1. How do you know what's required by law for burial or disposing of ashes?

Actually, your funeral director will be your best guide. Each state has its own requirements. It can be helpful to take someone along when you go to the funeral parlor. If the deceased has not made his or her wishes known, it's helpful to have someone who knows you and who knew the deceased who can be responsible for helping you get clear what your options are. Take your time. The death of a loved one, particularly if it's sudden, is a shock. There can be physical reactions to the pain and grief. Unless your religion demands that things happen immediately (in which case there will be a proscribe method for burial), you can take a day to make some choices. If you decide to design a service, it's helpful to know what the options and requirements are. But this is really a wonderful place to have someone's hand to hold.

2. It seems really creepy to think about all this stuff beforehand, why is it a good idea?

Death is the price we pay for life. We will not evade it. In some ways to fear it is to miss life's glory. Thinking about the options ahead of time allows family and friends an opportunity to carry out your wishes and gives people a starting point to honor the person they love. Superstition often prevents people from establishing directives. Those directives can help your community bond and heal.

Tragically, my sister's child committed suicide in college. When I was taking a course in seminary on bereavement, I came home and we sat around the dinner table one evening and discussed what we wanted done with our bodies when we were dead. Everyone in my family wishes to be cremated, and we all have favorite spots where we want our ashes spread. Because we had had this conversation, we had something to DO after we got the news of Chad's death. Doing something is always what you want in a situation like this. Doing something holds us to life at a point where we feel like we'll drown if we sit still.

3. I always feel so uncertain. What should I say to someone who is bereaved?

I find that there are only really a few things that are truly appropriate in any culture or religious tradition. "Oh, I'm so sorry," "Tell me all about it," and "Know that you are in my thoughts (and prayers, if appropriate)." Most other things just aren't helpful. The bereaved are not interested in knowing what we believe about an afterlife or a God who causes things to happen, unless they ask. We say those things to help ourselves deal with the loss. But close family and friends need our support and sympathy.

You can continue your support by calling to check in on the person. In the first week people always call. But as time wears on, grief doesn't always dissipate steadily. It tends to ebb and flow, hanging around for a long time. Calling to ask how that person is, or if they want to come to dinner or go out to lunch, helps. So does writing an occasional note.

After Chad's death, my sister's friend Jane would call her. Jane was struggling with a life threatening illness and had a lot to deal with herself. She would call Deb and say, "so, do you want to talk about your problems, my problems or shall I just rattle on a bit?" Jane knew Chad well because the Jane and Deb had raised children together. Their husbands were good friends. It was always good medicine for Deb to talk to Jane, because she strove to give Deb the support she needed at that moment.

4. Are there things to do for people who have had family members die?

Doing things does make us feel better. Unfortunately, sometimes there's nothing we can do. Then we have to live with our own pain and face our friends' pain.

But there are an amazing amount of practical things to get done. For some reason death doesn't seem to happen when houses are clean and everything is in its place. Clothes need to go or be picked up from the dry cleaners, houses need to be straightened -- even bathrooms need to be cleaned. There might be arrangements to be made at the church or funeral home, programs may need to be typed or copied. The family may really want your help. But don't be insulted if they don't.

Family and friends fly in from far away and may need places to stay and ferrying around. And food -- people always need food. Food should be prepared and simple to serve: comfort food. It's also helpful if someone else can think a bit about balance. It's very tempting to just eat cake, if that's what's in front of you. But grieving is hard work and some protein and vegetables are helpful.

(It's always interesting to see what happens with funeral foods. One family funeral we got nothing but cake; another, nothing but ham. At another one people brought nothing but citrus fruits -- who needs 25 grapefruits and 38 oranges? But you know, in the long run, the oranges and grapefruits were the best. I spent all one morning juicing citrus and we had pitchers of fresh juice that tasted just wonderful to throats clogged with tears. And best of all, I had a job I could manage in the midst of my grief. It took all of one morning and made an otherwise interminable day of grief bearable.)

5. If you have a terminal illness, does it make sense to plan your memorial service?

Some people with terminal illnesses will never be ready to think about funeral arrangements. For others this will be a way for them to come to terms with dying and to think about the legacy they will leave behind.

There is an immense amount of comfort in carrying out someone's final wishes. Hearing her favorite poem or scripture piece, singing his favorite hymn will comfort and sustain the mourners, as it adds one last bit of familiarity. Having a plan to follow about what you want done with your body and your memorial or funeral can offer your family and friends some clarity in a time of great confusion. This can be a wonderful gift.

I'm also beginning to experiment a bit with friends and clients about holding memorial celebrations before the death, when the person is still healthy enough to hear the reminiscences. In that way they have the love to sustain them as they walk the journey into their death.

One woman I know began to give away her things to her friends, things she knew people liked, asking them to use them. In this way she gave them pleasure and at the same time, knew that she would always be incorporated into their lives.

A man I know who was slowly dying of cancer wrote letters to all his friends thanking them for their presence in his life. He told them what he had learned from them and how they had inspired him. He wrote letters to people who were constants in his life and to people who had touched his life briefly. He had been active politically, and he wrote to a person with whom he had had intense political differences but whose integrity and ardor he admired. He showed us all how to mourn. When he died, his memorial was so incredibly powerful as everyone felt moved to speak about what piece of his life they would carry forward into the future.

6. What's the point of having pictures and objects at the memorial?

Objects are wonderful reminders of the person you have lost. I find it helpful to have pieces of a person's life there. They help us remember stories and invite questions. In today's world we have gotten out of the way of altars and shrines, but I think they help us remember.

In the same way, I think a keepsake book with stories and pictures can be an incredible gift to everyone who has mourns the departed.

7. In the small town I came from, people often have viewings. They seem so barbaric. What purpose, if any, do they serve?

I grew up being very suspicious of viewings. I'm sure I heard too many statements about "Oh doesn't he look natural." No, in fact, people who are dead, don't look natural, they look dead. If you have never seen a dead body, that can be startling. Somehow, however, we must come to grips with the fact that death is a natural extension of life -- however random and however painful it might be for those of us left behind.

There is something in seeing the body that helps us to come to terms with our loss. It can also be when we realize that the body is not the person: the person is now in our hearts and will always be with us. In other cultures, people used viewings and laying outs as opportunities to say whatever words needed to be said. In some cultures huge parties in celebrations of a person's life were held with the deceased lying in state somewhere in the house. When my friend Rocky was dying of cancer, I know I never fully understood how painful his condition was until I saw him in death. He looked so peaceful and relieved. That was the most helpful thing that could have happened in his far too early death. And in other more surprising cases of death, from accident or unsuspected illness, I needed to see so that I might believe and begin to understand that I would never be in their physical presence again. We love people in their bodies, somehow it seems appropriate to say goodbye to what housed the spirit of our beloved -- so that we can find our way to a new relationship this person we loved.

Working in a hospital as a chaplain, I watched how people from all different ethnicities dealt with death and the body. Some cultures were so respectful of the body as the home of the person they had loved. I watched children go in to tell grandma how much they were loved and how much they would be missed and what had happened in school that day. In many of those cultures, people would still look inside their hearts to hear the wisdom they had learned from this person.