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A user manual for your death?

by Tom Johnson on Apr 28, 2020 •
categories: technical-writing

This is a gloomy topic but one that until recently I'd never even considered. When you die, what "user manual" will your family members follow to carry out tasks that need to be done? About two years ago my father passed away, and while it was emotionally difficult, I realized that figuring out the logistics of one's passing was also challenging. In preparing for the worst with the Coronavirus, I started to think about what needs to be done in case I die. (Of course, I hope this doesn't happen, and I'm not sick or anything. I'm just thinking ahead to worst-case scenarios.)

Closing out accounts

One of the main logistical challenges after my father passed was to figure out which accounts he had, what bills were unpaid, what money remained in different accounts, and how to log in to everything.

If you know someone’s email password, you can usually reset every password to other accounts this way. Security-wise, this means you should guard your email password with the utmost security. Gmail usually adds another layer of security as well with second-factor. Even if you know the email password, if you try to log in with an unrecognized device, Google prompts second-factor verification through your phone or other means. Thus, it’s important that surviving family members know not only your email password but the password to your phone, too.

Fortunately, my father passed away slowly due to stomach cancer and could tell my sister the email and phone passwords in the hospital. But if you die suddenly, and you’re the only one who knows the passwords, it might be challenging for others to secure access to this account.

After we secured access to his Gmail account, we started looking for keywords like payment or bill or invoice and made a list of all the various accounts, services, sites, etc. Fortunately, my dad didn’t have a lot of online accounts, so it was fairly easy to arrive at a full view of everything. One by one my sister and I would close accounts. Some accounts, such as a recurring iTunes subscription for $9.99 a month, seemed to be less visible. I’m guessing he probably didn’t even know about this, as I don’t recall him listening to Apple music.

In my case, I have a lot more logins to various sites and services. I’m using a password manager to store and manage access to these accounts, but even so, there are hundreds of different logins (literally 300+) to different sites, ranging from critical sites that include banks to trivial ones like Reddit.

To facilitate any needed transition, I installed the password manager on my wife’s computer and relayed a printout of login instructions to her. We also made a list of all recurring payments and services. (We should’ve already had this in a carefully tracked budget, but we did not.) We made a list of everything, including the monthly/yearly fees, so that one could know up-front what accounts were important and which were trivial.

My wife handles more of our finances than I do, so I’m still working out how to log in to some things (like how to pay our gas and electric bill). Ideally, each recurring payment should be easily recognizable and the login findable within the password manager. This seems like rather basic information, but trust me that the logistics of closing out accounts can take a long time.

One detail family members will be keen to know is whether any accounts have significant sums of money that can be dispensed (yes this sounds opportunistic, but it’s something one wonders). When my dad passed, we were wondering if there was some hidden account that had a stockpile of money he had kept. He was kind of closed off like this and had lived somewhat miserly most of his life, so we didn’t know. He said there wasn’t any such account.

However, he did have a health savings account with several thousand dollars that he wasn’t aware of. My children will be saddened to know that I don’t have a secret offshore fund in the Cayman Islands that I failed to mention, but I imagine they’ll look anyway. One of the details to unravel will be how to dispense funds from 401k accounts and other retirement savings.

Access to benefits

Another consideration is access to benefits. Depending on how you die, your life insurance policies might pay out in different ways. How would your surviving family members even know how to access your life insurance policies, and what money might be coming their way?

For example, I have a death and dismemberment policy that I’ve enrolled in through work, especially knowing that a car could easily end my life while I’m biking, but how would my spouse or children know whom to contact or how to request the payout? One hopes that there’s a process already in place for companies to transact benefits automatically, but it would be good to keep this information somewhere convenient, including a sense of timelines. Right now, the only way my spouse and family members could access my enrollment benefits is by logging into corporate VPN. Benefits are often so complicated that there isn’t a nifty PDF booklet to print out but rather a complex website (again, VPN-access only) to navigate.

Burial wishes

Another question others will likely ask is to understand your burial wishes. When my father passed, we weren’t sure if he would be fine with cremation or burial. We scanned through old emails and identified a previous thread where he mentioned that cremation would be okay. Since he was former military, he had already picked out his cemetery and described plans for burial. (By the way, the military really takes care of service members who pass in terms of burial offerings.)

You can create your own will at doyourownwill.com, where you can specify some basics such as who your estate should be transferred to, who should become the guardian of your children if both you and your spouse pass, how you wish to be buried, whether you want a funeral or memorial service, and so forth.

