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Jun 06
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On Aging: My Big Yellow File

COLUMN: Aging in Shambhala
article by Richard Reoch

Preparing for death is highly recommended as a part of contemplative practice. Recognizing that this life could end at any moment provides encouragement for us to fully engage with the world while we can. In addition to contemplating the inevitability of our death and deepening our practice so as to be better able to relate with the experience of death, it is also helpful to prepare for death at a very practical level. One approach, described here, is to create a literal file containing all the material that would be needed by our loved ones and friends if we suddenly died. This is an act of generosity and kindness toward those who will be put in a position of wrapping up our affairs as well as being a manual reminder to us that death comes without warning. The author of this piece is Richard Reoch who is well known as the President of Shambhala. Perhaps less well known is that he is author of a book entitled “Dying Well: A Holistic Guide for the Dying and Their Carers” (which is available from Amazon).

I keep a big yellow file near my home telephone. The magic marker on the label says simply: DEATH. It’s my death file. It has the information in it that anyone would need if I died at any moment. I do my best to keep it up to date, which is a powerful practice in itself.

As soon as we die there is a lot to take care of. Someone will have to arrange our funeral, deal with our home, sort out our belongings and close our bank account.

The entire paper trail of our lives is involved: birth certificates, insurance and mortgage forms, credit cards and personal papers.

There’s a very practical way of easing the burden on those who will have to deal with all this after your death. I’ve done it myself and I’d like to encourage everyone else to do the same.

“Keep it simple” is the starting principle. Just getting started with the essentials will make a big difference.

I recommend a large folder. You can keep records on your computer, but you also need something you can put documents in and that your carers can carry with them.

You can begin with some basic details:

Who do you want to be told about your death? Be sure to keep their addresses and phone numbers up-to-date.

Is there anything you want someone in particular to have as a gesture of love and appreciation?

Do you want to leave a message for anyone? (You can always put these kinds of messages in sealed envelopes in the file, if you wish.)

Also be sure to put the following basic documents in your file (you probably have these somewhere already, but it will be a great help to have them all together in your file):

Birth certificate
Marriage certificate /divorce papers
Photocopy of your current passport or other official identification
Bank account, credit card and other financial or legal details
Your Will
Living will or advance directive and power of attorney (which authorizes a person to act on your behalf if you are unable to make decisions yourself )
Funeral plans

If you don’t want to put originals of these documents in your file for any reason, you can make photocopies – even of the first page – and write a note saying where to find the originals. You may have your given your details or documents to a lawyer: be sure your file has their name, current address and phone number.

The great thing about using a file is that you don’t have to do this all at once. You can add anything. You can take anything out. You can make any changes you want at any time.

Whatever you put in your file will make a difference. Often family and friends end up arguing about what to do after someone dies. You can lift that burden by making this file for them. So don’t be secretive about your file: make sure your family and close friends know it’s there!

Finally, a simple request: please make a will. You can get a form in almost any stationery store. You only need to write a single sentence, sign it and have a friend witness it. Having a will cuts through miles of red tape and arguments after your death. And since death comes without warning, the time to make a will, if you haven’t done so already, is right now! Like making your death file, it will be a great kindness to others.

This is the fifth in an ongoing series of articles on Aging in Shambhala. To read the previous articles, please click here. Contributions to the monthly column, “Aging in Shambhala” are welcome. Please contact Andrea Sherman at: [email protected]

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6 responses to “ On Aging: My Big Yellow File ”
  1. Pam Dreiling
    Apr 5, 2013

    thank you, Richard, and commenters for the helpful information and good reminder to take care of this business.

  2. phyllis segura
    Sep 4, 2012

    Yes, glad to see this. There is also something somewhere on one of the Shambhala sites about Shambhala funeral arrangements. I found it once but not sure where now. Also, at this very moment, I have been reading “Dying with Confidence” by Anyen Rinpoche and in it he outlines what should go in a Dharma Box, as that is what he calls it. There is a long check list on page 39. It includes an extra mala and a photo of yourself kneeling with palsm together if you wish to have a lama perform phowa or chod for you. I would also recommend having a Health Proxy, someone who knows what to do through a medical process. Including instructions for non-Buddhist family members is also a good one. I don’t know about making our survivors do all sorts of errands though…a friend died recently and he wanted part of his ashes to go on the glaciers in Alaska so his executor had to do it. Though leaving funds for someone to spread your ashes somewhere you know they have always wanted to go could be a nice bye-bye gift!

  3. Judith Smith
    Sep 4, 2012

    Richard, this suggestion is totally brilliant! For a long time, I’ve had a normal sized envelope on my desk, marked “In the Event of my Death” (with a copy delivered also to the Executor) — but you have pointed out that it is too abbreviated, and I will now take it upon myself to expand it. Indeed, this is so generous and a great kindness to “everyone” who will be involved around our death. Thank you thank you for this. And many thanks to the additional suggestions posted by Ms. Reichhardt and Ms. Elliott.

    Also, perhaps the article could be re-submitted every so often, as new people come and go in their memberships. Come to think of it, I might just post it on Facebook. (Hope that isn’t illegal.)

  4. Fay Elliott
    Jun 9, 2012

    Ann makes a very important point above. When my husband was incapacitated in a car accident, I had to sue for his guardianship which was a very costly and time consuming process because I did not have his power of attorney.

    This article is a blessing, and I do hope people will pay attention. My brother died in his sleep last week and fortunately, we had the information we needed. What we didn’t have were his last wishes. We know he wanted to be cremated. We don’t know what to do with the ashes. If anything matters to you about what happens with your body after you die and what kind of services are performed, i.e. Shambhala Buddhist or otherwise, these need to be spelled out in writing to assist your family and reduce confusion and disagreements after your death.

    I plan to include in my file letters I have already written to my family members and new updated versions as the years pass and our relationships change and grow.

    Don’t forget computer and cellphone passwords if someone needs access to these to finalize your business.

  5. Ann Reichhardt
    Jun 7, 2012

    Thanks, Richard–both my parents died in 2010 within weeks of each other, both after health issues related to old age.

    For me, the two documents that helped me most, beyond their Living Wills, were the GENERAL DURABLE POWER OF ATTORNEY– (essential for taking care of financial issues), as well as the MEDICAL DURABLE POWER OF ATTORNEY– (essential for all medical related issues). Couldn’t have done anything without either of these related to financial or healthcare decisions. No one would have talked to me in hospitals, banks, etc. (on the phone or in person) without my empowerment through these documents. Both totally ESSENTIAL!

    Best, Ann

  6. Thank you Richard! My Mother died this past year and she had all her papers organized,and it really was a gift!
    I am certainly going to do what I have “been meaning to” for months, .thanks for the reminder. Also try to get rid of unnecessary stuff in the house!

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