Dying to Know: Twelve answers to life’s most frequently asked questions about death
Living well includes a common-sense approach to death. It happens to us all, yet talking about our end-of-life plans or voicing our fear is considered taboo or morbid.
We think Australia has a healthy way of introducing the difficult topics of death and dying. Australia celebrates a “D2K Day” every year (D2K– dying to know, get it?). Australians at all life stages are encouraged to talk to their loved ones about their final wishes and then create a plan.
In that spirit, we’ve collected the most commonly asked questions about death and dying from our research and AnswerthePublic.com.
1. Why Do We Fear Discussing Death?
The most common reason that people dislike talking about death is that so much about it is unknown. Obviously, your heart and other organs shut down, and you stop breathing. But beyond that, death is a mystery. And because we don’t know the answer, we’re reluctant to ask the question.
People avoid talking about death and dying for other reasons:
It makes us sad to think about not being here for our loved ones or our loved ones no longer being here with us.
We’re superstitious – knock on wood – that talking about death will hasten our demise.
It raises potential conflict about burial versus cremation, selecting a guardian for minor children, and other important end-of-life issues.
We don’t feel prepared, financially or otherwise, to provide for our children and others when we’re gone.
The idea of death reminds us of what we have yet to accomplish: a trip to Europe, finish our college degree or propose to a sweetheart.
2. What Is a Death Certificate and Why Do You Need One?
A death certificate is an official government-issued document that states the cause, location, and time of death. Other personal information includes their marital status, occupation, and military service, if applicable.
There are several reasons why you need a death certificate:
You must show proof of death to access pension and life insurance benefits, close bank accounts, or remarry, among other actions.
Law enforcement agencies may need to verify the cause of death on the certificate if there is suspicion of foul play.
Public health officials, insurance companies, and other organizations use the information on death certificates to determine mortality tables.
3. When Are Autopsies Performed?
An autopsy is a medical and surgical examination of someone who has died to determine the cause of death. Autopsies are performed when someone passes away due to unknown circumstances. They can provide evidence to the police through ballistics, toxicology reports, and other test results.
Most local governments have a medical examiner or coroner who records deaths and orders autopsies if needed.
4. What Do You Call the Scientific Study of Death?
Thanatology is the scientific discipline that examines death as a physical, ethical, spiritual, medical, sociological, and psychological issue. A thanatologist’s research and findings provide valuable insight to professionals ranging from coroners to grief counselors.
5. Is There Such a Thing As Immortality?
Human beings today live far longer than our ancestors. Life expectancy for a typical American man in 1920 was around 53 years old. Today, the average lifespan for an American male is around 78 years old.
If humans are living longer, why can’t we live forever (in other words, be immortal)?
To live indefinitely, we would need to prevent our bodies from aging. And while medical advances have enabled us to live longer and often healthier than ever, our cells, tissues, and organs aren’t built for immortality.
6. How Can You Live Longer?
No one gets out of life alive, but certain risk factors may lead to an early death:
Lack of exercise or physical activity
Risky personal behavior (such as not wearing your seat belt, excessive alcohol or drug use)
Maintaining good physical health can lower your risk of Alzheimer’s Disease and other cognitive disorders.
7. What Are the Five Stages of Grief?
Losing a loved one sends most of us into an emotional and physical state called grief. The late Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a Swiss-American psychiatrist who created what became known as the five stages of grief:
Denial is often our first reaction to someone’s passing. We feel numb and focus simply on getting through each day. We struggle with the fact that our loved one is gone. Denial may be our most potent survival mechanism in the early days after a loss.
When we suffer a loss, we eventually become angry. Why did this have to happen? What did my loved one do to deserve this? Anger is a familiar emotion. We can use anger to deflect our pain, which may be a temporary relief until we absorb what’s happened. However, anger turned inward quickly becomes depression.
Bargaining helps us feel like we have some control when a loved one is dying. We promise to be a better, more generous person if only our loved one lives. After death, bargaining takes on a nostalgic, regretful tone: if only, what if. We internalize our perceived shortcomings and that there was something we could have done to prevent our loved one’s death.
