Reading your loved one’s final wishes

5 min read

Things to know about a final wishes or last wishes document

  • Last wishes are sometimes called a last or final wishes letter or an end-of-life plan.

  • They can be as short and general or as long and specific as a person chooses.

  • These documents typically include a description of what the person wanted for their funeral and the handling of their body.

  • Last wishes serve as a clear and concrete directive, so you know exactly what what to do at the end of your loved one’s life, without having to guess.

When someone close to you dies, a final wishes document can be an extremely helpful source of information for you and your family. There are many different names for this type of document. Sometimes it’s called a last or final wishes letter or an end-of-life plan. Unlike a will, which is a legal document that is often written in careful and cold legal language, a last wishes letter is simply an expression of what someone would like to have happen after they die. The letter can be as short or long as the person chooses; it can be broad and general or very detailed and specific. 

Although there are no formal guidelines or particular requirements, the greatest benefit of a final wishes letter is peace of mind. When someone has written out what they would like to happen after they die, it allows the family to move forward with the plans as outlined rather than speculating on what their loved one might have wanted, relieving their burden during an already emotionally overwhelming time. 

What’s included in a final wishes letter

Many final wishes documents specify an appointee who is chosen to ensure that the last wishes are carried out. Unlike the executor named in a will, this appointee is generally considered to be bound only by a moral, rather than legal or fiduciary, obligation to oversee the person’s final wishes. Although they can be thought of as the point person in charge, they can proceed with the final wishes as outlined as they see fit. Most people find it best to share the contents of the letter with trusted friends and loved ones who can provide support and help ensure that everyone works together toward the same goals. 

Typically the document includes a description of what the person wanted for their funeral and the handling of their body. These include whether they wanted to be buried or cremated, if they wanted a death notice or obituary to be published and where, whether they preferred a funeral or a memorial service, and what sort of service they would like. Some people specify who they want to officiate or other details, while others request to forgo a formal service altogether. This is also the place to share if they have chosen a final resting place. 

Most final arrangements such as funeral expenses, burial plots, or cremation services can be paid for before someone dies, and it can be helpful for the family to know that these costs have already been covered. If these arrangements have already been made, the final wishes document becomes important not only to surviving family and loved ones, but to the funeral home or other professionals who will be providing services, such as lawyers, financial managers, insurance agents, or medical professionals. 

Although a final wishes letter is different from a health directive or living will, it can still contain information that a doctor might need to know, such as if someone has made arrangements to donate their body or organs to a particular school or facility. Regular caregivers or nurses can also be included in a final wishes plan, especially if they are likely to be involved at the most critical moments. If, for instance, the document specifies actions the person would like taken at the moment of death or immediately after, such as a song played, words spoken, or a religious practice observed, it could very likely fall to the nurse on duty to ensure these things happen. A last wishes document would be the ideal way to convey these sentiments and instructions. 

The benefits of knowing your loved one’s last wishes before death

People often pre-plan their final wishes for the benefit of their family, so it can be helpful to have discussions about final arrangements during the person’s lifetime. But often the opportunity never comes, or if it does, the conversation can be uncomfortable, fraught, or even distressing.

This is exactly why the final wishes document can become so valuable. It serves as a clear and concrete directive so you know exactly what to do without having to guess. So for instance, even if you know that your loved one wants to be cremated, you may not know, or disagree about, where their ashes should go because you never found the right time to discuss it while they were still with you. A final wishes document is the place for them to lay out the details of where and how they would like for the ashes to be stored or scattered, providing comfort and clarity at a difficult time.

A last wishes document is an ideal way for your loved one to give instructions for their funeral service.

This document is usually not formally binding, however, and there is no guarantee that all the requests in it can or will be fulfilled. For instance, if someone states that they would like to be buried in a particular cemetery but hasn’t actually purchased a plot, there is a chance that no spaces will be available and other arrangements will have to be made. 

That said, doing your best to ensure your loved ones wishes are fulfilled to the best of your ability—taking into account what is reasonable, legally feasible and affordable—is the right thing to do. Following through with your loved one’s final wishes can help you to move through your personal grief and perhaps find a sense of peace knowing that you did your best to honor their memory as they would have wanted.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.