Death without a next-of-kin
February 6, 2021 11:27 AM   Subscribe

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a documentary called One Million American Dreams. It's about Hart Island. I thought it looked good, but triggered me in a way that no film ever has. It's made me pre-occupied with what will happen to me after I die. I'm afraid that I'll have no close family/friends when I die. Can people die w/o close next-of-kin and NOT be buried in a potter's field? Can these arrangements be taken care of before death? How does this work?

I truly did not affect this documentary to affect me so much, I don't think I made it past 5 minutes without developing a truly terrifying sense of dread and fear about my future. It's really frightened me.

I'm only 32 and these worries are probably super-overdramatic sounding, but they've been bothering me for a few weeks. Hopefully, by the time I die... which would be in the distant future, I'll have a family of my own or a close-knit group of friends (luckily, both). However, deep down I'm afraid that I won't be able to cultivate either for myself. As it stands, I don't have a ton of close friends (acquaintances and work friends mostly). After my mother dies, I'll have no close relatives.

I'm working on cultivating more friendships, dating, etc. but deep down... I am so afraid of ending up like the people in that documentary. With no one to claim my body, no one to give me a burial, etc. Or even one of those unclaimed people who's ashes sit in a box in a crematorium because no one has claimed their ashes. I know it shouldn't be important to me, I'll be dead... but imagining the fact that when I die, maybe no one will care. It really haunts me.

Can someone die without relatives, next of kin, or even close friends and NOT be buried in a mass grave or potter's field? Can people set this up in advance? If the person in question has enough money, can they buy a plot (and a headstone, I guess) or a spot in a mausoleum, etc.? Are there services or businesses that would oversee this for someone? The person in question is obviously dead, so... are they held accountable?

Like I said, I'm only 32 and I sincerely HOPE I can avoid a future like this, but I think that even KNOWING that arrangements can be made in advance of this worst-case scenario death/burial situation would make me feel slightly better.
posted by VirginiaPlain to Human Relations (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's called a pre-need.

Learned this from Six Feet Under but it's totally a real thing.
posted by phunniemee at 11:34 AM on February 6, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Absolutely you can do this. I have a few suggestions:

1. Check out the legislation for pre-planned funerals/cemetery plots in your province/state. There can be shady operators which is why it’s legislated.
2. When you feel informed you can totally book with a consultant (SALESPERSON) to see what the local costs and options are.
3. Start learning about estate planning and professional options for executors (lawyers, some banks). As a bonus you might get into retirement planning.
4. For anxiety, you might look for Death Cafes in your area (there’s Facebook groups) - these are nonjudgmental events taking about all aspects of death. The ones I’ve been to tend to have life celebrants, funeral home professionals, and family and people at various stages of life.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:50 AM on February 6, 2021 [8 favorites]

You make a reference to a American documentary, so I'm assuming you are in the USA. I'm not a lawyer, or estate lawyer, so you should consult one if you are particularly concerned about this.

If you die without any assets or next-of-kin, your estate will have no money to pay for a funeral, and yes, you'll end up with an "indigent burial" which usually ends up being cremation.

Assuming you do die with assets, your estate executor is responsible for carrying out your wishes. They have a duty to follow your wishes for two particular reasons - first, they open themselves up to legal liability by anyone who has a claim to your estate if they don't, and second, they get a commission from the estate for their services if they execute the will correctly (ie, no one objects to the execution). Banks, law firms, and investment companies will generally offer executor services as part of their normal services for clients - again, they make profit from the commission on your assets. If you happen to have a trust with a bank, executor service is usually included in establishing that trust. You are not obligated to make anyone you are related to an executor of your will (although you can if you want).

