10/29/2012 11:34 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2012

Día de los Muertos

For the past three years, I've taught The Psychology of Aging. As part of the course, we spend a few weeks on the topic of death and dying. Students love it when I bring in a panel of experts to discuss different religious perspectives on death and dying. They don't mind learning about retirement homes, assisted living facilities, and hospice. But ask them to plan their own funeral, and they get the heebie-jeebies every time.

Why? Because our greatest fear in life is death. Yet, how can you truly become fearless if you are afraid to die? So in honor of All Hallow's Eve (Hallowe'en), and the days after -- known variously as All Saints' Day, All Souls' Day, and Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), I'd like for all of us to do a semi-frightening exercise. That's right. We're going to face our fear of dying.

Take a few deep breaths, sit back, relax, and think for a few minutes... about what is going to happen after you die. I'm not talking about the whole existential heaven/hell/is-reincarnation-a-real-thing debate; I'm talking about all of the little decisions your loved ones will have to face if you don't make them during your lifetime.

Scared yet? Me too, but it's really no big deal, and answering these questions will be a tremendous help to those you leave behind. So take another deep breath. Ready? Here we go...

  1. Are you planning to donate any part of your body? If no, make sure your wishes are known. If yes, then get the facts and get all of your paperwork filled out.
  2. Have you chosen a funeral home? If yes, make sure you have communicated this with your family. If no, get out the phone book or hop online and explore your options.
  3. Do you want some sort of ceremony? If so, will it occur at the funeral home or graveside? How long should it be? Who will speak at the service? What passages/poems/etc. will be read? Will there be music? If so, which songs/hymns? Any other wishes or special instructions?
  4. Do you want to have a wake or viewing? If so, will it be open-casket or closed-casket?
  5. Do you know what you want to be buried in -- clothes, jewelry, hair style, makeup, etc.?
  6. If people want to honor your memory, should they have flowers delivered to the funeral home or graveside? Or would you rather they donate money to a certain charity? If the latter, this needs to be set up before you die.
  7. Do you want to be buried or cremated? Do you have a cemetery plot? Special place you want your ashes scattered?
  8. Do you have a will? Estate planning is becoming increasing important even if you don't have a lot of assets. And while we're at it, it's a good time to decide if you want to have a living will, advanced directive, or do-not-resuscitate order in place.

How are you feeling? Uncomfortable, because you would rather not think about these issues? Good, because it is forcing you to think about these issues? Ambivalent? Apathetic? All of these reactions are perfectly natural. Very few people want to think about dying, but as death is the only certainty in life, maybe it's time you should.

We're all so concerned with getting ahead and keeping up with the Joneses these days that sometimes we forget that one day the Joneses won't matter anymore. And that's the day you need to prepare for. Wanting to leave behind a legacy for your loved ones is fine, but don't let that get in the way of taking care of business. Let your death be a celebration of your life, and not a series of menial tasks and decisions your loved ones need to make once you're gone.

For more by Mary Pritchard, click here.

For more on death and dying, click here.