How to Die Well

Eleven ways to take care of loose ends when you leave this world

C. Y. Gopinath Updated: Feb 11, 2019 11:03:17 IST
How to Die Well Illustration by Atri

I’m writing this because one day you’ll shuffle off your mortal coils.

You’ll die.

You won’t know when or how it will happen, or how old you will be when you go. For certain, you will leave behind the debris of a life cut short—your papers, properties, debts, dues, your online life. How can you ensure that your death, like your life, is the very best it could be?

Dying well means tying up all your loose ends well before that moment comes—and leaving this world with grace and dignity, knowing that the last chapter in your book was written by you.

Here are some tips on how you could avoid leaving a chaotic mess for your loved ones to sort out:


Make a last will

Who’ll get your things after you’re gone—the luxury car, the farm, your money, your wedding trousseau? Your wishes on this are legally spelt out in a last will and testament. Not making one guarantees that your surviving relatives will deal with years of bureaucratic disputes and legal paperwork.

Make your last will as soon as you start earning and owning things. Study the laws governing last wills in your country or state. Involve a lawyer and register your will when it’s ready. Search for online guides that walk you through a list of questions and help you create one. Revise your will annually or every time your possessions increase significantly, such as when you buy your first Caribbean island.


Make a living will

A living will, also known as an advanced care directive, is different from a last will and is for that unimaginable situation in which you’re alive but cannot communicate—for example, through a stroke or the ravages of Alzheimer’s or an unfortunate highway collision that leaves you paralyzed from the neck down at the vibrant age of 32.

Nothing is quite as stressful for your loved ones than to have to take medical life or death decisions on your behalf, trying to second guess whether you would have wanted an artificial resuscitation if your heart stopped, or a tracheotomy—a permanent opening in the throat to push air into your lungs through a tube. A living will enumerates your preferences for such situations.


Designate trusted executors

Nominate someone to carry out the wishes in your last will and living will—they need not be the same person. The executor of the last will should be someone who you expect will outlive you, so don’t pick someone older.

Leave the last will with the designated executor—which could be a lawyer—along with a power of attorney to execute your will after you go. Share copies of your living will with those most likely to be at your bedside in a medical crisis, such as siblings, offspring or other close relatives. Avoid picking someone so attached to you emotionally that they might find it difficult to take crucial medical decisions, such as ending your life.


Plan your funeral

Depending on your religion and customs around death, the disposal of your body may take place soon or after a few days. Since such decisions are taken within minutes and hours after death, your instructions, including your choice of crematorium or funeral parlour, should be available somewhere handy at home, with all your closest family members fully informed of its existence and location. Create a bank account for funeral expenses jointly with someone trusted, or leave money in a safe at home. Make sure that all concerned people know that it exists.


Acknowledge kindnesses

My life is filled with the kindnesses of strangers, some of whom have stayed on to become friends: a bearded mining engineer in Lusaka who lent me $50 so I could pay for my visa on arrival; the taxi driver in Bangkok who drove 15 km to find me in my hotel to return a camera I’d forgotten in his car. These are people who reaffirm our faith in the basic decency and compassion in us all. What will be your tribute to them?

First, record these kindnesses somewhere so that you will never forget them. If possible, acquire their name, email address, social media identities and so on. If you are well enough to do so, get in touch with them, let them know you still remember their kindness. It will mean the world to them. If you are too ill to do this, then leave a thoughtful gift for each of them, with a hand-written (not printed!) letter.


Say your sorries

My life includes many people I’ve wronged—people I have hurt, been needlessly thoughtless with, subordinates I’ve judged unfairly, colleagues I have been shabby to, people I have let down. A death that leaves these stories incomplete is a poor death. So what can you do?

Make a list of as many people as you can remember to whom you owe an apology. If possible, meet them for coffee or a meal. Revisit that irksome moment and find a way to say you’re sorry. If meeting is not possible, then write letters to each of them, perhaps with a gift attached, and instructions for the letters to be dispatched after your passing.


Sort out your online afterlife

If you have an online life, such as on Facebook or Twitter, give thought to what should be done with your photos, videos and posts after you are gone. Facebook allows you to nominate a legacy contact, whom you authorize to deal with your Facebook account in your aftermath. You can authorize this person to delete your account entirely and set up a remembrance page where people may do exactly that—share stories about what a regular guy or gal you were. Google offers the option of an inactive account manager, where you can set your post-mortem preferences.


List your passwords

Most people manage their passwords with an app such as SplashID or Apple’s Keychain. Whoever handles your post-mortem affairs will need to log in as you, and will need at least the following usernames and passwords.

  • Your bank accounts
  • Your online banking log-in credentials
  • Your credit and debit card identification details
  • Your investment portfolios
  • Your tax-related identification numbers, such as the taxpayer identification number (TIN) in the United States or the personal account number (PAN) in India
  • Log-ins and passwords for all your devices—phones, laptops, tablets and any others
  • Passwords to digital subscriptions, such as news or streaming services
  • Your various email accounts
  • Your blog’s log-in credentials

Make sure to include answers to secret identification questions to which only you have the answer.


Make a list of who should be told

There are people in your life who should not hear of your passing through a Facebook post. Make separate lists, with phone numbers or email addresses, for the following groups:


  • Inform within one hour by phone
  • Inform within one day by phone
  • Inform within one day by email
  • Inform about cremation/burial
  • Invite to remembrance/wake/requiem 


Make the debt list

Maintain a list of all your debts—owing and owed to. Update the status of each, and leave clear instructions about both collections and repayment, including sources of money where you are the debtor.


Compile your memorabilia

What about your photos, special letters, mementos, certificates, tokens, the first appointment letter, the wedding card and first family photo? Should they be disposed of along with your other ageing junk? Here’s what you can do, with help from no one—

  • Go through all your collectibles and decide which ones you’d like to pass on and which to dispose.
  • Scan all the best photos of the moments you cherish with those you love, and put them in a folder. Create an archive with any special documents. Upload them to online image banks such as Google Photos or Flickr.
  • Create a ready-to-print album embellished with photos, memories and stories. Companies like Apple and Adobe have a number of attractive templates. 

A beautiful death takes as much attention and hard work as a beautiful life. And most of the time, it’s not about you—but those you leave behind.

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