I recently taught a program in Boulder on preparing to die. As we discussed, I offer below the supreme contemplation of The Four Reminders as well as some checklists for death. I sincerely appreciate all of you that attended and in particular those of you that traveled in especially for it. Everyone’s participation made it a rich program for me.
The significance of these Four Reminders cannot be overstated. Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche said that if we could truly take them to heart, fifty percent of the path to enlightenment would be complete. Memorize them. They will reframe your life, focus your mind and advise you in everything you do.
The checklists for death are offered as a help, not as a burden. Don’t feel that the death is imperfect or that you’re letting the dead person down if you can’t do everything listed below. If you’re the one dying, don’t pressure yourself or others into doing everything. Take what you need and ignore the rest. If you need help implementing these suggestions, call on your friends. Choose the items that are important to you. Finally, even though these lists are in separate categories, there is some overlap.
The Four Reminders
As presented by Trungpa Rinpoche
Contemplate the preciousness of being so free and well favored. This is difficult to gain, easy to lose, now I must do something meaningful.
The whole world and its inhabitants are impermanent. In particular, the life of beings is like a bubble. Death comes without warning, this body will be a corpse. At that time the dharma will be my only help. I must practice it with exertion.
When death comes, I will be helpless. Because I create karma, I must abandon evil deeds and always devote myself to virtuous actions. Thinking this, every day I will examine myself.
The homes, friends, wealth, and comforts of samsara are the constant torment of the three sufferings. Just like a feast before the executioner leads you to your death, I must cut desire and attachment, and attain enlightenment through exertion.
Excerpted from my book Preparing to Die: Practical Advice and Spiritual Wisdom from the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition
1. Spiritual Checklist
- If the person has a Lama, teacher, or strong spiritual friend, contact them in advance and let them know what’s happening. If they can’t be present at the moment of death, let them know as soon as possible that the person has died. They can then begin phowa, or other rituals, from afar. If you’re fortunate enough to have a Lama or other teacher perform a ritual, be sure to send a donation for their services. Many masters will not be available to help you or your loved one. But you can let them know of the impending death and ask for their blessing.
- If you’re going to have a monastery or spiritual center perform rituals, contact them in advance. Discuss the rituals, and arrange for donations for their services. Contact them as soon as possible after death so they can begin the practices.
- Contact any entrusted spiritual friends, or other spiritual helpers. You can keep dharma friends updated via an email list, and ask for their practice (merit) or other assistance. Begin any pre-arranged bedside practices.
- If they left a Dharma Box and Dharma Will, implement the directives of that will, and employ the other contents in the box.
2. Farewell Checklist
Think about the holding environment you want as you die. Do what you need to do to prepare that sacred space. If you don’t have a Dharma Will, you could dictate your wishes to your spiritual friends when you realize you are going to die. Ask them for help in implementing your wishes. Here are suggestions for what to put into your Dharma Will:
- Who do you want to be with you when you die; is there anyone you feel may disturb your death and should therefore stay away?
- Do you want many people coming through, a very quiet space, or something in between?
- What do you want the space to look like—a shrine, photos of your teachers, of loved ones? What other sacred objects do you want? Do you want candles, or incense?
- Do you want something near you that you can touch, smell, feel or even taste?
- Do you want music, recordings of teachings, inspirational verses read to you?
- It’s good to die at home, in comfortable and familiar surroundings. If this isn’t possible, instruct your friends and the hospital or hospice staff that you strongly request the TV not be on. Replace the TV or radio with recordings of teachings, or remain in silence.
Richard Reoch, in his book Dying Well; A Holistic Guide for the Dying and their Carers offers this advice, which is similar to a Dharma Will:
“A simple gesture that you can make to your family to ease matters for them after your death is to create a file with all the information they will need about you in the event of your death. Make sure you regularly update it. Your file should contain: Birth certificate; details of passport (you might die abroad), your will, Living Will, an enduring power of attorney, your organ donor approval, details of your bank account and credit cards, investments and other details, insurance policies, pre-paid or other funeral plans, people you want notified, including employers, any specific requests or wishes not in your will. You can maintain the file lovingly since you are doing this for the people you care most about.”
Richard offers this additional checklist:
- What do you want done with your body—burial, cremation, or donation to medical science?
- What do you feel would be the most appropriate way for people to say goodbye to you after your death?
- Do you want people to be able to say goodbye in ways other than a funeral or memorial service? How?
- If you are a great lover of nature, would you like your friends and family to gather outdoors, at one of your favorite locations?
- Is there anything you want said or read at your funeral?
- Would you prefer silence?
- Do you want someone in particular to lead the gathering?
