Discussing a loved one’s last wishes is incredibly important, but surprisingly only 1% of us have had that conversation in depth. It’s understandable – there’s still a taboo in society that surrounds death and bereavement. No one really wants to acknowledge that one day their loved ones will no longer be around, and have to handle conversations that can be both uncomfortable and upsetting.

Last wishes

However, speaking about death openly with family members creates the opportunity to understand their preferences for medical care and funeral arrangements. It’s rewarding to organise a funeral, knowing it was exactly what they wanted.

Trouble is, talking about these things never feels urgent, until there’s no option but to discuss it. Often this is due to a loved one’s ill health, but even then it’s not necessarily too late. Talking about death can actually be cathartic, as many people experience a need to talk and voice their feelings.

Of course it’s easy to think, ‘I’ll talk to them closer to the time’, or ‘Now is not the right time’. Life, however, is unpredictable, and so talking to your loved ones about death should be a priority.

Consider the best approach for discussing your loved one’s last wishes

Finding a way to start the discussion can be difficult, particularly if your loved one is resistant to the topic. One or both of you might feel uncomfortable talking about death, making the task more difficult, so think about the best way to bring up the subject.

You know your family better than anyone. Think how they generally respond to serious conversations – is a direct or indirect approach better? The direct approach is simply saying, ‘I’ve been wondering if you’ve made any funeral plans’, or, ‘I know it’s a hard subject to talk about, but have you thought about making funeral arrangements?’

If your loved one finds the subject of death uncomfortable, try asking more open-ended, hypothetical questions. There may be an opportunity to bring it up in casual conversation, by asking, ‘Have you ever thought about the kind of funeral you’d want?’ or talk about what you’d like for your own funeral. This invites them to share their thoughts without putting too much pressure on them.

Alternatively, you could turn the topic into a game. Start by writing down questions on pieces of paper, such as, ‘What flowers would you like at your funeral?’, ‘What music would you want to be played at your funeral service?’, ‘Would you choose cremation or burial?’. Take it in turns to pick out a question, read it out loud, and then answer. These questions might prompt more natural conversations.

Ask for details

Most people underestimate the number of decisions involved in organising a funeral. There are so many options, with questions like, ‘What floral arrangements do you want?’ and ‘What kind of coffin would you like to choose for the deceased?’ Having a written record of all of these last wishes and preferences can make the arrangement process much easier.

Most people aren’t interested in the specifics, like the exact kind of coffin, or the flowers, for example. Knowing that they aren’t fussed about the precise details can make it easier when you come to arrange the funeral, and you are less likely to second guess yourself. Bear in mind, the most important thing is to create the opportunity for them to explore the options, and record their thoughts.

Some information that’s good to ask ahead of time:

  • Their preferences for the funeral itself – have they taken out a funeral plan?
  • Where you can find any important documents, e.g. funeral plan or life insurance policy
  • What, if any, provisions have been made for funeral costs
  • It’s also worth talking about their preferences for end of life care

If they have trouble talking with you, they could instead create a file of all their funeral preferences, that you can access when they die. Make sure you know exactly where this is kept for when the time comes.

Be prepared for any response

For many people, talking about death is a rare occasion, and it’s a topic that can provoke an unexpected reaction. Your conversations may be emotionally charged, and one or both of you may get upset. It’s good to keep in mind why you are having this talk – it’s because you love them and what to give them the best funeral possible.

Other people may respond to this topic by shutting off and becoming quiet. Be persistent; it may need to mention it a couple of times to get them to open up. Some people might try to deflect the subject with humour, which is fine as long as you are also able to discuss their wishes at the same time.

What should I do if my loved one is already in ill health?

It’s always best to speak about post-death wishes before your loved one is seriously ill, as the conversation is easier when death still seems like a far-off possibility, rather than an immediate certainty. Even so, it’s not too late to have this conversation after a terminal diagnosis.

The difficulty is that bringing up this subject might feel like you are giving up all hope, and your own emotions, your anxiety, sadness and anger, can stop the conversation from being productive. Explain to them that you just want to prepare for every eventuality.

Your loved one may be reluctant to talk, and so it’s quite possible that despite your best efforts, you won’t be sure of your loved one’s exact last wishes. In these circumstances, talk to friends and family to help make decisions easier, and think about your loved one’s personality, beliefs and passions to influence the funeral service. Ultimately, you just need to be happy with the choices you make, knowing you have done all you can to give them a good funeral.

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