When your loved one’s final wishes are impossible

5 min read

How to address final wishes you can’t fulfill

  • Final wishes are typically not legally binding, but they are helpful in getting organized after your loved one’s passing.

  • Due to logistical issues, legal roadblocks, or conflicts with family, some wishes may be too hard or even impossible to accomplish.

  • Try to find a compromise that will fulfill your loved one’s wishes in spirit, if not to the letter.

  • Remember that anything you do to honor your loved one’s final wishes is more than enough.

When someone passes away, they often leave behind a series of instructions for how they would like things like their funeral services to be taken care of. Often known a final wishes, these instructions are not generally found in the will itself, as wills can take time to locate and process. Your loved one may have left you with final wishes in written form or orally, or they may have mentioned informal wishes throughout their lives that you remember.

For example, your loved one could have asked to be buried in a particular cemetery or to have their ashes scattered somewhere with great personal significance. People will sometimes leave very detailed wishes that include who they want to speak at their funeral, who should be selected as pallbearers, and even what time of day the service should be held.

Final wishes are typically not legally binding. In other words, the law does not tell you what to do about them. Unfortunately, this means that, should your loved one’s wishes be very difficult or even impossible to fulfill, you and your family will be left to sort out what to do on your own.

Figuring out how best to honor these wishes can be a lot to take on when you are also dealing with your grief, so remember to go one step at a time. Tackle only what you can, and ask family and friends for help if you need it.

When there isn’t enough money to pay for them

Funeral and memorial services can be expensive. In most cases, your loved one’s estate can cover the costs. However, not all estates have enough assets to cover all the expenses involved in someone’s passing. Sometimes, the family or close friends will need to step in and make up the difference—or find a less costly alternative.

If your loved one requested to be laid to rest in a particular casket or buried in a specific cemetery, but you find that you cannot afford to honor their request, consider speaking to the funeral home to see if they have any alternatives that closely resemble your loved one’s choice.

If your loved one wanted their ashes scattered in a remote or exotic location that you can’t afford to bring them to, consider choosing an alternate location that honors the spirit if not the letter of their request. Is there a similar location closer to home? Or a city or a park that your loved one particularly identified with that falls within financial reach?

At times, it may feel like a betrayal to organize a memorial or a funeral service that does not precisely honor your loved one’s wishes. However, there are plenty of ways to put something together that equally respects your loved one’s life without putting you in a precarious financial situation.

When the physical landscape changes

After your loved one has passed away, many things are out of your control, such as any physical changes to the location listed in your loved one’s final wishes. This is when relying on the creativity and resourcefulness of your friends and family can get you as close as possible to honoring what the person wanted.

For example, say your loved one left precise wishes to have their ashes scattered in a park that they visited every day of their life. After they pass away, though, you find out that the park has been paved over, leaving you at a loss for how to move forward while honoring the request.

At times, it may feel like a betrayal to organize a memorial or a funeral service that does not precisely honor your loved one’s wishes.

Consider getting in touch with family members or close friends to collectively brainstorm ways to honor the sentiment embedded in your loved one’s wish. Is the place itself important enough that scattering in the paved-over park is the best course of action? Is there a similar park nearby? Did another place matter as much to them? Is there an area of the park that has not been paved over?

Or say that your loved one requests to be buried next to their partner, but there is no available adjacent plot. Do you separate your loved one from their partner? It may be a good idea to speak directly to the cemetery manager, or use your funeral home as a liaison, to find the most suitable alternative. For instance, there may be another area in the cemetery with enough space to accommodate both your loved one and their partner.

In some instances, your loved one’s final wishes may even be against the law. For example, federal law prohibits the scattering of ashes on beaches, or anywhere within three miles of the shore.

Making decisions

Since final wishes are generally not considered legally binding, families can sometimes come into conflict over them. Remember that everyone deals with grief in their own way, and final wishes can often stir up histories that have long been tucked away.

When someone passes, the power to make decisions is often handed over to their immediate family. If you were the person to whom your loved one communicated their wishes but you were not one of their closest relatives, you will need to calmly speak to the decision-makers to ensure that your loved one’s wishes are honored.

You might have trouble fulfilling your loved one’s wishes if they were estranged from their family or if their family does not share your goal of honoring their life and their requests. When the law takes over, your best bet is often to resort to the symbolic, finding ways to celebrate your loved one’s life without making their death a more complicated emotional hurdle than it already is.

Carrying out your loved one’s final wishes can take on a much greater significance than you might think. It is not always easy to do what your loved one wanted, so be generous and kind to yourself during this difficult time. Sometimes, all you can do is try your best to fulfill their wishes in a way that honors their memory ●