- Is it to be a party or some other form of celebration?
- Are there particular values or human qualities you want emphasized?
- Is there an important cause or charity you want to benefit?
- If you want to be cremated, where would you like your ashes to be scattered?
Do you want the service video recorded? The eulogies, poetry, music and other offerings are often so beautiful that people want to see them again. You can copy these recordings and send them to loved ones who were unable to attend, or save them for grandchildren.
The following are some of Anyen Rinpoche’s suggestions, along with my own, for what to put in your Dharma Box:
- A copy of legal papers (wills, medical directives etc.).
- A copy of your Dharma Will.
- A copy, recording, or even video of any final message you want read at your service, or left for your family or friends.
- Instructions to entrusted Dharma friends for how to spiritually care for you.
- Instructions to non-Buddhist family members for what you want as you die.
- Copies for yourself and your spiritual friends of liturgies you want read, or practices and rituals to perform.
- Copies of general prayers for non-Buddhist family and friends.
- Photographs of teachers or deities you may want near you as you die.
- Any ritual items you want near you.
- Amrita pills (“dutsi” in Tibetan) that can be given to you, with instructions for their use. Amrita means “immortality” in Sanskrit. These “deathless pills” can be ingested at any time, but general bardo instructions are to take them when the signs of the outer dissolution begin. You can put one pill in a bottle of water each day and then sip it. You can place the pills under the tongue or behind the lip and let them dissolve. Dutsi can also be placed on the brahmarandra, with a bit of lotion to make it stick. You can get dutsi from a Lama, or spiritual friends.
- Recordings of teachings from your favorite teachers, or of mantras or liturgies.
- A copy of the mandala of the peaceful and wrathful deities from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This can be placed at the heart center
- Any of the contents of the Bardo Package listed below.
- Sur kit.
3. Bardo Package
Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche offers a “bardo package” to be used at the time of death. In the Nyingma tradition there are six forms of liberation associated with the bardos: liberation through sight, touch, taste, remembrance, wearing, and hearing. The bardo package works with a number of these.
This package includes:
- A recording of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (the Bardo Thödrol Chenmo—“The great liberation through hearing during the bardo”—which is also included in the category of liberation through remembrance). This can be played continuously during the forty-nine day period following death to guide the deceased.
- Amrita pills (liberation through tasting). These can be placed in the mouth during serious illness, at the time of death (approximately three days before death), or in the mouth of a corpse after death.
- Liberating sand (liberation through touch), which is placed on the brahmarandra after death, and acts as a form of phowa.
- The takdrol (liberation through touch and through wearing), or “death shroud.” This is placed over the body after death like a blanket, and burned or buried with the corpse.
4. Practical Checklist
The following checklists will help you prepare for the many practical details that accompany any death. They can ease the onslaught of things to do before and after someone dies. You could circle the ones that apply to you. The point is to provide suggestions, not to overwhelm you with things to do. In addition to contributions from the authors of this book, the following check list was compiled in part from Philip Kapleau’s “The Wheel of Life and Death.”
- Take the time you need with the person after they die. If you have not already done so, find the person’s final arrangements with respect to body donation, organ donation, and mortuary arrangements.
- If they died at home, and the death was expected, call the physician or hospice nurse, and have a death certificate signed. If the deceased was not receiving hospice services, but was nevertheless under the care of a physician, calling the physician would be the first step. If someone is not under the care of a physician, then the coroner or medical examiner will be involved to determine the cause of death. Medical providers should notify the coroner or medical examiner of any deaths, but it’s good to check that this procedure has been followed. (See page [insert] for the difference between a coroner and a medical examiner.)
- If the death is unexpected (or suspicious), with no hospice or personal physician care involved, call 911 and they will call the coroner. On discovery of a person who is seemingly dead, most people would dial 911 as an initial reaction anyway. (Questions to consider: do you know if they are beyond resuscitation or not? Would they want to be resuscitated if they are elderly and frail, and therefore might not survive CPR?) The coroner will come out, investigate the death, determine its cause, and sign the death certificate. If the dead person has a doctor, they could be called instead of 911. The doctor would then notify the medical examiner or coroner as needed.
- Contact people who may want to spend time alone with your loved one. You can spend time with the body before notifying anybody. But be reasonable. Extensive delays in reporting a death is frowned upon by officials who might have to investigate it. The point at which you contact anyone mostly effects the official time of death on the death certificate. On the death certificate there is a time of death, and a time of pronouncement. The time of pronouncement is when the doctor or hospice nurse confirms the death. The time of death may be reported by the family as a different time.
- Turn off any electrical equipment attached to their body, but leave tubes in place for the professionals to remove.
