Saturday, May 5, 2012

Dealing with the Death Industrial Complex

Three weeks. That is all the time it has been. Just three weeks ago yesterday when the Tampa police showed up at my door to tell me that my sister had died. Since then I have flown to New Hampshire where I have started taking an inventory of Cissy's things and important papers. I spent four hours straight talking to her friends and former co-workers from every aspect of her forty years in New Hampshire as part of the supposed 3 hour memorial service. I have driven to Kentucky and back for a second memorial service, made arrangements for her ashes to be buried in the family "plot" in a cemetery in our hometown of Cynthiana, Kentucky, and visited with various friends and family back there.

I have been somewhat dumbfounded at all the work required to deal with death in our current world. Maybe the worst thing is that I know I have it easy. Cissy had set up a "living trust" before she underwent breast cancer surgery back in '03, including putting her condo and another small piece of land into the trust at that time. She had made a number of specific bequests in the Declaration of Trust to family members and friends. In the intervening years, she had gone ahead and given some of these bequests to the designated people. Others she had sold to raise cash to stay alive. Since I have the authority as Executor of her estate and Trustee of her trust, I can give other of her things to individuals as I see fit so all of her family and friends will be able to remember her in some way or another.

The real craziness has been dealing with various bureaucracies, some government and others from business. It started the day after I got to New Hampshire when the postman showed up with a letter requiring my signature. While I was signing he is asking me, "Has someone cleaned out the mailbox for this unit? It hasn't been emptied in over a week"

My response, "Uh, this is my sister's place and she just died."

Postman, "Well, that's a good reason for the box not to be emptied."

Later that day, I had to meet with the funeral home director. Having grown up in a small town, I was used to the funeral home providing a bill but not demanding payment until the estate had been filed with the court. Nowadays, outside of the small towns (was it always this way?), the funeral home requests payment much sooner. Like on the day of the scheduled memorial service. When I met with the lawyer the next day, he assured me that the cost was in line with cremations in the local area. Still, how many people have $4,500 to $5,000 lying around to pay the costs? And at least double that if there is a casket and actual burial.

Ah, then there is the credit union. After my first meeting with the lawyer, he told me that I would need copies of the death certificate to gain access to her accounts but that the obit in the paper might suffice, given that her death had been a local news story. Well, no. They would not even verify that she HAD accounts. So time to call the funeral home and ask for the copies of the death certificate (I do dread my next cell phone bill). The funeral home director tried to get me to hold off on the copies until the state Medical Examiner's office had issued the final autopsy report since the cause of death is "pending" but he did understand when I pointed out to him that I needed access to her accounts if I was going to pay him on Friday, so I got a half dozen certified copies instead of the full dozen he is providing, with the remainder coming after the final report is issued.

I picked up the first copies later that afternoon and returned to the credit union where I ran head on into the bureaucracy. It seems the young lady I was dealing with was confused by the fact that Cissy had named our brother Win and I both as recipients of cash bequests and even though I was specified as Executor of her estate and trustee of her living trust, it was just different enough that she felt she couldn't make a decision and her branch manager would not be back until the next morning. I foolishly tried to argue the point, pointing out that I did have all the appropriate paperwork and that at a time when someone least needs roadblocks, it was not helpful to have more blocks to accomplishing the first steps of identifying assets. I did not however, point out that if you are "in charge" but can't or won't make a decision if something a bit out of the ordinary comes along, then you aren't really "in charge."

The next morning, I went to another branch of the credit union and was able to at least gain access to her trust accounts. Fortunately for me, one of my cousins had brought enough cash for me to cover the funeral home expenses since there was little cash in the trust accounts. I informed the lawyer and he started the paperwork to request probate so I can access her standard checking and savings accounts (which will probably take a month or more).

AS I stated above, I know this is actually an easy trip compared to what a lot of folks have to deal with. Cissy had planned things out when she was staring breast cancer in the face 8 1/2 years ago so I have not had to do nearly as much thinking. After our mother died, we had talked and both expressed desires to be cremated so that was an easy decision to make. I have been helped by the support of all of her friends from New Hampshire and Kentucky. Some of her friends are coming over this afternoon (Derby Day!) to help me go through her clothes as I start cleaning things out. I have been bolstered by all the expressions and comments on Facebook. The showing of her friends at the memorial in New Hampshire showed the impact she had made on people in her forty years up here. The cousins who came to Cynthiana for that memorial service, including the cousin who had only "met" her through Facebook, have helped.

Cissy's friend Kathie wrote a blog post with memories of Cissy:

Cissy and I driving back from a vacation in Maine, stopped dead in turnpike traffic, engines and drivers growling, irritation hanging over the highway like exhaust, horns beeping, people yelling. And Cissy, reaching into her suitcase and pulling out one of those dime-store bottles of bubbles that you blow through a little plastic circle. Bubbles floating down the stalled interstate, children reaching out of their windows, laughter rising, a barometric change starting, Cissy laughing and blowing more bubbles.
This story so inspired Cissy's friend and classmate Sara that she went out and purchased a bunch of those same dime-store bottles of bubbles. So we celebrated Cissy's life by standing on the street corner, outside the church, blowing bubbles on a Saturday morning.


  1. I love the blowing-bubbles story. That's wonderful. So sorry for your loss, and the obstacles in your way, Richard. Best wishes.

    1. Thanks Teddy. It really did encapsulate
      Cissy's perspective in so many ways. When we were blowing the bubbles after the Memorial service in Cynthiana, it was a fun way to honor her memory.