Dad died on May 13. His death was fairly simple. He had a massive stroke, and a few days later he stopped breathing. The business of death, however, is another story. Over three months later my brother and I are still dealing with paperwork.
There was a time when a loved one died, was laid out on the dining room table for the wake, and was buried under an oak tree in the back forty. There were no officials, bureaucrats, or businessmen demanding attention and decisions at a time when those left behind are least prepared to deal with them. There was time to grieve and quietly reflect on the life that had slipped out of reach. Times have changed.
When Dad died, before my face had completely dried from the first torrent of tears, hospice came to pronounce him dead, the coroner came to fill out the proper forms, a social worker came to discuss Mom’s situation as his survivor, and a gentleman from the local funeral home came to begin the process of laying Dad to rest. Forgive my cynicism, but I’m pretty sure the smile on his face slipped a bit when we told him Dad would be buried in Dallas. He quickly recovered his poise though, presented us with the appropriate forms for signature, and quietly proceeded with his duties.
The next item on the agenda was selecting a burial outfit. I went through Dad’s closet, choosing a suit, shirt, and tie. I had done the same thing for him many Sunday mornings in the last six years, but I this time I was extra careful in my choices, realizing this was the last time I would do it. With the selections made and approved, we made sure Mom was settled in and went to the funeral home. We gave the receptionist our names and sat quietly in the reception area, lost in our own thoughts. In a few minutes, the funeral director came out to greet us.
“Are you here for Mr. Robinson?”
“He’s already on his way to Texas.” Modern efficiency doesn’t leave much time for meditation.
“But I have his suit,” I said.
“Don’t worry. We dressed him in suitable traveling attire.”
I didn’t ask what that meant. I didn’t want to think about my modest dad, somewhere between Conway and Dallas, like a Norman Mailer novel, naked and dead.
A few days later, we met with the funeral director in Dallas. The pre-need policy specified the basics, but there were still decisions to make: flowers, marker, choice of chapel, time of visitation and service, programs for the service, thank you notes, honorariums. We kept it as simple as possible, but there was still more paperwork than a house closing. The day of the service, the paperwork was forgotten as we said good-by to Dad with dignity and love. He was dressed in his best suit.
Then it got complicated. There’s an electronic network that quickly notifies the world at large of a death. Dad’s Social Security and pension deposits immediately stopped, and when I tried to transfer money into Mom’s credit union, it was blocked and the account was marked as a “death account.” That’s where the quick part of the electronic network ended. Some of my exchanges with the credit union follow, in chronological if not logical order.
“I can make that transfer for you. Then we can change the account to your mom’s name and keep the same account number.”
She was so helpful, and under the circumstances, I really appreciated her kindness.
“I’m waiting for a death certificate so I can close the account.”
I don’t want to close the account. She must have misplaced her notes about our last conversation. I know she has a lot to do.
“Your mom is joint owner on the account, but she’s not a credit union member. You’ll have to fill out an application.”
Why didn’t she tell me that the first time we talked. I still can’t transfer money into Mom’s account, and we’re back at square one.
“We have your power of attorney for your dad on file but not for your mom. You’ll have to send those again and let our legal department review them.”
Oh great! Now the attorneys are involved.
“We had to open the account under a new number. It shouldn’t be a problem.”
The retirement home might disagree with you. I’ll let you explain why their automatic draft bounced.
“Your brother needs to sign the application, too.”
JUST-SEND-ME-THE-STUPID-FORMS – again.
Finally, unless I’ve missed something, I’m one signature away from getting my part of the paperwork done. One signature and one amended draft authorization.
Jim has further to go. He’s dealing with Social Security, Dad’s USPS pension fund, and Medicaid. He got the Social Security survivor benefits straightened out after opening another account in Arkansas, her current state of residence, but the pension fund is pending. There’s a small life insurance policy and monthly survivor benefits that will be retroactive once the paperwork is completed, but in the meantime, her savings continues to dwindle.
And then there’s Medicaid. The application Jim submitted before Dad died had to be redone, omitting Dad’s information and including Mom’s new income figures. He completed the new application and got back on the governmental merry-go-round. Last week, he followed up yet again.
“We can’t proceed because this application is a joint application for both Helen and Elmer.”
My easy-going brother who rarely raises his voice even in the pulpit came close to a raging come-apart. He has an appointment with an attorney next week.
Last night David and I watched the movie “Spencer’s Mountain.” Grandpa died, and after the funeral, Grandma called the family together. She flipped open a Big Chief writing tablet and read the will Grandpa dictated to her the night before he died. There was no probate, no contest, no red tape. There’s a lot to be said about how the business of death was carried out in the good old days.