- If the death occurs in a hospital, nursing home, or other facility, advise the nurse that you believe the person has died. The nurse will call the doctor to have the person declared dead. Generally, unless organs are to be donated, the family will have plenty of time to say their final farewells before the body is removed. Ask the facility how much time you can have with the body. Don’t feel rushed.
- While each state has its own regulations and eligibility requirements for organ donation, there are some general guidelines. Check with your physician, or a local hospital, for the details in your state. To register as a donor, contact the donor registry in your state (visit organdonor.gov), or fill an organ donor card when you get or renew your driver’s license. If you are planning to donate organs, and are in a hospital when you die, let the hospital know in advance. They will contact a transplant coordinator who will get in touch with you. The organs of a person who dies at home are usually not suitable for donation.
Generally, the patient must be on a ventilator until such time as the organs are removed because the organs need oxygen to remain viable. If death is unexpected and happens at home, the only way organ donation might be possible would be if emergency services were there when death occurred, and able to pump air into the body. (Some facilities place organ donors on a heart-lung machine, called ECMO, even before their hearts have stopped beating. This nourishes the organs, prevents lots of organs from being wasted, and thus saves more lives.)
If coroners are involved, and if the person was a registered donor, it would be up to the coroner to act quickly, approving the contact with the organ procurement organization. Donation is always done in a sterile facility, not at home. When organ donation is not possible, you can often still be an eye and tissue donor. A donation organization will come to remove the body and bring it to the facility (and answer most of your questions). This must happen within a certain time frame, which varies on whether a body is refrigerated or not. Families can get the body back afterwards if they want.
- If the body is being donated to a medical school, call the school, inform them that the donor has died, and arrange for transportation. Not all bodies are acceptable for donation. If a person is obese, for example, many schools will not accept the body. Be prepared for a rejection.
- If funeral arrangements have already been made, notify the mortician as to when you want the body to be transported. If hospice hasn’t already removed the catheters, tubes, and syringes, the mortician will. They will then transport the body to the mortuary.
- Pallbearers could be selected before death, and incorporated in a plan when death is expected.
- Notify anyone else who is to have a role in the services.
- Arrange for family members or friends to take turns answering the phone, responding to emails, and answering the door at the home of the deceased. You may want to keep a record of these contacts.
- To those who phoned, sent flowers, or other memorials, as well as those who helped with food or child care, consider sending appropriate acknowledgements. Include any other health care professionals who helped care for the person. On a balancing note, many people elect not to send thank you cards to anyone. Most people would understand.
- Coordinate the supply of food for the next few days, and take care of other things that need to be done, such as cleaning. When dealing with food, keep in mind the presence of possible out of town guests.
- Arrange for child care, if needed.
- Arrange for accommodations for out of town guests.
- Decide where memorial gifts can be sent if flowers are to be omitted. If flowers are to be accepted, decide what is to happen to them after the funeral.
- Write an obituary for the papers. A funeral home often does this as part of their services. Ideally, this could be done before the death occurs. Obituaries usually includes the age, place of birth, cause of death, occupation, college degrees, military service, organizational memberships, any outstanding accomplishments, names of survivors in the immediate family, and names of any memorials set up in lieu of flowers. Deliver the obituary to the newspapers. There may be a charge to print it, per column inch. (In some cities, this can be expensive.) You can include a photo for a small additional charge. Try to get it into the papers early in the day, as soon as you know the time and place for the service. Simple death notices can be placed by the mortuary or by families, and are usually free of charge. Go to the newspaper’s website and fill out the information required. The newspaper staff will make sure that the death occurred by asking for confirmation by the funeral home. In the case of a death at home, they may want to see a copy of the death certificate (as a nasty joke, death notices have been placed for someone still alive).
- If the person died at home, arrange for return of any rented materials. Some unused material cannot be taken back by hospice, but could be donated to local senior centers.
5. Other Contacts to Be Made After Someone Dies
- Post office, to forward mail.
- Landlord and utility companies, to stop or alter services.
- Newspapers and magazines, to end subscriptions (and get refunds, if possible.)
- Agencies providing pensions, to stop monthly checks and obtain claim forms.
- Insurance agents, to obtain necessary death claim forms for life insurance and other assets.
- Police, to inform that the home of the deceased will be vacant and request them to periodically check the house.
- Social Security (800-772-1213), to learn about benefits and stop monthly deposits.
- Veterans Affairs, to learn about benefits and stop monthly checks.
- Investment professionals, to obtain information about assets owned by the deceased.
- Employer or business associates, to notify them of the death and learn about benefits.