Hypothetically speaking, if you really had no next of kin, and no one else objected to an executor ignoring your death requests, then the executor would get paid and nothing would happen. I don't think that's something you should be concerned about. Professional executors have no particular reason to ignore your wishes because they need to dispose of your body one way or another. Going to a funeral home is easier than, say, dumping your body in a random park, and further, has less chance of them being arrested. They get paid the same either way (a percentage of the total assets of the estate). But, if you're really concerned, you can pay someone to have an interest. You could leave a sum of money to someone/some organization under the condition they verify that your death wishes are honored. For extraordinary protection, you could offer the sum to multiple people/multiple organizations, increasing the probability someone has reason to object because more people would have to collude together to not object to the executor's actions.

I don't personally think it makes sense to pre-pay for funeral services. Certainly, it makes sense to pre-plan a funeral - especially in your case where you are concerned about how it is performed - but pre-paying is not a great investment. The discount is generally not substantial compared to simply keeping the money and investing it. Further, you tie up money for no good reason. If you move after pre-payment, your pre-payment may become useless unless you want to be buried somewhere other than where you live. The funeral home may go under after you pre-pay for services. If you find yourself in extreme financial issues, having that money as cash that you can use when you are alive is highly valuable. Funeral homes know that people die with 100% probability, so they know they'll get their money eventually - there's no strong reason for them to give you a discount to get that money now.
posted by saeculorum at 12:04 PM on February 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You can speak with an attorney - the keywords for finding one are "estates" or "wills & trusts". They will have seen this situation before and can help you complete paperwork to determine what will happen after you die. As noted above, you can designate a professional executor (usually a lawyer or bank) to carry out your wishes and be paid by the estate. As someone who works with these executors on behalf of a charity, I can tell you the process is common and usually goes very smoothly.
posted by entropyiswinning at 12:40 PM on February 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

You can buy life insurance to cover costs of a funeral and burial.
posted by NotLost at 1:01 PM on February 6, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice so far. I suppose my question is more about WHO will take care of all this stuff if someone dies with no family, not so much the financial aspect of it with regards to cost.
posted by VirginiaPlain at 1:44 PM on February 6, 2021

Some of the concerns saeculorum voiced about prepaying for your funeral may not apply to you, depending on where you are. I know in Ontario, the prepayment is held in trust, so it doesn't matter if the funeral home goes under or sold; also, the services you pay for are completely portable. I could pay now and move 500 km away, and the funeral home in my new town would honour the payment. Your best bet is to check out some funeral homes in your area and talk to a couple of directors to find one you want to work with and who can offer something that fits with your budget/wishes.
posted by kate4914 at 1:58 PM on February 6, 2021

I suppose my question is more about WHO will take care of all this stuff
In Australia, we have 'Public Trustees' which is an office operated under legislation for managing affairs after death (or during life if incapable) if there is no executor named in the will, if there is no will, if the executor is removed by the courts after a dispute, or where the testator elects to name the public trustee as their executor. It seems to be something common in Commonwealth countries, including most Canadian provinces.

The Public Trustee Office often comes under criticism in Australia for its excessive fees, or its management of the financial affairs of people currently living but incapable, but it is at least fully accountable and regularly overseen. It's a good fall-back position for people like me who have no offspring or parents, or siblings I would like to involve.

Do you have something like a Public Trustee? Even though I do, I am planning in recruiting a lawyer instead to execute my will, including arranging the funeral and burial at the place of my choosing, and distributing any monies or assets remaining.
posted by Thella at 2:32 PM on February 6, 2021

The first place to start is to find a lawyer who specializes in wills and estate planning. Assuming that you will have enough money to cover your final expenses plus a little left over, you will want to have a will. Your lawyer can help you figure out what to do about a professional executor - that's the person who follow the directions in your will and take care of whatever needs to be done after you are dead. So, the executor will be the "who" for most of what needs to be done and there are people who do this as part their job - your estate will pay them for their time so it's not an imposition.

