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Life Lessons From an End-of-Life Event Planner
When I read this Washington Post article about celebration-of-life planner Alison Bossert, I was grieving the loss of three friends and helping to plan the life celebration of one.
Reading about Alison Bossert gave me hope that more attention was being paid to the management of end-of-life events by those who understand event logistics.
Alison was gracious to spend time talking with me.
First, more about Alison Bossert and her event experience (from her company’s website):
“After 17 years creating some of the most lavish, star-studded movie premiere experiences in the industry at Sony Pictures Entertainment, special events producer Alison Bossert ventured out to create Final Bow Productions, a unique celebration of life event company.
“Final Bow came to be when—after producing hundreds of film premieres, award show parties and corporate retreats—Alison was granted the privilege to design memorial services for several entertainment industry luminaries. While often dealing with people’s most raw emotions, she found this work extremely gratifying by helping families, friends and colleagues through a most difficult time while creating a memorable life celebration.
On her company’s website and in a lengthy conversation, this was also written and stated:
“We can’t predict how or when we will die, but we can control how we are remembered.”
A Rewarding Conversation About Death
In our conversation, we laughed and cried and compared experiences with the deaths of others. I talked about what my maternal grandmother and both my parents had done to prepare for their deaths, detailing exactly what they wanted to happen after they died.
I have a copy of my grandmother’s note to her children, my mother the youngest of four, telling them how she wanted to spare them the pain of grief and managing the logistics of her death.
Learning from that, in 2007 when I was preparing to be hospitalized, I made a list of what I wanted if there were to be any kind of event upon my death should my spouse and my best friend survive me.
This was done to help guide them in making a decision about how I am remembered. I have the playlist of music, the food and even a potential location if it is decided to hold an event. In different versions of my obituary I have specified where donations should go.
For the industry publications, the promise I’d like to extract is that no more theater or schoolroom sets will ever be used! We can do better!
A Glamorous Job Takes an Unexpected Turn
Alison’s job of 17 years will no doubt appear to be one that many in our industry believe is the “lust after” job; planning events for Sony Pictures Entertainment.
You know—the appearance of pure glamour! In that capacity, she met many stars and other important people in the field of entertainment. And because of her expertise in putting together events, she was asked, when Heath Ledger unexpectedly died, to help his family and others plan a celebration of his life—the first time she was involved in such an event.
Alison said that at the end of the service she was in a puddle of tears due to his youth and unexpected circumstance of his death. It was a beautiful and heart-wrenching event.
She wasn’t sure if she could produce another service after that, but a year later she did when an executive she had previously worked with passed away.
This time it was different—there was something so gratifying about helping his family create such a beautiful and memorable service.
Why Aren’t We Prepared to Die?
What Alison learned—or perhaps confirmed—was that more than 60 percent of Americans do not have wills. And what she suspected and later confirmed: People don’t want to talk about death—their own or that of others even when we know it is imminent.
Alison told me what I suspected, too, and this 2017 study from the National Funeral Directors Association states the following: “This year’s findings reveal that 62.5 percent of consumers felt it was very important to communicate their funeral plans and wishes to family members prior to their own death, yet only 21.4 percent had done so.”
If we think Millennials are changing how people travel, meet and work, this shows that they are (and you should pardon the headline):
Celebration-of-Life Planning Qualifications
What prepared Alison—other than a job that involved celebrations, red carpets and lots of logistics—to help plan an end-of-life event?
She suffered three major losses in the space of just a few years:
- Her brother died of glioblastoma;
- she lost her job when Sony went through a series of layoffs;
- and then her father died.
Any one of those would cause many of us to not function well.
Alison, while grieving these losses, used the time after her layoff to think about what she wanted to do with the next stage of her life. As she dealt with grief and loss, she also learned more about the culture of death and dying in the United States.
She shared with me the history of the mortuary and funeral business. I learned that there were items of clothing or jewelry that people once wore to indicate to the world around them that they were in mourning. This allowed people to speak in a way to those in mourning that would be supportive or respectful or to know that some conversations may be inappropriate.
What Alison and I Agree on
1. Write a will. Do it now. Even if you think you have nothing to leave or anyone to leave it to, there will be something someone wants. If you are a person of greater means, work with an attorney to ensure that all I’s are dotted and T’s crossed.
2. Plan now at whatever stage of life you are and help others do so. In the U.S., one of the first acts of a U.S. president or their staff is to plan a funeral.
3. Write how you want to be remembered. Include words for your obituary (For ideas, this wonderful book, The Last Word, may help you), the photo to use and direction for your life celebration, funeral or memorial.
Include in that suggestions for location, music, people you want to speak (and maybe those you don’t want to!), and any special items that are “you” to include.
Alison told me of an ice cream vendor who died and for whom, after the service, there was an ice cream truck to serve ice cream to those who attended.
(For mine, lox, bagels, kugel and chopped liver are all high on my list).
4. Entrust the instructions—and any changes on which you decide—to those who will carry out your wishes.
This should be kept separate from your will, which won’t be read until later.
5. Make one person the “point person” with one as the back-up because contingency planning is what we do. More, too many hands in planning will mean different interpretations of your written and otherwise expressed desires. Right—you won’t be there, and still, as Alison reminds us, it is how you want to be remembered.
6. Remember that a life celebration or memorial service need not be held immediately. In some religions and customs, burial must take place within 24 hours (with exceptions for holy days and holidays). If there are people who want to or should attend a gathering, consider the timing, place and particulars that will allow people to be there. Family and friends of colleague Arlene Sheff, planned multiple events to accommodate those who wanted to participate.
7. Talk with Alison or a firm like hers, or those who will be trained in this specific area of event planning trained to walk you through the process.
In working on this, I learned from The Rev. Cricket Park, an Episcopal priest who was once a meeting planner, that she, like Alison and Final Bow Productions, has a checklist to help planning now, long before you may need the plans.
Some Parting Words
We all say things about not knowing what day will be our last.
I hope you live many more days and in good health. But just as I teach in contingency and risk planning for meetings, put the plans in place now.
Related Reading From the May 2019 Edition of Friday With Joan
- Where Life, Death, Grief and Hospitality Connect
- Q&A With End-of-Life Event Planner Alison Bossert
- Three Siblings Reflect on Grief and Bereavement Policies
- What's Your Take? May 2019 FWJ Poll