I know that my mother (still living) wishes to be cremated and then have her ashes scattered in a favorite place (e.g., the ocean) where we can always remember her. (I realize that ash scatterings are often illegal, especially at commercial places like Disneyland, where many people have attempted to scatter ashes previously.) If you have some kind of specific request like this, do other family members know? They will likely want direction around this.

Another detail is whether you want to be kept alive in a vegetative state even if you have no brain activity, and for how long. Can family members “pull the plug,” and if so, how and when?

I did complete a basic will online and downloaded the PDF it generates. I’m fine with cremation and whatever memorial service is least expensive and easy (but who wouldn’t mind a mausoleum). One detail is to specify who should become the guardian of your children if both you and your spouse pass. We asked this question during dinner one evening. It turns out all the kids want to go to grandma’s house.

Writing an obituary

Another detail family members will need to do is write an obituary. Actually, publishing obituaries in newspapers costs hundreds of dollars (I thought they were free). But even if you just want a short obituary to publish in a memorial service brochure, someone will have to write it, and they will need some basic facts. Here is the short obituary I wrote about my dad. Writing the obituary is therapeutic and emotional, but there are also factual details to include:

  • Dates and places of birth
  • Names of parents and siblings
  • General outline of major life events
  • Career details
  • Hobbies and interests
  • Character descriptions and personalities

You’ll also probably need a collection of photos for the memorial service. Writing my dad’s obituary was one of the most helpful activities I experienced as I was dealing with his loss. It let me reflect on his life and what I liked most about him. It’s hard to summarize someone’s most essential characteristics in a few paragraphs, but one detail I liked about my dad was his enjoyment in trying and experimenting with new things in life. In the obituary, I wrote,

He married several times, and though most of his marriages failed, he always celebrated each as a success. David loved to drive around in an old truck, often taking the long route through some previously unexplored backroads. In his later years, he would go on lengthy morning walks. He often dabbled with musical instruments (from violin to ukulele), once took up sailing in Florida’s blue ocean waters, and had an energetic dog named Jack. David loved life.

It’s true — my dad earnestly loved so many aspects of life. He did not want to die. It seemed he was always taking up some hobby or another. I remember as a kid how my dad would often take the long route to a destination, driving slowly in an old truck, winding around backgrounds simply because he’d never been that way before.

Helping others find closure

One of the more challenging tasks for others to perform after your death is finding closure. How do you help people reconcile their lives after your absence, especially if there’s some emotional gap that was never filled?

My dad was somewhat of a loner. He read a lot and had some deep thoughts, but he didn’t open up a lot and share himself with others by default. We also had a small longstanding rift in terms of religion because I had joined the Mormon church in my teens and had been a member for 20 years before leaving in my thirties. My dad’s brother had been a Mormon and had goaded him constantly in self-righteous ways over the years, even though, oddly, his brother had also been excommunicated from the Mormon church.

Anyway, while going through my dad’s email (at first looking for account information, but then later curiously reading emails he’d sent), I ran across one email written in 2006, written to his ex-Mormon but still believing brother. The email made me feel good about the relationship I’d had with my dad despite the emotional distance around religion. My dad wrote,

Tom and I have been going fishing in Tampa Bay. We caught quite a few the other day. What I know about fishing I learned in the west. It’s a lot different here. The water is shallower and there’s a lot more kinds of fish, all with special rules about when they’re legally catchable, how long they have to be, etc. We’re starting slow and learning as we go. It’s fun to be with my wonderful son. Age 30, good Mormon, good job as a writer, teaches school one night a week, and creates web sites for money in his spare time. An all around nice guy. An excellent father, too.

When I lived in Florida (near my dad), I went through a fishing phase and would love to go to the nearby pier (especially near Sunshine Skyway) and fish for Spanish Mackerel. Spanish Mackeral are feisty and put up a good fight until reeled all the way in (after the fight, we just released them back into the water). During my fishing obsession, I would go at least once or twice a week. I tried to persuade my Dad to join me with the same zeal, and sometimes he went along with it, good sport that he was, but his fishing interest just wasn’t there. I guess he enjoyed simply being with his son.

Many years before, when I was a young kid playing baseball and still in grade school, I played catch with dad in the yard several times a week. We lived in a trailer park during this period of my childhood, and we would go to the end of the lane to a larger field and throw the ball back and forth. He had pretty good aim. I liked to throw the ball harder each time. I can still hear the ball smacking his mitt with a loud pop and hearing him say, somewhat casually, “Ouch, that hurt!” But I think he was proud of how hard I had learned to throw.