Depending on how strongly you feel about what happens after you die, you can either have written directions for your executor and you can go ahead and do "pre-need planning" where you work out everything with the funeral home in advance. If you have strong opinions then working with the funeral home so they know all the details. If you just want something basic but respectful then talk to your lawyer about how to let your executor know and then figure out if you want to prepay or use life insurance or just use your savings for the funeral expenses.

The third things no else has mentioned, is that it might help to have a friend (doesn't have to be a close friend or best buddy - but the kind of person that you might give a spare key to your place just in case) This is the person that you would list as the one to be called if something happened to you and you would then give them a list of two or three people (like your lawyer or funeral home) that they would call to get things rolling. You're not asking them to be the executor or take on any big jobs, just to let professionals know something happened so they should do their thing.
posted by metahawk at 2:33 PM on February 6, 2021

I suppose my question is more about WHO will take care of all this stuff if someone dies with no family, not so much the financial aspect of it with regards to cost.

People have covered your other questions decently. In the US this person can be a lawyer! A lawyer can be an executor and this isn't even very weird for them, as long as they are expecting it. An executor can also be someone you know but not terrifically well, maybe someone from a church or a social service agency. They do this... I wouldn't say a lot but definitely sometimes. I have friends who are lawyers who have done this. They wouldn't be as thorough as, say, a person who know you well, but presuming that you have a will, they will follow the instructions.

It's also worth understanding that next of kin can go a long ways out, like maybe you have no parents and those parents had no siblings or other children, there may still be people out there who are distant relatives. This is big deal if you had something like a big inheritance, but can also be a deal just in case you die and people aren't sure what to do. As other people have said, you can get life insurance to pay for burial/funeral costs if that is a thing you want to feel secure in, you could also set aside money for this if you wanted. The most important things, in the US, are

- health care proxy (i.e. you are incapacitated temporarily and need someone who can make decisions on your behalf - how does that work, what are your wishes)
- power of attorney (i.e. same thing but someone needs to make legal decisions, or can legally act as you)
- will (what happens after you die - this can also be attached to something like a list of what all your details are like bank accounts, email passwords, who knows. An executor then, assuming they have access to the will, will do this work)
posted by jessamyn at 3:18 PM on February 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

FWIW in the UK public health funerals ('paupers' funerals) are good. They're usually held in the less popular slots, but the people who organise them from the local authority will generally see if there are friends who want to attend, they will go themselves, the funeral director will be just as respectful as they would with anyone else, and the person officiating at the funeral will do as good a job as they can, although often they don't know much about the deceased. They are carried out as well I would wish them to be, were it my funeral or that of someone I cared about.
posted by plonkee at 3:25 PM on February 6, 2021 [5 favorites]

I think you might be interested in this article - The Lonely Death of George Bell

People don't end up in a potter's grave because they have no friends or family, unfortunately they end up there because they have no money, and no friends or family willing to pay money. If you have an estate (basically assets left over after you die), and no one willing to administer that estate, your county will have "public administrators" who can do it. Or you can choose to name a professional administrator in your will (although they always have the right to refuse). Your will can specify what happens to your body, and it can be paid out of your estate or pre-paid.
posted by muddgirl at 3:32 PM on February 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Your concern is exactly why I decided that one of my 2021 goals is to get my will and my cremation plan sorted. The worst thing, I think, is that upon my death my friends would be burdened with this. So I have made arrangements. I think this is good and responsible. (I'd prefer a sky burial, but I guess that's not allowed.)
posted by SPrintF at 11:23 AM on February 7, 2021

This may be of use to you: The Order Of The Good Death, a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality (quote is from the website). I've been watching Caitlin Doughty videos (Ask A Mortician, etc) on you tube for a while now; they're more in the nature of infotainment about death, funerals, etc., but the website is a great resource for me to think and plan.
I hope you find some solutions that will set your mind at ease.
posted by winesong at 1:18 PM on February 7, 2021

« Older The evolution of fashion over the last few decades   |   Good movies that feature people lounging in sunny... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.