Depression after losing a loved one is not a mental, emotional, or spiritual weakness. It is a natural progression of feelings as the reality of the loss settles into our physical and psychological worlds. We lose our appetite, have trouble sleeping, or experience other symptoms of depression.
Acceptance does not mean you are happy or no longer mourn your loved one. Acceptance implies that your rational and emotional understanding of the situation has stabilized. You don’t have to like something to accept its reality. In this stage of grief, you accept that your loved one has died, and you must find a new way to live without them.
Most people find that they move back and forth through these five stages of grief. You can acknowledge what stage you may be in at any given moment, but more importantly, you should find healthy outlets and a supportive network while working through them.
8. What Is Palliative Care?
Palliative care (also called end-of-life care) helps relieve suffering by managing physical symptoms, addressing emotional issues, and supporting family members. Most of us are familiar with palliative care delivered through hospice.
Hospice focuses on symptom management and enhanced quality of life without curative treatment. Hospice professionals include physicians, nurses, social workers, and non-denominational chaplains.
Some hospices offer complementary therapies such as music therapy, guided meditation, pet therapy, and aroma therapy.
9. Can You Be Buried in Space?
You cannot be buried in space realistically. Still, memorial spaceflights launch a symbolic portion of your remains (or your loved one’s remains) into near-space, Earth orbit, to the lunar surface, or even beyond. This process is understandably expensive, but it might be a fitting sendoff into the “final frontier” for the individual who was always fascinated with space.
10. Should You Be Buried or Cremated?
For many years, most Americans preferred burial. Recently, however, more individuals have opted for cremation. There is no right or wrong choice. Cremation ashes may be buried, interred in a columbarium or another permanent memorial, scattered, or kept by family members. By contrast, burial is limited to a casket placed under the earth or within an above-ground mausoleum.
Concerns about land use and the environment have prompted a greater interest in cremation. It is also less expensive. However, many people take comfort in a traditional burial, perhaps in a family plot or for those who served in the Armed Forces, in a veteran’s cemetery.
11. Why Do People Make Their Own Funeral Arrangements?
Prearranging – deciding what kind of burial, cremation, or funeral you want – has many benefits to the individual and their loved ones.
For one thing, prepaying (either in a lump sum or through a payment plan) locks in today’s prices for caskets, plots, cremation, and other necessary items for whichever final method you choose. Materials and labor will only get more expensive, straining budgets for families who were unprepared for losing a loved one.
Other reasons why more people of all ages and walks of life are choosing to prearrange their burial or cremation:
Their Wishes Are Respected
Maybe you want to be cremated and have your ashes scattered off the coast of Cape Cod, where you spent many joyful summer vacations. Perhaps you are a veteran who wants to be buried with fallen comrades. But how will your family know that if you don’t make it clear before it’s too late?
They’re Making Other End-of-Life Decisions
Making final arrangements is often a part of estate planning, a fancy way of saying “get your affairs in order.” You should consider asking a trusted friend or family member to act on your behalf for decisions about your medical treatment. Having a legally executed could also prevent a messy and expensive court battle to decide how your estate should be divided.
They Want to Protect Family Members
Dealing with losing a loved one while caring for burial, funeral, or cremation arrangements is overwhelming. A bereaved family member can be vulnerable to aggressive sales tactics or overspending.
12. Do You Always Have to Wear Black to a Funeral?
According to several licensed funeral directors, you do not have to wear black to a funeral or memorial service. Depending on the type of service and weather, you should dress respectfully – no shorts, flip flops, graphic tee shirts, or other apparent inappropriate clothing.
You should check with the funeral director to find out if the individual or family has special requests for the funeral or celebration of life. For example, guests might be asked to wear Hawaiian shirts or other colorful attire for someone who loved the tropics.
Do You Have Questions?
Thinking about your mortality or the thought of losing a loved one is never easy. However, taking proactive steps in the form of prearrangements can help you feel more in control. With Tulip's simple direct cremation, you can make arrangements in about 15 minutes online or by phone with help from a family care specialist. There’s no funeral home visit, aggressive marketing tactics, or unnecessary expense.