Again, he wasn’t really into sports. I became much more into sports throughout my life, while my dad rarely even watched football games. He played catch with me because he enjoyed being with me, he loved his children, and thinking about this helped give me closure about the emotional distance later due to the religious differences.

In thinking about your death, helping others find closure might be one of the most difficult challenges. Do you have any open emotional wounds with others? Do some family members feel like they aren’t your favorites, or that you’ve neglected or estranged them somehow?

I’m not sure what the right approach is to help family members find closure, but maybe writing a letter to them that they should read upon death could be helpful. This isn’t something I’ve done but it could be good to do. I can’t even imagine what I would write. At any rate, closure is difficult a because there isn’t a clear process to follow. It’s not simply a matter of closing an outstanding financial account.

Genetic history

One thing I wish I’d done with my father is have him complete a 23andme genetic profile before he passed. By the time I tried to set this in motion, he was already too far into the stages of death to spit in the sample tube (he was only barely conscious and had entered a state of deep breathing). Later I actually did have my mother (still alive) do the 23andme test, and I also did a test for myself.

I suppose I thought the genetic profile would be more revealing. The information these genetic tests reveal is random and seemingly comprehensive without actually telling you any details you actually want to know. For example, knowing what relationship percentage you have with Neanderthals is kind of fun but not entirely meaningful. It turns out my mom has 60% more Neanderthal DNA than other 23andme customers, which might explain our long arms (though I only have 25% more Neanderthal DNA than other customers).

I don’t have any interesting health predispositions that would raise alarm. Knowing that I have a “variant detected, not likely at increased disk” for age-related macular degeneration, and a “slightly increased risk” for Celiac disease is good to know, but otherwise nothing else stands out. These genetic profile tests don’t highlight whether you’re likely to develop stomach cancer, for example.

With some other 23andme details, I didn’t even realize the characteristics were linked to genetics. I’m likely to consume more caffeine, less likely to be a deep sleeper, and sadly my muscle composition doesn’t have the same variant common in “elite power athletes.” On this detail, the report notes:

Studies have found that almost all elite power athletes (including sprinters, throwers, and jumpers) have a specific genetic variant in a gene related to muscle composition. You do not have the same genetic variant as these elite athletes.

That might explain my less than stellar basketball career.

Ancestry-wise, I’m 54% French & German, mainly from Switzerland and Germany, and 31% British and Irish. Since my mom is 72% French & German, and only 7% British and Irish, I assume that I get more of the British/Irish heritage from my father. But since he never did the genetic test, I’ll never know. Interestingly, there’s a lady in Georgia who shares 12 segments with me on my dad’s side (more than anyone else outside my immediate family). I’m not sure what that means, but I think we’re distant cousins of some degree. Sometimes I imagine meeting her (she’s 65) just to see if we’re in any way alike.

The genetic profile doesn’t do much for you emotionally, but it is comforting to have some details about your parents and ancestors, if only so that you have some record of where you come from. Genetic advances are always adding to these reports, so who knows what correlations or surprising findings might be added in the future. I always feel like they’re holding back on the big correlations.

Conclusion

Death isn’t a pleasant topic to contemplate, but it’s certainly sobering, and with so many people dying of Coronavirus, with plans to reopen the economy (whereupon deaths might soar even more), these details are worth thinking about.

Given that as technical writers we write instructions for a living, this is one user manual that could likely be the most important user manual you ever write. Imagine that upon dying, your family members find a bound instruction book, with a table of contents that lays out everything they’ll need to do, in step-by-step fashion. It would be a fitting complement to a life spent writing instructions for complex systems. I probably couldn’t do this without a healthy dose of sarcasm and self-deprecation, but dressing it up in full formal procedural style — in accordance with the Microsoft Manual of Style — could be fun (and might reduce some of the angst/dread of the topic).

I can’t say that I’ve finished this manual, as it is challenging to put this information together. And the timelines for its release always seem to (thankfully) be pushed out, which allows me to postpone the work. This is one release I hope to always see moved out, but as with most writing projects, one day the release will be shipped, and the state of the docs will need to be published, as is.

More reading

Want to read more on this topic? See Feeling Anxious? Let’s Take 5 Steps to Get Our Affairs in Order

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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