On Dee’s first date with Johnnie Oliver, a fourth-generation funeral director, she knew she was in for a unique relationship when he had to leave “for just a minute”—and he came back to the car with a corpse. Her book, The Undertaker’s Wife, tells their story and what happened to Dee when Johnny suddenly died . . . and she decided to carry on his work.
Somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain there is an image of an envelope that was featured in one show or another. On the outside, written in large, black letters, was a message as ominous as it was intriguing: ONLY TO BE OPENED UPON MY DEATH.
I can’t remember the details—maybe the letter contained the confession of a sordid love affair or an illegitimate child or the answer to an unsolved embezzlement scam or even a murder. What I do remember is that seeing the letter sparked an idea—and it’s one I wish Johnnie and I had pursued.
Write your spouse a letter that is only to be opened upon your death. Ask him (or her) to write one too. Don’t talk about secret affairs, stolen money, the whereabouts of a missing body (please!), or life’s regrets. That sort of stuff, tossed out posthumously, can only cause confusion, heartache, or worse. Instead, devote your ink to the kind of information that no surviving spouse should ever be without.
Here’s what I think Johnnie would have written to me, had we actually had the foresight to implement this plan:
My Dearest, Delightful, Darling Dee,
You have been the most important person in my life. You are the most beautiful, gracious, intelligent, fabulous woman I have ever met. Being with you made my life worth living—
Just kidding! Here’s what he really might have written:
Here is a list of the things you have nagged me about every single day. I didn’t have time to mess with any of it, so I made one of the funeral directors at work do it for me. Hope this is everything. I love you.
And then, enclosed in the envelope, I would find:
- A list of the banks we do business with, along with account numbers and any necessary passwords
- Information about any safety deposit boxes (along with where to find the key!)
- Information about stocks, bonds, or other investments, as well as contact numbers for any brokers or fund managers
- The location of important documents, such as military discharge papers, birth certificates, marriage/divorce certificates, Social Security cards, passports, car titles, insurance policies, the deed to our home, tax returns, business agreements, and so on
- Information about any business or real estate concerns about which I might not be aware
- Instructions and information about how to access Social Security benefits
- The location of our wills (and please—if you don’t have one, STOP READING NOW AND CALL A LAWYER. I’m no estate expert, but I do know that if you die without a will, the taxes, court costs, and other fees can siphon off as much as 70 percent of your assets! I tend to be a “silver lining” kind of gal, but there’s not really a away to put a happy face on that)
- The names and phone numbers of our lawyer, accountant, life insurance company and agent, as well as contact information for other insurance policies
- Passwords for any important websites
- The name and number of the funeral home we planned to use (Johnnie was nothing if not thorough, and he would probably have written “H.D. Oliver” in big, bold letters, lest a total stranger discover the letter before I did and ship him off to one of our competitors), along with the details of any prepaid arrangements we may have made and information about cemetery plots and the title deeds for those
- The location of his obituary (and while most people don’t think to prewrite theirs, most surviving spouses or children wish they had!), along with instructions for submitting it to the newspaper
- Any favorite Scripture passages or hymns he wanted to have included in his funeral (as it was, I had to guess at some of this stuff—I sure hope he liked my choices)
- The name of the church or charity where he wanted memorial donations to be sent
And then, because Johnnie was an organized man, he would also have included a list of names and numbers for people I should notify about his death, particularly out-of-town friends and relatives. He might have even been savvy enough to add the names and numbers of our plumber, car mechanic, cell phone service provider, doctors, dentists, yard guys, babysitters, and the vet (although he would probably figure I had those last two on speed dial).
Does all of this sound like a lot? It is. But as with any of history’s greatest love letters, it really is the thought—and in this case, the careful thought—that counts. Back when Elizabeth Barrett Browning penned her now-famous “How Do I Love Thee” sonnet, she might not have numbered the location of her safety deposit box among the ways she counted, but when you get to the end of her poem, it seems clear she had a strong finish in mind. Envisioning a time when she and her beloved Robert would be separated, she vowed, “I shall but love the better after death.”
How many modern wives can say that?
Or, for that matter, how many husbands?
I sat with a man just the other day as he grieved the sudden death of his wife. And, given that she was the one who knew where everything was—from their wills to their address book—he found himself at a double loss. Moving forward without your life partner is hard enough; trying to do it when you don’t have access to any information can feel practically impossible.
Write your spouse a letter. Seal it in an envelope. And then tape it to the back of your closet door—out of sight, but easy to access. (Oh, and tell a trusted friend what you’ve done, just in case you and your spouse go to the Great Beyond the way my friend’s parents want to—en route home from a fabulous vacation in Bermuda, together when they are about 102 years old.)
Some secrets are better off taken to the grave. The name of your lawyer is not one of them. Tell your spouse. In the end, it really is just another way to say, “I love you.”