishes, but also to carry out health-care preferences or act on your behalf legally.
"By taking the steps formally documenting that, and communicating that with people in your inner circle, that ensures that your final wishes are going to be taken care of," Zeldin said.
Carol Levey, a Los Angeles resident and member of the HealGrief board, recently spoke with her brother, who does not have children, about where he would like to be buried. He is very attached to her children, she said — his niece and nephew — and is now considering being buried where they live, in California, instead of near his home in Arizona.
Cousins and friends, Levey added, are grappling with the same thoughts — some people might consider cremation, for example, if they do not anticipate visitors. Others might not use family plots if they live far away.
Many are growing less concerned with family visiting their tombstone, Zeldin said. "Coming to the grave every day, it's not part of our tradition anymore," she said.
Solomon said she is noticing more people spreading their ashes in the ocean, at a beloved vacation spot or a place that holds special meaning or is used for a favorite activity. Her sister wishes to be cremated and her ashes sprinkled over a horse farm she likes. Others use ashes in custom-created artwork, such as a painting or blown vase. Ashes can be divided among family members in a variety of ways —incorporated into a gemstone, for example, which could then be placed on a necklace. Some people put them into a module in a ring, bracelet or watch — an increasingly popular option, Zeldin said.
Start the conversation:
Slocum encourages people to huddle with those they care about. Perhaps they don't mind where you are buried. Maybe your plan for them to scatter your ashes to provide closure holds less weight than you assumed.
Slocum reconsidered his own plans after a heart attack four years ago, at age 36. An atheist, he said he does not want a religious ceremony, but he now realizes his family might want that to help grieve, and he's given them his blessing.
"The funeral isn't about you," he advised. "The funeral really is about the people left behind."
Most important, he said, lose the fear of the conversation. Too often, people bow out of discussing death, assuming it will be depressing.
"It's never going to be a happy topic, but it doesn't have to be a traumatic topic that will shut down a conversation," he said.