- Attorney and executor of the estate, to discuss probate process (if needed); how to transfer assets, deal with heirs, and implement the will.
- Accountant, to determine what tax returns should be filed.
- Guardian, conservator, or agent under a power of attorney, to notify of the death and end their responsibilities.
6. Financial Responsibilities after Death
Find the will. Wills are found with their attorney, in a safe deposit box, hidden in a safe place in their home, or with the court in the county where they lived. Lodge it within ten days with the probate court in the county where they lived. If a will cannot be found, a probate attorney will guide you through the intestate probate process. In some states, a letter to a family member, handwritten instructions, or similar “documents” may constitute a will.
The following is a list of things that may need to be done within a few months after death.
- Death certificate: You will need certified copies for insurance companies, transfer of property, stocks and bonds. The easiest way to obtain death certificates is through the funeral director (about $10.00 per copy), six to eight copies are usually adequate. You can get more later through the Vital Statistics Department of the county in which the death occurred (or the County Clerk).
- Credit cards: Cancel any credit cards held in the name of the deceased. This is best done sooner rather than later. Payments due on any card should be paid by the estate.
- Changing title or ownership: You may want to change these documents into your name: bank accounts—change the title and signature card on accounts; automobile policies—if the deceased had a car the title needs to be changed; insurance policies—change the beneficiary; safe-deposit box—a court order may be required to open a safe-deposit box if you are not on the list of people who can enter it. The bank that holds the box can help. As with bank accounts, the signature card should be changed.
- Insurance policies and death benefits: Investigate possible insurance and death benefits for survivors. Insurance benefits may include: life, accident, mortgage or loan, benevolent, auto, credit card, or employee. The proceeds from an insurance policy are usually processed quickly and paid directly to the named beneficiary. A certified copy of the death certificate is often required.
Types of death benefits may include Social Security, credit union, trade union, fraternal, or military. The funeral director may contact the Social Security Administration (SSA), or the survivors can contact them (have the Social Security numbers at hand for both the surviving spouse and the deceased. SSA at 1-800-772-1213). Contact the employer of the deceased about any benefits for survivors, and contact past employers to see if survivors are entitled to any benefits from a pension plan.
Veteran’s benefits. If the deceased is an eligible veteran, they may be entitled to burial benefits, like a burial at a National Cemetery, a grave marker and a flag. If the deceased was receiving disability benefits, other financial benefits may be available. Click the following link for more information Veteran’s Administration or call the VA at 1-800-872-1000.
Review all debts and installment payments. There can be delays in the transfer of assets and in other financial settlements at the time of death. If such delays occur, make arrangements with creditors to delay any payments that do not carry insurance clauses that would cancel further payments outright.
 I used these lists to create my dharma will, and other directives that I placed in my dharma box. Under each bullet point, I wrote out what I wanted or did not want. It made the otherwise intimidating process of writing my dharma will quite easy.
 A smaller size takdrol is included as an amulet, to be worn during life. Takdrol is discussed in the 14th chapter of Gyurme Dorje’s translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. What we know as the Bardo Thödrol is just the 11th chapter of the complete text. See also Anyen Rinpoche Dying With Confidence, chapter 13, for more on takdrol.
 All kinds of unusual and difficult situations can arise around death. A friend told me that when his beloved mother died after being in the hospital for a week, he almost came to blows with the hospital staff. Because his mother had a record for being hospitalized for a number of bruises and broken bones, all the result of repeated falls, the nurse on staff at the time of her death suddenly told the family that an autopsy would be required. The family was stunned, partly because there wasn’t the slightest hint of this during the week they were in the hospital, and partly because their religious beliefs forbade autopsies unless absolutely necessary. Upon furious questioning, it turned out that several of the hospital staff became suspicious of elder abuse, based on the recent hospital admissions for “alleged falls.” To have this information delivered just after the shock of death, and in a contentious manner, left the family in even more shock. The nurse threatened to call the police, the family threatened to physically resist. Finally a reasonable doctor came in, assessed the situation, and the situation was resolved before it became violent. Unfortunately, psychological violence had already occurred.
 Here is sample obituary information for a normal newspaper: Obituaries are placed by funeral homes or private individuals, they are available online, and you may click on the “guest book” to enter a message or view messages from friends and family. Include the name and phone number of the funeral home or crematory for verification. Include the name, address and phone number of the person responsible for placing the obituary. Indicate the date(s) the obituary or In Memoriam should be published. Pre-pay by credit card or phone check. The In Memoriam section includes memorials that mark the anniversary of a deceased person’s birth, death or other important date. Submissions should follow obituary guidelines, although no funeral home information is required.