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  • Writer's pictureChelsea Burns

Celebrating Life

Over the next few posts I will highlight what my story looked like as the daughter of someone recently deceased and the executor of that person’s estate. The purpose is to provoke emotion, to imagine how the decisions you make today will impact your loved ones when you are gone, and to start a dialogue among close family, friends, and colleagues. I am excited to share my story with the world because effective estate planning enables our loved ones to grieve freely after we pass away. I think this is especially relevant within the first couple weeks of our passing. These moments are full of both sorrow and adrenalin. The more effort we put into estate planning, the less stressed our loved will be settling our affairs.

Week 1

My father passed away in the middle of the night in the comfort of his own home with his sisters by his side. I received the phone call from my mother at 7 am PST. Coincidentally, Jesse and I were getting ready to leave for Seatac Airport to spend the week taking care of my father and shuttling him to his various doctors appointments. I remember it like it was yesterday, sitting at the airport, waiting for my Southwest flight to board. I dialed Edgar, my father’s life long employee and right hand man. I was about to deliver some of the worst news of his life. Shared in our disbelief that my father was gone, Edgar and I cried together over the phone while I slumped down next to an ascending escalator trying to find as much privacy as I could in the busy terminal.

The first few days after my father’s passing are a bit of a blur. As I tend to do in stressful situations, I just buckled down and got to work. My mother, Jesse, and I started to go through all my father’s belongings. At least 25 years of accumulated Polo tee shirts, white socks, suits, and ski jackets. We filled huge contractor bags and lined the downstairs hallway until you could barely walk. Edgar would stop by periodically to take another car load of my father’s things to distribute among his network or to send back to Costa Rica. In hindsight, this process could have waited. At the time, however, I felt so overwhelmed that the only solution I saw fit was to clear everything out and start getting the house ready to put on the market or up for rent. The mortgage would be due next month and I would need to fly back to Seattle sooner than later.

The following days were spent at the funeral home and at St.Mary’s Church with my father’s long time partner Carolyn and his siblings. What casket should we purchase, what hymns should we sing at the funeral, should the after party at Chadwicks be open bar? (This wasn’t actually a question, of course it should be open bar! This was a party to celebrate Harm after all). On top of the arrangements, I was tasked with writing the obituary for the Washington Post. I opened my father’s laptop, found his bio, downloaded his headshot, and started writing.

The funeral arrangements were wonderful. While I was hesitant at first towards certain details like having the viewing catered and splurging on the casket, I was reminded that this celebration was about my father and not about me. For my Dad, throwing a great party surrounded by friends and family was very important to him. He appreciated fine dining and quality things. It would be no different for these final celebrations of his life.

The funeral was special. It took place in the Church I grew up going to. It was where I took my first communion, my confirmation, and watched friends exchange vows. I had asked several of my father's high school friends to be pallbearers, perhaps poor oversight on my part as I forgot these men were all in their 60s and their backs were not as strong as they once were. From the church a long procession followed the casket as we traveled across the river from Virginia into the District. With Irish bagpipes playing, we exited the limousines and took our seats under the canopy surrounded by great grandparents and uncles who had passed before us. The burial was short. The priest said a few words and we bid farewell to a loving father, a dedicated friend, a loyal employer, and a stand up community member. We all piled back into our vehicles, headed over the river, and reunited at Chadwicks.

I think having a celebration of life party to commemorate our loved ones is important. How we want to be celebrated is a very personal choice. In my experience, a traditional funeral generally takes place within the first week of a person's passing. For my Dad, we celebrated after the funeral at Chadwicks, a restaurant and bar that has great significance to my family and friends. Personally, I do not want a traditional funeral. My will states that I want to be donated to science with a celebration of life party to follow. I prefer my loved ones to take some time to grieve my loss and to later gather in a few places around the world that are closest to me. I invite everyone to remember me by sitting on the beach in Samara eating grilled avocado and queso, scaling a rock face in British Columbia, or looking out into the Mediterranean on the Cap de Creus along the Costa Brava.

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